Two decades on from a watershed year, peace still eludes Thailand’s Deep South

Mariyam Ahmad and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Pattani, Thailand, and Bangkok
Two decades on from a watershed year, peace still eludes Thailand’s Deep South Thai school children visit Krue Se Mosque in Pattani to learn about the history of conflict in the region, Dec. 25, 2018.
Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews

Imron Yusoh’s voice cracks with weariness as he speaks. 

“Seven members of my family have been killed in violence – shot or bombed. Yet, the authorities still suspect me, as if we who suffer the most are somehow complicit,” the resident of Yala, one of the provinces in Thailand’s Deep South, told BenarNews.

Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of a series of violent events in 2004 that convulsed this mainly Muslim Malay border region and reignited a separatist insurgency, which dates back to the 1960s and has no end in sight.

Twenty years on, the region remains heavily militarized and there is a general mood of suspicion and deep skepticism that peace talks being pursued by Thailand’s new government will achieve any breakthrough after a decade of fruitless efforts.   

The conflict has left thousands dead and displaced countless others since that watershed year of 2004. And for Imron and others in the region, the constant state of surveillance breeds distrust and hinders reconciliation.

“I doubt next year, the 21st anniversary of the conflict, will bring any resolution,” Imron said. 

“Villagers endure constant hardship and suspicion from authorities. Peace talks haven’t yielded tangible results, yet I cling to the hope that they might someday.”

On Jan. 4, 2004, a raid and theft of more than 400 weapons from the Pileng military camp by rebels in Narathiwat and subsequent events marked a turning point that led to a surge in the deployment of security forces in the Deep South. Over 75,000 soldiers, police and volunteer guards descended upon the region to quell violence from a series of incidents that followed the raid on the weapons depot.

On April 28, separatists launched widespread pre-dawn attacks on 11 security checkpoints and government locations in Pattani, Songkhla and Yala provinces. Initial reports said there were 108 fatalities on both sides, but Thai authorities later reported that 107 suspected insurgents and five members of the security forces had been killed.

The attacks led to a massacre at the historic Krue Se Mosque, when 32 suspected insurgents who had been hiding in a small concrete structure were killed after a general ordered an all-out assault.

Six months later, seven demonstrators were killed when authorities opened fire on protesters who had gathered at a playground near a police station demanding the release of six volunteer security guards who were accused of supplying rebels with stolen government-issued weapons. 

Police and soldiers then rounded up and arrested protesters, stacking 1,370 face down like a pile of logs, with their hands bound behind their backs in military trucks. Officials said 78 people suffocated while they were being transported to a military camp 150 km (93.2 miles) away in Pattani province.

The last incident, perhaps the most infamous one of 2004, remains known throughout the border region as the Tak Bai Massacre.

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Thai military special forces members patrol in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand, just days after the raid at the Pileng military camp, Jan. 7, 2004. [Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP]

While the number of security forces has fallen to about 50,000 by 2023, the military presence continues to be a source of tension. 

Deep South Watch, a non-profit organization monitoring the conflict in Thailand’s southern border provinces, released a report stating there have been over 22,200 incidents of violence in the region beginning in January 2004. The report also found that 7,540 people have been killed and 14,021 injured over the last two decades.

Despite the Thai government’s 2013 launch of the “Peace Dialogue Panel,” lasting peace remains elusive in the Deep South. Psychological scars and lingering distrust cast a shadow over reconciliation efforts.

“The pain of our friends being harmed by officials left us with no choice,” separatist group member Mah, whose surname was withheld over safety concerns, told BenarNews. 

“We sought revenge, but before we could act, fate intervened. Now, we live in fear and suspicion, constantly watched by officials who see us as enemies,” Mah said.

“This approach won’t bring peace. If it could, we wouldn’t be here after 20 years.”

Mah’s words echo the frustration felt by many in the region. 

While the recent appointment of a civilian to lead the government’s peace panel in talks with BRN rebels offers a glimmer of hope, the path to lasting peace is fraught with challenges.

After years of military-led efforts, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in November appointed Chatchai Bangchuad, deputy secretary general of the National Security Council (NSC), as the head of the Peace Dialogue Panel. 

This marked the first time a civilian was assigned to this role.

The move aligns with proposals leading up to the May 2023 elections. Between May 2014 and August 2023, Thailand was ruled by a government with deep military ties and headed by a former army chief, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who had spearheaded a coup a decade ago.  

Many in the Deep South have called for a reduction in military presence and a greater emphasis on civilian-led initiatives to address the complex issues plaguing the region. The regional branch of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) was specifically mentioned as being seen as redundant and ineffective.

Chatchai’s team is tasked with negotiating with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main insurgent group in the region. The BRN is represented at the negotiations table by a group led by Anas Abdulrahman.

Next-door neighbor Malaysia is acting as a broker for the talks.

The appointment of a civilian to lead the government’s side of the peace efforts reflects a growing recognition of the need for a different approach in the south.

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Military patrols are common along the coastal road leading to Sai Buri district in Thailand’s southern border provinces, Dec. 25, 2018. [Yostorn Triyos/BenarNews]

Still, security forces in the region remain a significant factor – Srettha, whose coalition government includes officials with ties to the military, maintains that ISOC is vital and should not be disbanded.  

His 2024 budget “allocates 6.65 billion baht (about U.S. $191.7 million) for integrated plans in the southern border provinces,” Srettha said while announcing his spending plan on Jan. 3. This represents a 400 million baht ($11.5 million) increase over 2023.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the day marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the conflict’s resurgence, Maj. Gen. Santi Sakuntanak, commander of the 4th Army Region and director of the ISOC-4 Forward Command, reiterated that troops in the region were prepared. 

He also emphasized the importance of Thailand’s multicultural identity and unity.

“Thailand cannot be divided,” Santi said Thursday, the 20th anniversary of the Pileng raid. “We are a diverse society, culturally rich. If the situation improves, with no violence or weaponry, normality will return. 

“While the region has a large Muslim population, the primary issue is livelihood, and we are promoting measures for local communities to thrive.”


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