Unrest in southern Thailand dates back to 1902, when the Kingdom of Siam absorbed the Kingdom of Pattani, which comprised modern-day Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces. Religious, ethnic and linguistic differences alienated the mostly Malay Muslims of Pattani from the Buddhist ruling class. Subsequent attempts to assimilate ethnic Malays under Buddhist Thai rule sparked fierce resistance in the Muslim south. Resistance eventually gave way to several insurgent groups with varying agendas. While militancy in southern Thailand is not new, recent developments have changed the complexion of the insurgency. Whereas most attacks previously featured shootings and small improvised explosive devices or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, new attacks reflect advanced planning, cross-region coordination and greater tradecraft capabilities.
These new developments in the Thai insurgency present new challenges to Kuala Lumpur. Increasingly active insurgents increase the chances that fighting could spill over into Malaysia. For now, attacks remain on the Thai side of the border, but Kuala Lumpur understandably wants to avoid a situation that would result in the death of Malaysians or that could be exploited by criminal or militant elements. Moreover, increased cross-border activity would fuel Bangkok's suspicions that Malaysia was assisting the insurgents.
Recently also, a peace agreement signed Oct. 15 by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led some in Thailand to believe Malaysia, which mediated the Philippine treaty, would likewise mediate their dispute. Indeed, its large Muslim population, its religious, ethnic, linguistic and commercial ties to many of the insurgents and its border with Thailand ostensibly make Malaysia ideally suited for arbitration. But some of those same factors have prevented Kuala Lumpur from fully involving itself in the dispute. While recent upticks of violence may compel Kuala Lumpur to adjust its position -- in some ways, it already has -- the upcoming election season in Malaysia will prevent officials from becoming overly involved. For its part, Thailand also faces political obstacles to moving forward with negotiations.
Unrest in southern Thailand dates back to 1902, when the Kingdom of Siam absorbed the Kingdom of Pattani. Religious, ethnic and linguistic differences alienated the mostly Malay Muslims of Pattani, which comprised modern day Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces, from the Buddhist ruling class. Subsequent attempts to assimilate ethnic Malays under Buddhist Thai rule sparked fierce resistance in the Muslim south. Resistance eventually gave way to several insurgent groups with varying agendas.
Apart from the quoted recent Oct. incident another example of the increased activity is 31 Aug, when insurgents conducted 102 attacks across the region and hoisted Malaysian flags on Thai soil. In doing so, they undermined Bangkok, attempted to draw Malaysia into the conflict, and most important, strengthened Bangkok’s long-held suspicion that Kuala Lumpur is somehow affiliated with the insurgents.
Perhaps to distance his country from the attacks, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra shortly after the Aug. 31 incident, during which he pledged to cooperate with Thailand to resolve the problem. Specifically, Kuala Lumpur offered to increase patrols and security operations along the border. The leaders also jointly proposed a large-scale rubber plant to incentivize a peaceful resolution in region.
While Malaysia has said it wishes to see an end to Thailand's southern conflict, its Muslim population, particularly those who sympathize with Thailand's insurgents (80 percent of the region's population practices Islam) will constrain Kuala Lumpur's efforts to resolve the issue. So Malaysia's potential role as a meditator between the Thai government and the Thai Muslim communities will continue to be inhibited by Kuala Lumpur's need to avoid alienating its Muslim population at home. For example, Kuala Lumpur has been reluctant to forsake its constituencies in northern Kelantan state, which is governed by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and which routinely speaks out against disadvantages among southern Muslim Thais.
At the same time, Kuala Lumpur must avoid appearing overly sympathetic to the insurgents, lest it confirm Bangkok's suspicions. Throughout the 1960s and 1980s, the two countries abided by general counterinsurgency agreements. But those operations focused on communist groups in the region. Subsequent attempts by Thailand to link militant Muslim separatists to the communists were opposed by Malaysia, which discredited any connection to communists in deference to its Muslim population. Nonetheless, Thailand's pressure produced some compromises in which Malaysia enhanced border patrols and trained Thai officials to promote cultural and religious exchanges.
But cooperation did not last long. Conflict in southern Thailand resumed in 2004 under the administration of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin's heavy-handed response to the unrest and accusations against the Malaysian government soured relations between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. In addition, secret talks between insurgent groups and Thai officials -- which were facilitated by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad -- failed due to a lack of support from senior leadership on both Thai sides. The sides reconciled somewhat after the 2006 military coup, which ousted Thaksin, but Bangkok has since fallen into political chaos, ostensibly divided between the pro-Thaksin and pro-establishment camp, resulting in street violence between each sides' supporters.
Amid the political chaos, Thai officials have been more concerned with preserving power in Bangkok than resolving the problem in the south. Moreover, the south has been a key political battleground for Thai politicians since Thaksin's ouster, illustrating the struggle in Bangkok. Thaksin had eradicated the traditional power base in the south (the army, establishment and Muslim elites) and replaced it with his loyalists. Subsequently, any discussion of the insurgency issue devolves into political discussion. Because of this, the south will be somewhat ignored until political stability returns to Bangkok.
The progression of the insurgency has provided Yingluck and Najib with opportunities for cooperation. But with multiple political agendas, including a power struggle with the military, the Yingluck government may have little space to find a viable solution or proceed with negotiations. Meanwhile, Malaysia may be forced to become more involved, but its involvement will be circumscribed by an upcoming election, due by April 2013. Compounding the problem is Thailand's fear of foreign involvement. Thailand has seen numerous attempts at occupation by foreign powers, and it is extremely sensitive to any foreign influence. Kuala Lumpur knows it could not respond very assertively even if it had the political will to do so.