Southern Thailand’s Friday gold

This is a brief and selective account of the troubles in Patani over the past few months.

Elsewhere in the region the MILF signed the Final Framework Agreement with the Philippines government last month. It was inevitable that headlines like “Southern Philippines Deal a Lesson for Southern Thailand?” would follow (just in the nick of time for media outlets looking for new angles having exhausted the 4th Army’s “mass defection” of 93 former insurgents in Narathiwat in mid-September). The things to watch in Mindanao are how the so-called Basic Law (no irony intended) is drafted and if the consultations around self-governance of Bangsamoro leads to something durable and inclusive of civil society, the other yet-to-make-peace armed groups and militias, and all the potential spoilers who may or may not decide to get behind the process. Underscoring the delicate processional nature of the accord, President Aquino is rightly calling it a “roadmap”. One of the key risks to the reception of the Framework Agreement and the negotiations and consultations that ensue is over-billing. Mindanao’s troubles, which are vastly different from those in Patani, have arguably benefited from extensive involvement by external actors, including the Malaysia-led joint monitoring body, the International Monitoring Team, which has been in place since 2004. Intriguingly, the folks over at STRATFOR have suggested that the “insurgents” in Patani are “attempting to draw Malaysia into the conflict”; or possibly, they are drawing Malaysia into a peace process given their role in Mindanao!

“Non-international internal problem”

Earlier in the year Benjamin Zawacki, whilst still working with Amnesty International, published a compelling argument in the Journal of Conflict and Security claiming that the war is a non-international armed conflict, a “NIAC”. Drawing extensively on jurisprudence from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Zawacki looks closely at the two limbs underpinning a NIAC, namely the level of organization of non-state armed groups and the intensity of the conflict in Patani. On intensity, he is on solid ground pointing to the widely reported lethality of the violence in Patani, citing Srisompob Jitipiromsri (of Deep South Watch) and reminding us that between 2004 and early 2012 “there have been over 11,400 violent incidents—an average of 1,425 yearly and nearly 4 per day”. Zawacki is less convincing in his treatment of insurgent groups’ level of organization, relying heavily on Sascha Helbart’s 2011 doctoral thesis (more on that below). In his concluding remarks, Zawacki comments that the NIAC designation “is politically inconvenient, but legally correct” for the Thai government. If there was any doubt about their level of organization, the Ma-Yor ambush in Pattani on 28 July makes for chilling viewing. Oddly, Don Pathan in his opinion piece for The Nation in September reported that “sources in the movement said the insurgents wanted to show the government and the authorities what they are capable of doing.” Given that the combatants moved the victims’ bodies and the motorbikes around to muddle up the crime scene it is highly unlikely they knew that cameras were on them.

Zawacki’s article begs the question as to whether Thailand’s government is actually more concerned with its humanitarian obligations than the domestic political impact of the war. Back in August both The Nation and The Bangkok Post quoted Deputy Army Chief General Daopong Rattanasuban sharing his doomsday scenario where a UN intervention would lead to a referendum and “Thailand would be finished”. At the time, Gen Daopong added, “We won’t let this happen and we’ll fight it to the death, but our Muslim brothers and sisters have to understand us because we’re fighting against a small percentage of people who are using guerrilla warfare tactics.”

Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch has introduced another, in many ways much more loaded, concept with internationalising potential; ethnic cleansing. During an interview with Aunty, Phasuk said, “The game plan of the insurgents has moved up to a new level, that is to cleanse the land of Thai Buddhists and ethnic-Chinese. It’s no longer just a fight against Thai authority anymore.” HRW’s ethnic cleansing line is more startling than Zawacki’s passionate argument that this is a type of conflict subject to humanitarian law. The definition of ethnic cleansing has an ample degree of polarity, with genocide and crimes against humanity at one end of the spectrum, and targeted pressure exerted on a religious or ethnic group to force their migration being at the other.

Origami and Happy Fridays

Then, there’s the litany of oddities that make Patani, besides  being one of the most lethal conflicts, also one of the most bizarre. In case anyone has forgotten, think back to December 2004, when barely two months after the Tak Bai massacre, nearly fifty light military aircraft dropped 100 million paper origami birds across Thailand’s southernmost provinces (at the time, one senior member of the Narathiwat Islamic Council was quoted saying, “Our people do not understand what the birds stand for.”). More recently on Malaysia’s Hari Merdeka, which coincides with the anniversary of Wan Khadir Che Man’s insurgency coalition BERSATU, Malaysian flags were found in over a 100 locations across Patani. Rumours abounded at the time that the flags were in fact PULO flags, which is intriguing even if it probably quite wrong. In response to Friday shop closures (ostensibly to observe the Muslim Sabbath), local officials have conceived a campaign dubbed ‘Happy Friday’ (suk sukh hansa) offering gold jewellery and other prizes to participating vendors. It’s the same culturally tone-deaf reaction that overlooks all the prompts. Consider, for instance, that the car-bombing in Saiburi market on 21 September and the ‘coordinated-flag-raising’ on 31 August both had one thing in common; they occurred on a Friday. Let’s hope that “Happy Fridays” don’t go the same way as the origami peace bomb and make the government look even more out of touch.

It’s BRN-C!!!

Marc Askew has also added burnish to his “disorderly borders” take on the south teaming up with Sascha  Helbardt to mine the latter’s doctoral thesis for an article in the journal, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, entitled “Becoming Patani Warriors: Individuals and the Insurgent Collective in Southern Thailand”. It is a detailed overview of Helbardt’s 2011 dissertation, whose primary sources warrant closer examination (especially “Ismail”, the prototypical insurgent). If New Mandala asks me back again, I promise to elaborate a bit more on this.

Cometh the Wise Men

Ending on a lighter note, the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council put up its shingle in early September; headquartered in Bangkok. For now it’s probably going to focus on the South China Sea dispute, but once that’s out of the way, this all-star track-two diplomacy body might look at Southern Thailand according to former Thai deputy prime minister and APRC founding member Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai.

James Bean is a PhD candidate in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific