The Stalemate in Southern Thailand

Samuel Huntington famously wrote in his seminal article in Foreign Affairs in 1993 that "Islam has bloody borders", noting that in many places where Islamic countries border with non-Islamic countries, there is conflict. One border that epitomizes this concept is that of Malaysia and Thailand, where the conflict between Thailand's military and Muslim rebels has claimed more than 5,000 lives since violence first erupted in 2004. This intractable conflict has lasted a lot longer than many observers would have first imagined, attributable to a combination of the insurgents' persistence, strategic depth provided by Malaysia, and the Thai government's inability to effectively combat it.

The political objective of the insurgents -- who come from Thailand's three majority Muslim southern provinces - ranges from a desire for greater self rule to establishment of an independent state, but they lack a common political organization, which has stymied their ability to achieve a common objective. Most Thai Muslims live in the southern provinces, are ethnic Malay, and speak Malay (not Thai) as their primary language. For decades they have complained about a majority Buddhist political system that disrespects their religious beliefs, cultural norms and language.

Tension between Thailand's Buddhist and Muslim communities dates back nearly one hundred years. Until the early 20th century, the territory of southern Thailand was ruled by an independent sultanate. Since it was originally incorporated into the Siamese Kingdom, outbursts of violence between the state and Muslim separatists have occurred repeatedly. The national education system naturally teaches Thai, which has been a source of much resentment among the country's Malay-Muslim communities.

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) arguably holds the most influence among insurgents. For over half a century, the BRN-C has sought to create an Islamic state in southern Thailand. Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani (GMIP) shares the BRN-C's objective of establishing an independent Muslim theocracy in southern Thailand. The Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) is mainly a secular separatist group, historically run by exiles in Sweden and Syria, and calls for the restoration of the independent Sultanate.

PULO's leaders are surely aware that such calls for the restoration of the Sultanate are unrealistic, particularly given that Thailand's Songkhla province was ruled by the Sultanate. Today that province is nearly 75% non-Muslim. Following more than a century of Thai rule, the locals are not sympathetic to separatist aspirations. Part of northern Malaysia was also historically under the Sultanate's control, yet Malaysia will of course not relinquish its sovereign territory to any non-state actor. How the rebel organizations define the borders of the state they are fighting for remains unclear.

Confusion about the rebels' goals increased last August when suspected insurgents burned Thai flags while raising Malaysian flags. The day also marked Malaysia's 55-year anniversary of independence from Britain. While such action may imply that a segment of insurgents are fighting to incorporate southern Thailand into Malaysia, many analysts contend otherwise. Perhaps the purpose was simply to create friction between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur - if so it succeeded. As recent attacks indicate, it is apparent that the Islamist rebels are determined to continue waging jihad against the state of Thailand. However, it is not apparent what they are actually trying to achieve in practice.

Prior to 2004, the Muslim uprisings were essentially nationalist in nature. It is within the past decade that their tone and ideology has grown increasingly Islamist in orientation. Most analysts attribute the Islamization of the rebellion to several factors. After some Thai Muslims were exposed to a more militant and reactionary form of political Islam while fighting in Afghanistan or Libya, and studying in Islamic academic institutions in Pakistan and the Arab world, some Thais returned more oriented toward a militant Salafi brand of political Islam. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Al-Qaeda affiliated groups -- including Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) -- established cells in Thailand and other South East Asian countries.

Some analysts contend there is no evidence that international jihadism has played an influential role in southern Thailand's Islamist rebellion, given that the insurgents have not carried out attacks in the north of Thailand or outside the country, and have not targeted Western nationals or interests in Thailand. Unlike JI, Thailand's Islamist groups appear uninterested in establishing a Daulah Islamiyah (regional Islamic caliphate). But given the linkages that have been established between a variety of supposedly 'independent' organizations operating globally under the umbrella of Al Qaeda, it seems unlikely that there is no linkage at all.

The rebellion has of course complicated Bangkok's relations with Kuala Lumpur, and vice versa. As Malay-Muslims on both sides of the border hold deep bonds, suspicions have been stoked that Kuala Lumpur has actively sponsored the insurgency. The Thai government has made this accusation on previous occasions. While it seems unlikely that the Islamist rebels would have thrived as long as they have without some form of assistance from the Malaysian government, there does not appear to be evidence to support such claims. In fairness, the international border is porous and between 50,000 and 100,000 people have Thai and Malaysian identity cards, making it difficult for either government to identify individual allegiances and keep track of border movements. Therefore, regardless of Kuala Lumpur's intention, the Islamist insurgents have gained strategic depth in northern Malaysia, where locals are highly sympathetic to Thailand's Muslim rebels.

While Malaysia shares Bangkok's interest in maintaining high levels of bilateral trade ($23 billion in 2011) and preventing any spillover effects into its territory, they also share an interest in minimizing unrest. Moreover, as Malaysia has recently invested diplomatic resources into reaching a settlement in the conflicts between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and between Indonesia and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), it is unlikely that Kuala Lumpur would wish to jeopardize its growing reputation as a peace broker in Southeast Asia by allowing the insurgency in Thailand to continue to fester.

However, the extent to which Thailand and Malaysia can cooperate is limited by the fact that the Islamist opposition party in Malaysia can undermine the ruling party by attacking it for not taking a stance against human rights violations inflicted on Thai Muslims across the border. Also, as Malaysia seeks a prominent position within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) - a transnational organization committed to protecting Muslims worldwide - Kuala Lumpur gains something by issuing harsh rhetoric that condemns Bangkok's actions in the south, as it has in the past. In a sense, Malaysia wants to have its cake and it eat, too - on one hand be seen as the benevolent peace maker, and on the other hand a shining light of the Islamic movement.

It is in this context that Malaysia's numerous interests have compelled it to cooperate with Thailand with respect to the Islamic rebellion, but only selectively, and to a limited extent. While Thai-Malaysian relations are generally quite strong, the turmoil in southern Thailand has certainly created a degree of tension between the two neighboring countries. Nonetheless, since the 2006 coup, bilateral relations have improved substantially, with Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur having signed agreements to address security issues along their border. Malaysia has also recently begun efforts to mediate talks between Bangkok and the insurgents, with the intention of resolving the nine year conflict.

Nevertheless, as the factors that have prolonged the insurgency and prevented the Thai government from being more effective in countering the insurgency appear unlikely to change in the short-term, the near term prospects for Malaysia successfully resolving the conflict as mediator are poor. Voices on both sides of the conflict contend that talks will be undermined by the fact that any rebels who agree to a negotiated settlement will likely not have the capacity to enforce any cease-fire, since most of the rebel factions are autonomous entities.

Similarly, if Bangkok were to make concessions that do not receive the military's approval, they are unlikely to be implemented. The military's opposition to holding negotiations with the insurgents for fear of granting the separatists legitimacy is a major stumbling block that must be overcome, given that the military's cooperation will be essential to any brokered settlement. The idea of achieving a settlement also comes at a time when a variety of Islamic separatist movements are becoming more emboldened globally, which cannot be helpful.

While some suggest that Malaysia is not entirely committed to resolving the conflict (only preventing the spillover effects), it is arguable that reaching a political compromise is not a high priority for Bangkok. The continuing tension between the government and the "yellow shirt" movement underscores how Thailand has other political problems to address, with more urgency. Given that the violence stemming from the insurgency has contained itself to the deep south, tourism has been largely unaffected, so the uprising's toll on the national economy has been limited.

That said, if Bangkok refuses to address the grievances of Thailand's Muslim-minority, conflict in the south will surely continue. The rebels' capacity to gain sympathy among the local population following the military's recent harsh crackdown also decreases the probability of the insurgents laying down their arms. If the Thai government were to redefine the balance of power between provincial governments and the central authorities in Bangkok, and begin a process of consensus building within the Muslim-majority provinces, then perhaps it could portray the insurgents as the enemies of peace. But it does not appear likely that Bangkok is ready to abandon its rigid position on Thai national identity to a degree that could reduce the Malay-Muslims' sense of marginalization.

Given that no foreign state is formally sponsoring the insurgency, the rebels will remain substantially less powerful than the Thai military, even though they clearly have the upper hand in the hearts and minds of the local population. Until and unless the insurgents can change the tactical balance of power, they are unlikely to be successful in establishing an independent Islamic state either in between Thailand and Malaysia, or inside Thailand or Malaysia, nor are they likely to succeed in establishing greater autonomy.

More likely than not, a prolonged conflict and stalemate await southern Thailand. Neither side can expect to achieve their goals unless something substantively changes, so the suffering of the people of southern Thailand is likely to continue indefinitely. It is ultimately up to both governments to craft a solution that recognizes the legitimate concerns of the indigenous people of the region, and it is up to the insurgents to recognize that they are unlikely to achieve an end game that fully meets their objectives.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.