I have been living in the Pattani town since 1999. I was a master’s degree student of the Academy of Malay Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was doing research on a comparative study between the local Malay dialect spoken and standard Malay.
I first watched the news on the September 11 attacks in a small restaurant, famous for its nice dish of chicken rice, on the road which leads to Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus. I frequented the restaurant until the owner finally moved out of the region. Now this road, called Charoenpradit Road, has become the most robust and crowded in the town, but when the attacks happened, it was relatively calm. While I was enjoying the delicious dish, the owner of the restaurant, one of the lecturers at the university, came and sat by my side, pointing at the TV set, and explained to me that this was going on in New York City. On the screen there was the picture of two sky scrapers, one of which was emitting black smoke. The owner explained that it had been hit by an airplane. Then after a while, we witnessed the second attack. The story was so surrealistically incompatible with the calmness of the environment in which I was.
At that time, although security was not fully guaranteed in that area as there were frequent petty crimes, the town was still relatively safe. The deadliest conflict in Southeast Asia hadn’t begun yet. The 11 September attacks were so shocking that I couldn’t help feeling that something really bad would be happening sooner or later.
After the attacks, the media began to blame Al-Qaeda, especially its charismatic and notorious leader, Osama Bin Laden. Unlike the western world, or the part of the world which had been already westernised enough, who regarded this figure as a diabolically evil terrorist, the local Muslim population in Patani seemed to have an utterly different perception of the figure. Soon after the attack, I began to find him everywhere, not in person, but in pictures. T-shirts printed with the face of Bin Laden were sold in plenty of markets and roadside stalls, Bin Laden stickers were put up in a number of cars, and posters of him could be easily found in many coffee shops.
I asked some of friends why they supported Bin Laden. Apparently, they thought very highly of him because of his ‘heroic action’ against a superpower like the USA, almost single-handed. In addition, so far he had been successful in evading a notorious intelligence agency like the CIA. It was alarming. Before that, I had thought that they were a peacefully docile people with a relaxed life style. But after the attack, they suddenly revealed their aggressive nature by supporting this notorious terrorist. This latest development substantially influenced my perception of the local people.
I was conducting research in the field of sociolinguistics, and hardly ever paid serious attention to the political situation here. Therefore, when they put up Bin Laden pictures everywhere, I interpreted the phenomena as a sign that they might be under the influence of a global terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda or its allies in Southeast Asia like Jemaah Islamiah (JI). When the conflict in this region finally started on 4 January 2004, I thought my interpretation was verified: this area had been a part of the global network of Islamic terrorists.
The conflict, which has extended its life to this day, was rather unlucky for me because when I had to choose the place to do my field work in 1998, my first choice was Indonesia. However, my supervisor kindly gave me the rational advice to avoid a country which was in the middle of political turmoil after the toppling of the Suharto regime. Instead, according to her, I had to choose a safer place. Therefore I came to my second choice, Patani. I had never expected that a place which I had chosen as the site for my fieldwork, mainly because of its relative safety, would finally turn itself into a battlefield in one of the deadliest conflicts in the Southeast Asia.
When the latest wave of violence in the regional conflict suddenly emerged in 2004, I got the impression that everyone was bewildered, because no one could clearly explain so many basic things about the conflict. Who were the perpetrators? Why had they done such horrible things? What was their motivation? Who was going to be targeted next? How safe it would be for us to live here? Do they have any connection with Al-Qaeda or other similar organizations? The list of questions was endless.
What made understanding more difficult was not the number of questions, which were already numerous enough, but rather the soaring number of answers given to these questions. Just take the question about the perpetrator(s). Some said they were regional separatists, while others said they were related to global terrorist organizations. Some people said this unrest was caused by the drug mafias who had been chased away from their own territory, and there were some people who said the smugglers of illegal goods in the border area were behind the terrorism. Local mafias (so called ‘influential people’) weren’t excluded from the list either.
With so many candidates to be perpetrators, the motivation for the terrorism was almost impossible to interpret. Accordingly, we had utterly no idea who was going to be the next target, while the killings and terrorism continued rampant. At the same time, at this initial stage of the conflict, the perpetrators did terrorize society by committing atrocities, including beheading, burning of bodies and so on. We were bombarded by news reports on such atrocities on an almost daily basis.
As long as you stay in a conflict zone, there is no moment when you feel completely safe with the situation. However, the fear I felt during the initial stage of the conflict and what I feel now differ both in intensity and quality. Apart from the almost daily terrorism, the way the authorities handled the situation also contributed to the creation of a really tense atmosphere. The draconian reaction culminated in two notorious tragedies in 2004, one in the Krue Se Mosque and other places on 28 April, in which more than 100 people were slaughtered by the security forces, and the other in Tak Bai where a demonstration was brutally suppressed on 25 October and demonstrators were loaded into military tracks like logs, causing suffocation and ultimately the deaths of 87 people.
In the middle of such chaotic circumstances, I was completely at a loss, not knowing what to do. At that time, I used a bike to go anywhere in Patani town. One of the worst feelings always came at night. While biking alone on a street near my neighbourhood at night, I was always bothered by a malicious idea that there might be terrorists hiding somewhere, and they might come out at any time to shoot me down. Motorbikes and cars coming from the opposite direction were always a source of an unreasonable fear that these vehicles might be carrying a gunman who was ready to shoot anybody. During that period, I was so nervous that I kept outside the town except when I had urgent businesses. I also unconsciously limited my range of mobility for the sake of safety.
Surrounded by terrorism and exposed to daily news reports of the violence, I always related what was going on in Patani to global Islamist-terrorist organizations. However, by the beginning of the conflict, the Bin Ladens that had been ubiquitous in this area had almost completely vanished. And in the end, Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, but the terrorism here didn’t halt. I began to be doubtful about my own first assumption.
Since the beginning of the conflict, there has never been any statement from the perpetrators of violent incidents to acknowledge responsibility. But after overcoming great confusion during the initial stage, researchers, academics, journalists, and needless to say the military, began to understand the situation more clearly.
It gradually became clear that those who were committing violence in this region shared hardly any ideological basis with the global terrorist organizations. Both were Muslims, and staged violence, and regarded their struggle as a jihad. But apart from these superficial similarities, there was not a single piece of evidence to show that the local insurgents in the region were aiming at establishing a pan-Islamic state like other global Islamist organizations.
For the insurgents, their struggle has been based on three components, each of which begins with the first three letters in the Arabic alphabet - alif, ba and ta. The reason why they use the Arabic alphabet is that the Malay people in the region still widely and actively use a writing system called ‘jawi’, based on the Arabic alphabet with five additional letters for sounds which don’t exist in Arabic.
Alif is for the Malay word ‘agama’, which means ‘the religion’, i.e. Islam in this context. Ba is for ‘bangsa’, a term which is extremely difficult to find a good English equivalent for. This term can mean a nation, a folk, a people, a race, an ethnic group and more. It refers to a group of people who share a common history, culture and identity. One of the strong cultural indicators of the Patani Malay Muslims is their language, a dialect of Malay which is sometimes mistakenly called ‘Yawi’ (the term ‘Yawi’ is originally from the name ‘jawi’ of the writing system as mentioned above). In other parts of the Malay-speaking world, whether in Malaysia, Singapore or even in Indonesia (bahasa Indonesia has developed from the colloquial Malay spoken in the country), even if you speak Malay, people do not understand that your religion is necessarily Islam. However, in Patani, as soon as they discover that you speak Malay, they will immediately ask, “Are you Muslim?” You hardly bump into this kind of question in the other Malay-speaking areas.
This strong connection between the language and Islam is crucially important to understanding the exact position of religion in their struggle. The group of people called ‘insurgents’ in Patani do not struggle for their religion per se. They are essentially nationalistic, and for them the concepts of ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ are inseparable. Fighting for just one doesn’t make sense in the context of the Patani freedom movement (this is how they describe themselves). Their religion and their ethnicity are like the two sides of a coin.
The last letter of ta stands for ‘tanah air’, motherland (or fatherland, or homeland), which also testifies the strong nationalistic character of the insurgents. They have never claimed any piece land which in their view legitimately belongs to Thailand. There has never been any claim on Phuket or Bangkok, for instance. On the contrary, they regard ‘Patani’ (whose geographical definition is still controversial, but according to the document of 5 preliminary demands from the BRN, it covers three southern border provinces and four districts in Songkhla Province) does not belong to the kingdom, but it is the land of Malay people which has been colonized by Siam (and later, by the Thai). Thus the BRN call the Thai state ‘penjajah Siam’, literally ‘Siamese colonialists’.
For those used to the discourse of Malay Studies, there is nothing new in regarding the Siamese/Thai as colonialists, like other colonialists who colonized the Malay world in the past, such as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and so on. Therefore, in their nationalistic context, the struggle against these colonialists to liberate their own country in order to achieve independence is perfectly justifiable. Some countries, like Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, achieved independence without military struggles. But the Indonesians had to fight against the Dutch in order to expel the colonial power even after the declaration of independence on 17 August 1945. For this reason, it is not strange that the statements issued by the non-government armed groups in Patani, especially by the BRN, clearly reflect the influence of the nationalistic struggle of the Indonesians, including the style of the language used by them.
By the time of the emergence of ISIS, we already knew that the armed groups in Patani are essentially nationalistic, and so are their supporters in the region. When the logos of ISIS, or pictures related to that organization began to be used as their profile picture in the social media, Facebook in particular, by some Patani young people, we no longer have to regard this phenomena as the direct influence of the ISIS, but as the articulation of this idea of organized violent attacks against the western superpowers. Bin Laden, and then ISIS, might be regarded as something ‘cool’ by the local people, not because of their ideological standpoints or atrocities, but simply because they are openly against the US and other western countries. As I had expected from the earliest moment, this ISIS fad didn’t last long, and waned in a few months.
Even so, this kind of fad shouldn’t be simply dismissed. It is important for two reasons. First, the view of Bin Laden and the ISIS as something ‘cool’. This clearly reflects the fact that at least some of the local people in Patani have rather positive views on these people. Their fight against the US and other western countries can attract some emotional support from the local people in Patani, despite the atrocities committed by them. This brings us to the second point. How can the local people in Patani support these people? Here, we shouldn’t forget the fact that the struggle of the so-called Patani freedom fighters is based not on pure nationalism, but that their version of nationalism has been justified by jihadism.
As mentioned above, their struggle is basically nationalist. However, according to the creed of non-state armed groups, the struggle is regarded as the religious obligation of all Malay people because it is a jihad. Thus jihadism is one of the most important keys in the recruitment of new fighters for the struggle. Some researchers suggest that, until quite recently, the majority in the armed groups, especially in the lower ranks, didn’t exactly know what organization they belonged to. In local terms, they were simply called as ‘juwae’ (the local form of a Malay word ‘juang’, which means ‘struggle’). Only after the signing of the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process on 28 February 2013, might these juwaes learn for the first time that their organization is called the BRN. In their effort to keep their secretiveness, this is perfectly understandable.
The smallest BRN military cell based on a village is called RKK, an abbreviation of the Malay words ‘Ronda Kumpulan Kecil’ (a small patrolling group), which has six fighters. These fighters basically only know their direct commanders, thus preventing them from implicating commanders of higher rank. According to research by the Thai military, the BRN command line consists of ranks which are almost in line with the administrative divisions of the country, from village, to sub-district (tambon), district, and finally province. Each rank basically knows their direct superiors and those who are under their direct command. Thus the lowest ranking soldiers and the commanders at higher levels are most unlikely to know each other. It must be stressed that the recruitment and training of the new fighters are done under these circumstances.
As we have already witnessed, those who hold high ranks in the organizations, Ustaz Hassan Taib, for instance, are highly political people. Mara Patani declared itself as the political wing of the Patani freedom fighters. However, this political tendency is not necessarily shared by the soldiers in the field. It doesn’t mean that the field soldiers don’t have their own political aims. But it must be more romantic than the one held by the political leaders.
In the process of recruitment, they are told that this is a struggle of the Malay people for their religion and land. Therefore the only aim of the struggle is the independence of Patani, and if they lose their lives in the course of the struggle, they will be glorified as martyrs. This is understandable because it is highly unlikely that we can encourage young people to join an armed struggle which is full of risks just in order to achieve autonomy. Compared to the political leaders, most of whom stay comfortably away from the battlefield in foreign countries, the rank-and-file soldiers are far more loaded with the idea of jihadism in their struggle. They risk their lives, families and safety for the sole purpose of independence which has been so romanticised and glorified. One of the family members of an RKK field soldier who was shot dead in a military clash on 13 February 2013 said that according to his nephew, “even if we achieve independence for one second before the Day of Judgement, for us it’s success.”
This ideological discrepancy partly explains why every time Party B, “those who have a different view from the state”, is trying to have a dialogue with Party A, the Thai government, they have to face the question of whether they are able to control the rank-and-file soldiers in the field. Basically their struggles have the same ultimate purpose: independence. However, there’s a clear difference about how to achieve that. Dialogue and negotiation thus might be seen as too compromising by the field soldiers. The Siamese colonialists, according to their view, must be expelled at any cost to achieve independence.
Given this situation, superficially it seems almost impossible to have an effective dialogue or negotiation to achieve peace in Patani. However, we shouldn’t miss the point that even the rank-and-file soldiers are longing for independence, which means, they are nationalistic too. For this reason, once they can be successfully persuaded (though this is not at all an easy process), an effective dialogue and negotiation is still possible, and this must be done while they still can accept such solutions. The very fact that there has been hardly any violent sabotage against the peace process is in itself a positive sign.
On the other hand, if the military takes an iron-fisted approach to suppress the insurgents, the consequence might be catastrophic. From the experience of the last 12 years, it might be safely concluded that there will be no definite winner in this conflict. With almost inexhaustible resources, the Thai army is highly unlikely to lose the war, but the fact remains that they have to fight against the insurgents who are from the local people. By the same token, strategically speaking, there’s hardly any way for the insurgents to achieve their goals via military action alone. Exactly because of this, the conflict has been almost endlessly prolonged.
I still firmly believe that peace negotiations are the only way out for Patani from the ever-lasting conflict which has already claimed more than 6000 lives. Here, the pictures of Bin Laden and the ISIS logo cast a strong warning. When the insurgents, and those local people who strongly support them, become desperate about their future, and no longer satisfied with the current strategy of their struggle, there is the possibility that they will resort to more a radical ideology, and the global Islamist terrorist organizations are there to provide such ideologies.
When the pictures of Bin Laden or the ISIS logos were favoured by the local people, they were simply icons. But if the local people display the icon of a global Islamist terrorist organization again, it might no longer be a fad, but they might regard them as their real leaders.
Therefore, my advice to the authorities is, ‘negotiate with Party B while they can still be negotiated with, before they turn to more radical ideologies’.
In this article, Pattani with two 't's is used to the name of a province in Southern Thailand, including the name of the city, whereas Patani with one 't' is used to describe the entire conflict area of Pattani Province, Yala Province, Narathiwat Province and four district of Songkla Province.
About the author: Hara Shintaro is a Japanese academic who has been living in the South of Thailand since 1999. He is a former Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Maritime States Studies, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus.