Why does Thailand’s South remain restless? Wrong politics or culture clash between Buddhists and Muslims?

Author: Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder


Most of the integration problems in the ethnic mix of Thailand are relatively low-threshold, at least compared to the civil war-like conditions in the troubled south that have been smoldering for decades. However, these have not always been there. They only started to become acute and bloody in the late 1930s and even more intensely from around 1960. The fact that the provinces on the border with Malaysia, Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, have a predominantly Malay and Muslim population, a total of about 1 , 8 million people, cannot have been the sole cause. The north of Malaysia today also belonged to Siam historically. It was made into a crown colony by Great Britain with most of what is now Malaysia in 1867. The current state of Kelantan and the Sultanate of Pattani were until then a center of Malay Islam, which had been spread by Arab traders in Southeast Asia since the 7th century and had been firmly established since the 15th century.

Kelantan was a center of Islamic scholarship for all of Southeast Asia with the honorary title „The Veranda of Mecca“. Conquered in 1785, the Sultanate of Pattani, including Kelantan, was under Siamese rule, but increasingly came under British control in the 19th century. Until then, like almost everywhere in the region, the borders were not only very permeable, but also changeable. The British-Siamese Treaty of 1909 then drew a definitive border with Malaysia, which today is not politically questioned between the two countries apart from minor demarcation issues. He transferred the provinces of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis to the British, who also took over their debts to Siam. From Bangkok, the abandonment of the distant “worm process” in the deep south, now more than 800 kilometers by air and more than 1,100 kilometers by car to the Malaysian border, must have been perceived as relatively painless, because these Malay areas were not economically significant at the time.

What could be understood as a reasonable compromise in 1909, however, had ignored the fact that the historical and religious differences connected the ceded areas more strongly with the Malay-speaking provinces remaining in Siam than the latter with Siam. Ethnically and religiously, Thailand extends some 300 kilometers deep into the Malay-Malaysian cultural area. As on the Malaysian side in Kedah and Kelantan, the people in the three troubled Thai provinces speak a dialect that differs significantly from the High Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) and also use a special Arabic alphabet, the Jawi. This linguistic and religious background as well as a folkloristic idealization of the historical Sultanate of Pattani make it possible to understand a Malay Islamic identity of the people in the south of Thailand. The feeling of togetherness was further strengthened by the fact that the Japanese occupiers of Thailand at the end of 1941 included a military alliance with the Axis powers and returned Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, which were also administered by Thailand from 1943 until the end of the war.

The wrong path to terrorism


As in many linguistic-cultural border regions of Europe, the coexistence of the various groups has rarely caused problems for a long period of time, until either minorities felt disadvantaged and resisted due to political errors by the central government or until ideological nationalists from the other side incited separatist activities , Just as denominational tensions led to violence in Northern Ireland, the contrasts between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand have intensified in recent decades.

For the Sultanate of Pattani, Bangkok was wide and self-government and justice according to Islamic rules were common law. It was only in the 1930s that the central government under General Phibun, Prime Minister from 1936 to 44 and 1948 to 57, possibly influenced by the then common racial biology in Europe and the USA, tried to „Thaiize“ the southern border provinces. In a series of twelve decrees between 1939 and 1942, the government tried to enforce a generally binding „Thai culture“ for the minorities as well. Thai has been introduced as the sole language of instruction in all schools, exceptions to general law such as Muslim family law have been abolished and traditional minority clothing has been banned.

Above all, the linguistic „Thaiization“ and the replacement of the Islamic jurisdiction by centrally controlled civil and criminal courts, as well as the penetration of Buddhist elements such as the construction of pagodas and monasteries, were not accepted by the population. In 1948, one of Pattani’s religious leaders, Haji Sulong, drew up a catalog with seven demands that, from today’s perspective, sound anything but exaggerated. The four southern provinces were to be administered by a Muslim governor, the first seven years of school were taught in Malay, regional taxes were also levied in the region, and Thai and Malay were used as equal official languages. Haji Sulong was promptly declared an enemy of the state and mysteriously disappeared on the way to a trial in 1955.


From the beginning of the resistance and separatist movement, there were also religious and political differences between the different groups. Even Haji Sulong’s reform Islam based on the school of the Egyptian Mohammad Abduh met with rejection from Muslim traditionalists. Some Malaysian groups are still against armed resistance and are more concerned with balancing with Bangkok, but the radical forces predominate. The Deep South Watch group of observers, founded in 2006, tries to counter the state media reports, which are often viewed as tendentious, with a more objective inventory of the unrest. For the period 2004 to 2018, 20,163 incidents are listed, 6,921 dead and 13,511 injured. Bombings and raiding methods using firearms from motorcycles that are more familiar from criminal milieus have become routine. The methods are constantly evolving, for example that a second bomb will not explode until the rescue workers arrive at the site of the attack. Weapons and methods increasingly show jihadist influence as well as personal contacts to the known focal points in the Middle East and South Asia.

Economic factors as a motivation for separatism


Compared to the Buddhists, also and especially in the south, the Muslims are clearly at a disadvantage in terms of education and career opportunities. Seventy percent only have a primary school degree against 50% of Buddhists, only 1.7% have a first university degree against almost 10% of Buddhists, and only 2.4% have found employment in the civil service. In various waves, the central government has tried to improve the infrastructure in the rural southern provinces, but the dominant response in Bangkok in the fight against the „insurgents“ was military and police measures, in a particularly counterproductive manner during Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s tenure from 2001 to 2006 ,


A look across the border to the Malaysian neighbors can easily arouse envy, because Malaysia as a whole, but also in the northern states, is significantly developed and offers higher incomes. The attempts by the governments in Bangkok to compensate for the development differences with Malaysia by means of infrastructure measures were all too often destroyed by the control measures by the military and the police and were unable to convince the population as a whole.

Thailand and Islam or Islam in Thailand

Historically, Muslims from India and today’s Pakistan, Cham from today’s Cambodia, or Persian and Arab traders have lived in Thailand for centuries, easily tolerated but not fully integrated. According to official figures, around 7.5 million Muslims live in Thailand today, almost 5% of the total population, including 18% in the troubled south. There are 2,180 mosques, the construction of which is often subsidized by the state, but there are also 173 mosques in Bangkok. There has been a royal advisor on Islamic affairs since the early 17th century, called Chularatchamontri or Grand Mufti. Today, the Central Islamic Council of Thailand (CICOT) is more important with corresponding institutions in the provinces with a Muslim majority, which are also responsible for the financial support of mosques and Islamic schools. A limited parallel justice is again permitted for family and inheritance law, similar to that in Malaysia and Singapore.

The new constitution introduced by the military government in 2017 guarantees religious freedom, but only for Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, and prohibits any religiously motivated discrimination. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2017 praised the Thai government’s attempts to promote understanding with Muslims in the south, while criticizing nationalist Buddhist monks calling for violence against Muslims to oppose their integration and state support protest. There are reservations against an agreement on both sides. In June 2017, an Islamic religious teacher and his family were murdered when he tried to mediate. The police and the army repeatedly tend to overreact, citing an emergency decree from 2005 and exemption rules from 2004, mostly perceived by the population as arbitrariness

. How likely is the conflict to be resolved? Whether sufficient confidence in the central government can ever be built among the 1.8 million Malays in southern Thailand is particularly questionable because the terrorist groups have been increasingly strengthened by Salafists and jihadists in recent years and Southeast Asia as a whole is a safe retreat for fighters the Middle East applies.

For the military, the inviolability of the country is absolute dogma and a real purpose. In this respect, a shift of the border in favor of Malaysia is unthinkable. The EU model of open borders can also not be imagined in Thailand or Malaysia. The core problem therefore remains and will not be solved radically in the foreseeable future.

Über Ralf Ostner

Ralf Ostner geboren 1964 in Frankfurt am Main, 1984 Abitur in Bayern--Leitungskurse: Physik und Kunst/ Schülerzeitung. Studium der Physik (Nebenfächer: Mathematik, Chemie), Wirtschaftsgeographie (Nebenfächer: BWL, VWL) und Studium der Sinologie. 1991 Abschluss als staatlich geprüfter Übersetzer in der englischen und chinesischen Sprache am Sprachen- und Dolmetscher-Institut/München (Leiter der Chinesisch-Abteilung: Herr Zhang, ehemaliger Dolmetscher von Deng Xiaoping und Franz-Josef Strauß).Danach 5 Jahre Asienaufenthalt: China, Indien, Südostasien (u.a. in Kambodscha während des ersten Auslandseinsatzes der Bundeswehr, Interviews mit Auslandschinesen, Recherche im Karen-Guerillagebiet in Burma, Unterstützung einer UNO-Mitarbeiterin während den Aufständen in Nepal und bei UNO-Arbeit in Indien), Australien. Danach 5 Jahre als Dolmetscher, Delegationsbegleiter und Übersetzer in München. Abendstudium an der Hochschule für Politik /München (Schwerpunkt: Internationale Beziehungen). Abschluss als Diplom-Politologe (Diplomarbeit: Die deutsch-chinesischen Beziehungen 1989-2000 unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der SPD-Grünen-Regierung). Delegationsbegleitung von Hu Ping, Chefredakteur der chinesischen Dissidentenzeitung "Pekinger Frühling" (New York)und prominentester Vertreter eines chinesischen Liberalismus bei seiner Deutschlandtour (Uni München, Uni Mainz, Berlin/FU-Humboldt) bei gleichzeitigem Kontakt mit Liu Liqun (Autor des Buches "Westliches Denken transzendieren"/ heute: Deutschlandberater der chinesischen Regierung).Chefredakteur der Studentenzeitschrift UNIPOL . Projekte am Goethe-Institut und bei FOCUS TV. Seit 2000 Übersetzer (chinesisch-deutsch), Graphiker, freier Schriftsteller und Blogger.
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