The Patani conflict in southern Thailand has been seen as an internal issue for both sides of the conflict. The Thai authorities have always insisted that it is a domestic matter and even still refuses to recognize it as a conflict but rather criminal activity or banditry. On the separatist side, the militant organizations' leadership and fighters have always come from inside Patani despite the fact that in the past, some financial support and military training came from outside such as from the Libyan and Syrian governments. However, this foreign support ended decades ago.
The absence of foreign participation is quite remarkable when one sees the spread of international Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and the more recent Islamic State (ISIS) allied groups also across much of North Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the current lack of international allies and financial support, none of the Patani Malay separatist groups have publicly pledged allegiance to organizations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Such a strategy would surely open the door to money and other resources such as foreign recruits with military experience from Al Qaeda and ISIS and their donors.
Though many security analysts have tried to link the Patani Malay separatists to international fundamentalist groups, researchers who follow the conflict closely reject this theory and no convincing evidence has ever been presented. Religion is not the cause of the conflict and the few senior figures from the separatist groups who speak out publicly argue that it is not a religious conflict but ethno-nationalistic in response to a more than century old occupation and suppression of Patani Malay identity by Siam, now Thailand. Though the aim of the separatist groups is to create an independent Islamic state within the former borders of the Sultanate of Patani, covering the southern provinces of Thailand - Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat and four districts in Songkhla province - their common goal is to create a state for the Patani Malays rather than become a part of a Salafi or Wahabi ideologically driven Islamic State under the rule of a foreign Caliph such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is unlikely that a Patani Malay state would be compatible with ISIS or Al-Qaeda's goals either whose ideologies reject nationalism.
It is true that there are some similarities in the strategies used by some Patani Malay separatists and groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda including the deliberate targeting of civilians through assassinations, sometimes extremely violent such as beheadings and the setting fire to victims. However, terror tactics against civilians are not exclusive to Islamic fundamental groups. They have been used against activists and political dissidents by paramilitary groups and death squads in military dictatorships in Central and South America for instance as well as by other militant separatist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Basque nationalist group, ETA.
Other common tactics by Al-Qaeda and ISIS such as suicide bombings and the enslavement and raping of women and girls deemed as kafir or non-muslim are not used by the Patani malay separatists. This is because unlike the former group's' ideology, such actions are rejected by the Patani Malay insurgents as they are not deemed acceptable with their interpretation of Islam. The extreme forms of violence against civilians in Patani are believed to be revenge driven for extrajudical killings of Patani Malay suspects and civilians including imams, women and children by Thai state officials or paramilitary groups as well as other abuses by state officials such as the torture of Malay suspects and disproportionate use of state force such as the massacres committed at Krue Se and Tak Bak in 2004.
Another common tactic used by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, namely attacks against locations frequented by tourists had never been used by Patani Malay separatists. That was until 2012 in Hat Yai at least when car bombs were placed in busy shopping areas frequented by foreign tourists mainly from Malaysia and Singapore when 14 people were killed and 340 were injured. This was an unprecedented attack by the separatists since attacks had previously remained within the disputed Patani region.
How much longer until Thailand starts to see attacks committed in busy civilian areas outside the conflict region? Perhaps as far as Bangkok? When a bomb went off inside the Erawin Shrine in Bangkok last year, killing 20 and injuring 125 mostly tourists, at first Patani Malay separatists were suspected by some for committing the attack.
There are perhaps hardliners on both sides of the conflict who might see an advantage to Al-Qaeda or ISIS entering the conflict but this would have disastrous effects on both Patani Malays and Thailand as a whole.
There may be those in the military who may well believe that the presence of ISIS in the Patani conflict would increase the military and government’s foreign support, particularly from the US and Europe. The Thai authorities might think that not only would it gain global support from western allies in defeating the separatists but western governments would probably be willing to look the other way when human rights abuses in the region such as extrajudical killings and torture are committed by state officials. For instance, supporters of the Free Syrian Army have argued that the Syrian government and its foreign allies are purposely focusing on defeating the Free Syrian Army rather than ISIS as they argue that President Assad knows that if the choice is between him and ISIS or other fundamentalist groups, the West will choose him.
Likewise, elements in the separatist movement desperate to increase its military capacity against the Thai military may believe that encouraging foreign groups to enter the conflict and fight alongside them would increase their chances of creating an independent state. However, this is a flawed and dangerous strategy because foreign groups have their own objectives which are unlikely to be compatible with the separatists’ goal of creating an independent state based on Patani Malay nationalism. The foreign groups would most likely attempt to overthrow the leadership of the separatists in pursuit of their own self interests.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (NMLA) is a Tuareg separatist group which aims to create an independent state for the Tuareg people in Northern Mali. In 2012, the NMLA began a new insurgency against the Malian government forces in Northern Mali. As the fighting intensified, NMLA created an alliance with the Al-Qaeda affiliated group Ansar Dine which started claiming control of large territories in Northern Mali. Within 3 months, the insurgency had taken over the three largest cities in Northern Mali and the NMLA declared Azawad’s independence from Mali. However, tensions between the NMLA and Ansar Dine formed concerning the fate of the new state because of conflicting visions and 3 months later the islamists had driven the Tuareg separatists out.
The latest wave of the Patani conflict since 2004 has seen daily attacks and the majority of the almost 7000 people killed were civilians. It has created huge suffering for all residents of the region but the suffering cannot be compared to a situation whereby the conflict escalates and becomes a proxy war with foreign islamist groups entering the war motivated by their own objectives and with military intervention from foreign countries under the banner of the War of Terror on the side of the Thai government.
The Patani conflict is one of the deadliest in Southeast Asia but it cannot be compared to the scale of death and suffering in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria which are full blown proxy wars where fundamentalist groups thrive in the chaos and misery.
To assume that ethno nationalist fighters would never switch to fighting alongside or even joining fundamentalist groups is a mistake. Former military officers from Iraq’s Ba’athist army under Saddam Hussein which was an Arab nationalist, socialist party now make up the core of the ISIS military wing. Many Syrians who initially took up arms against the Syrian government and wanted democratic elections later joined groups like the Al-Qaeda affiliated group Al-Nusra and ISIS through necessity or because they believed these groups could defeat Assad.
The Thai political leadership’s great fear has always been the internationalization of the Patani conflict whereby outside states become involved finding genuine ways for resolving the conflict because the authorities know that the world would quickly understand that Thailand would need to make political concessions in order to sustain peace in the region. If peace in Patani seems unreachable now imagine how difficult it is going to be with the presence of foreign groups with entirely different objectives to the separatists who are not interested in finding a peace settlement with the Thai government?