How to Stop the Insurgency in Southern Thailand

Thai soldiers in Pattani in 2011. Photo Credit: AFP 

By: Yuri Neves, Columnist

For decades, Thailand has been experiencing an insurgency in its three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Despite thousands of deaths, the Thai government has done little to actually address the causes of this insurgency. The military junta has contemplated opening negotiations again, but it is unlikely that they will be willing to implement the necessary policies to finally end this enduring conflict. In order to bring the insurgency to a close, the Thai government needs to recognize the Southerners’ distinct ethnic identity, reduce government oppression, and increase political autonomy in the south.

Fear of losing their distinct ethnic identity is a major contributor to the Southerners’ discontent. Violence first broke out in protest of assimilation policies enacted in the 1960’s. Under these laws, Malay customs, names, language, and dress were discouraged – and in some cases, banned.[i] Currently, the military junta refuses to teach the Malay language in schools, despite locals speaking little else. This policy also marginalizes the majority Muslim population by demonstrating that the junta’s purpose is to “protect Buddhism.”[ii] These are clearly sources of grievances, as evidenced by whom the insurgency targets: school teachers, Buddhist monks and government officials from the north.[iii] These concerns can be addressed by instituting Malay as an official language in the southern provinces, appointing Malays to local government posts, and recognizing the Malays as a distinct ethnic group protected under Thai law.

Government oppression needs to be halted, because it pushes Southerners to join the insurgency. Harsh security tactics must be abolished to halt recruitment and incentive citizens to help fight the militants.[iv] While the constitution prohibits torture, Thailand’s legal system does not recognize torture as a legal offense. Moreover, current martial law allows the government to detain citizens for weeks on end.[v] In 2014, 78 young men suffocated to death in a truck after being arrested for peacefully protesting.[vi] Not a single security official has been successfully prosecuted for this or any other human rights violations.[vii] These abuses have directly contributed to a rise of insurgent violence. Members of the insurgency are suspected of carrying out a recent spate of attacks in January as retaliation for the extrajudicial killing of a Muslim cleric.[viii] To foster demobilization of insurgents, militants need to feel that they will not be brutalized by the state.[ix] Former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has conceded that Southerners have little confidence in the Thai government.[x] To halt these practices and build trust, the state should pass a law prohibiting torture, prosecute individuals responsible for human rights violations, and lift martial law. Building trust in the security services will also aid counterinsurgency efforts by allowing the state to gain more cooperation from the local population, who oppose insurgent violence.[xi]

Providing political autonomy to the south will further serve to sever the militants from the populace. Autonomy will address grievances of political marginalization and will give Southerners a vested interest in keeping peace in areas they control. The conflict in the south is a regional conflict and there is little public support for violence and a wider jihadist struggle.[xii] Giving into some of the political demands would satisfy a majority of the populace and deprive extremist groups of the support base needed to sustain their insurgency.[xiii] Political representation would also help resolve status concerns by demonstrating that the national government respects the distinct ethnic identity of the Malay-Muslims.[xiv] Such an approach was successful in ending an ethnic insurgency in Aceh, Indonesia in 2005 and has made progress in the Moro conflict in the Philippines.[xv] So far, the Thai government has failed to demonstrate that they understand the political frustrations of the militants or recognize them as legitimate political opponents.[xvi] Allowing locals to govern themselves will reduce enmity towards the central government, give local administrators legitimacy, and show citizens that their issues can be addressed politically, rather than through violence.[xvii]

For decades, the Thai military has exclusively employed force to end the insurgency. And yet this conflict endures. Only by addressing status concerns, ending the cycle of repression, and providing political autonomy will peace be possible. The insurgency has killed scores of innocent people, strained Thailand’s relationship with Malaysia, and hampered economic development in the region.[xviii] The continued lack of progress towards southern autonomy could also lead jihadist elements to hijack this ethno-nationalist struggle, as it did in the Philippines.[xix] The number of insurgent attacks hit a low point in 2018. Yet experts warn that the military’s continued intractability in granting political concessions could lead to a rise in violence in 2019 – and continue to fuel this decades-long conflict for many years to come.[xx]


[i] Adam Burke, Pauline Tweedie, and Ora-orn Poocharoen, The Contested Corners of Asia (San Francisco: The Asia Foundation, 2013),

[ii] “Repression Is Feeding the Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand,” The Economist, August 10, 2017,

[iii] Peter Chalk, “Southern Thailand Insurgency Fails to Achieve Popular Support,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, November 15, 2017,

[iv] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 01 (2003): 75-90: 76.

[v] “Thailand: A Culture of Torture under the Military,” Amnesty International USA, accessed March 18, 2019,

[vi] “Repression Is Feeding the Muslim Insurgency.”

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Joshua Kurlantzick, “Is the Southern Thailand Insurgency Ramping Up Again?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 24, 2019,

[ix] Daniel L. Byman, Keeping the Peace: Lasting Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 45.

[x] Ian Storey, “Malaysia’s Role in Thailand’s Southern Insurgency,” Jamestown, March 15, 2007,

[xi] Chalk, “Southern Thailand Insurgency Fails to Achieve Popular Support.”

[xii] “Repression Is Feeding the Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand.”

[xiii] Chalk, “Southern Thailand Insurgency Fails to Achieve Popular Support.”

[xiv] Byman, 96.

[xv] “Repression Is Feeding the Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand.”

[xvi] Matt Wheeler, “Thailand’s Southern Insurgency in 2017: Running in Place.” Southeast Asian Affairs 2018: 384.

[xvii] Rachel Kleinfeld, A Savage Order: How the Worlds Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security (New York: Pantheon Books, 2018), 81.

[xviii] Zachary Abuza, “No End in Sight for Thailand’s Deadly Southern Insurgency,” The Diplomat, July 18, 2017,

[xix] “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace,” International Crisis Group, November 8, 2017,

[xx] Kurlantzick,”Is the Southern Thailand Insurgency Ramping Up Again?”

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