EAST LANSING, Michigan — The longstanding, complex conflict in Thailand’s southernmost region saw a brief period of peace during the pandemic when a unilateral ceasefire commenced. This allowed medical personnel to travel safely. Unfortunately, the cease-fire did not bring lasting peace. Insurgency in Thailand continues to grip the southernmost regions of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
What Is Insurgency and Why Is It Happening?
The unrest in Thailand’s Deep South is a result of a century’s worth of problems in the region. The current insurgency has been a conflict since the mid-1990s. The conflict has killed more than 7,000 people and injured many more. The insurgency in Thailand is a revolt the ethnic Malay Muslims began. They are pushing back against the Thai state. As natives to the region, they feel their voices go unheard.
The Borgen Project interviewed Don Pathan, an employee of the Asia Foundation. He said, “They [the Thai state]try to force the Malay to be Thai like everybody else.” He drew on America’s tribute to natives by naming helicopters, cities and states after chiefs and tribes. Thailand does nothing of the sort and largely excludes them from Thailand’s narrative.
“It’s a very ethnocentric policy, and for the Malay, they fought against it,” said Pathan. “That was the start of the armed insurgency.” For instance, even though different regions in Thailand speak different languages, when the government comes together or kids go to public school, they are forced to speak the central Thai dialect. Half of the school children in Thailand are taught in a different language than they speak at home.
How Does Economic Development Play a Role?
Pattani and Narathiwat are “the two poorest regions” in all of Thailand with poverty rates of 34.2% and 34.17%, respectively. Pathan called the southernmost region “dirt poor,” yet feels the underlying social problems that forced assimilation brings on are primary causes that are fueling the insurgency. Still, a 2017 peace survey showed that 49.8% of respondents felt it was poverty and unemployment in the region fueling this persistent unrest.
Many officials note the reasons for insurgency are complex and sensitive. Pathan says although “development is not the issue, it can be the answer.” While Thailand as a whole is not “underdeveloped,” there are still regions, such as the Deep South, that live in rampant poverty. However, over the past three decades between 1988 to 2018, Thailand has reduced poverty from 65% to under 10%.
To further progress the country, the Thai government created a National Strategy in 2018 with goals through 2037. There is a specific subsection for ensuring “safety and peace in Southern border provinces.” Furthermore, the government is trying to establish halal food production in the Deep South to increase revenue and jobs. And, a newly constructed airport called Betong International Airport in Yala welcomes more traffic.
How Will They Foster Peace in the Region?
In addition to economic growth, officials and scholars highlight the importance of several perspectives and healing mechanisms, adopting a more holistic approach to reducing this problem. “It’s about the Thai state and the Malai minority. So, when you throw money at them, it’s not going to make any difference,” Pathan said. Expanding the narrative to include the Malay in public discourse and acknowledging their struggles ought to be the primary focus. They have had to endure economic disparities and injustice for years and years.
Pathan calls for more strategic and specific goals to encourage education at all levels. “There are 3.9 million adults who are unable to read a simple sentence.” After such a long time living in conflict, it has taken a toll on a lot of citizens. Scholars emphasize the need for understanding what’s going on, why the Malay feel oppressed and why they chose to revolt. Additionally, they need to understand what needs to happen to put an end to this insurgency in Thailand. Without this integral understanding leading a holistic approach, the conflicts they face will continue to persist.
“The word human dignity is not there,” Pathan said. Communication will stimulate understanding and lead to peace. The Malay Muslims and Thai government must put their differences aside and communicate in a peaceful and progressive manner. At the end of the day, the rebels want to feel valid and accepted in their homeland. The power lies within the government to make this happen.
– Cameryn Cass