While Muslims make up a small minority of the 65 million people living in Thailand, they account for more than 80 percent of the population in the country's four southernmost provinces -- Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala. Unlike the tourist and business centers of Phuket and Bangkok, most women in the deep south wear headscarves, few residents drink alcohol, and Arabic is as likely to be taught in school as is English. The ethnic Malay Muslims who live there have far more in common with their Malaysian neighbors to the south than they do with other Thais, a fact that is at the root of many of the area's problems.
The southern provinces were originally part of the ancient kingdom of Pattani, a semi-autonomous Malay region that adopted Islam in the mid-13th century. Thailand annexed the region at the beginning of the 20th century, and for the last hundred years, Muslims have claimed systematic discrimination and estrangement from the Bangkok government. A series of rebellions flared up over the years, finally turning into a full-fledged insurgency in the 1970s. The government quelled the violence with promises to channel more funds into the region and ensure the Muslim community an adequate political representation.
But for many Thai Muslims, those promises were not met, and in January 2004, a raid on an army depot in Narathiwat signaled a return to violence. Four soldiers were killed as separatists stole more than 400 guns, most of them M-16 rifles. Since that time, an estimated 2,100 people have been killed in the insurgency.
Map of Thailand showing the troubled southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat as well as neighboring countries.
The insurgent groups have become increasingly bold in expressing their goals, with recent leaflets distributed in Yala claiming that the southern border provinces are not the land of Buddhist Thais, but a religious conflict zone that must be divided between Muslims and infidels. In addition to targeting Thai authority figures, such as police, teachers and Buddhist monks, Muslim gunmen have also begun seemingly random attacks on civilians. In an effort to widen the rift between Buddhists and Muslims, insurgents also direct attacks against Muslims who cooperate with the government or do not share their ideals. Thai government statistics show that two-thirds of the people killed in the conflict have been Muslim.
In this climate of distrust, police and the army have been quick to detain suspected insurgents, and in many cases, have committed abuses of their own. The most egregious example occurred in late 2004 and is known as the Takbai incident. After a demonstration outside a police station in the town of Takbai turned violent, police arrested 1,300 suspected demonstrators, tied their arms behind their backs and loaded them into trucks to a detention camp in another province. By the time the trucks reached the camp in Pattani five or six hours later, 78 of the prisoners had died from suffocation.
A bloodless coup in September 2006 removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power, in large part due to his apparent ineffectiveness in handling the Muslim insurrection in the south. A military junta led by Surayud Chulanont took over control of the government, and instituted a new policy of conciliation. In November, Surayad issued a remarkable apology for the Takbai incident, in which he took responsibility on behalf of the Thai state for decades of strife. He also indicated that the government was ready to talk with representatives of the insurgents. The apology only seemed to inflame insurgents, however, as 46 violent incidents were recorded the day after his speech, up from a daily average of nine in the previous month. Almost a year later, random and coordinated violence continue throughout the south and resolution remains a distant hope.
Sources: BBC, Christian Science Monitor, International Herald Tribune, Human Rights Watch.
BBC Country Profile: Thailand
The BBC provides a political and economic profile of Thailand, all the latest news coverage from the country, and a timeline of significant events in the country's history. The profile also includes links to a three-part series about the separatist insurgency in the south.
Human Rights Watch World Report: Thailand
The Human Rights Watch report on Thailand examines the effects of the September 2006 coup to oust prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as the human rights abuses that led up to it.
International Herald Tribune: "Muslim insurgency stokes fear in southern Thailand"
The International Herald Tribune's Seth Mydans reports on how efforts at conciliation have been met with increased violence since the junta took control of the Thai government in September 2006.
Thai Buddhist Vigilante Squads Suspected
This August 2007 Associated Press story reports that Buddhist vigilante groups are suspected of exacting revenge attacks on Muslim insurgents in escalating violence in the southern Thai province of Yala.
-- Matthew Vree