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Conflict and Islamic radicalism in Patani

Since ISIS has made headlines in international media, many analysts have linked the insurgency of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces to the transnational jihadist groups. Hara Shintaro, an expert on the Deep South conflict, argued that the struggle was more distinguishably nationalistic since it was led by the local elites and was strongly influenced by the atmosphere of post-World War II decolonisation
 
 
Since the eruption of the latest wave of violence in 2004, the southernmost provinces of Thailand are often related with the transnational jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Jamiah Islamiyyah (JI) and ISIS by some security analysts and academics. The latest report on jihadism in Southern Thailand from the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, deals with the threat of radicalisation in the region, and defines the meaning of the term “radicalism” as “the turn to participation in jihadism by individuals or groups” [1] – a definition this article also follows. According to the report, under the current circumstances it is highly unlikely that Islamic radicalism will take root in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, known collectively as Patani (while the name of one of the provinces in the region is spelt with two ‘t’s as ‘Pattani’).  
 
With religious freedom for Muslims guaranteed by the state, the Islamic sects of the region each have their own reasons for avoiding extremism. These gropus include eclectic traditionalists, Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’i school (known as kaum tua or old school), Salafists (kaum muda or new school, derogatively called by the old school) and the puritan-oriented missionary members of the Jemaah Tablisgh movement, among others. There is also a small number of Shia (Shiites) in the region, but they are the group most likely to be opposed to transnational jihadism because it is ideologically against Shia Islam; groups such as ISIS, are actively waging war against Shia countries.  
 
In this local context, the insurgents, the parties most commonly blamed as the perpetrators of violence, have ideologies which are fundamentally different from the transnational jihadism hpheld by ISIS or, Al-Qaeda and its local affiliate, Jamialh Islamiyyah (JI). Like other minority Muslim groups in South East Asia fighting for self-determination, such as GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Aceh Freedom Movement) in Indoneisa and MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the Philippines, the armed groups in Patani, including BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the National Revolutionary Front), the biggest and the most influential organisation, are all nationalistic in essence. These regional Muslim majority groups resort to the rhetoric of jihad in order to justify their struggle in a religious sense; it is for this reason that some people regard these movements as potentially susceptible to the influence of transnational jihadism. Certainly, these organisations and transnational jihadist groups have some commonality: they are Muslims waging a jihad by using violence. However, this is where the similarity ends.  
 
  Here the interpretation of the term “jihad” is significant. Jihad is not necessarily a war. The precise meaning of the term in the context of Islam is any kind of serious effort made by Muslims on the path of Allah. But over time the term itself has been ‘jihadised’, especially in western media, to the extent that it has come to be synonymous with extremist terrorism. For Muslims, on the other hand, jihad is an obligation, and for some, a most appealing and romantic one. This specific aspect of jihad has been utilized by the Muslim insurgents in Southeast Asia in order to justify their struggle in a religious sense and also to attract the members of Muslim minorities. In this context, a jihad is a holy war. Those who die in the course of the struggle are martyrs or shahid (or shuhada in its plural form), upon whom God has granted the reward of entering heaven. Here, utilization of the jihad concept is a necessity for non-state armed groups which are far less resourced than the state. 
 
In Patani, the struggle was more distinguishably nationalistic when it was led by the local elites (the descendants of regional rajas of Patani) who were strongly influenced by the atmosphere of post-World War II decolonisation. The insurgents in Patani become “jihadistic” only after the leaders of the first generation were replaced by the following generations. Here, the ideology for the struggle needed transformation. Once a nationalistic struggle for self-determination is jihadized, it is not only religiously justified but also appealingly romantic: an important factor in the recruitment of soldiers and the sustenance of their fighting spirit. For this very reason, when political resolutions to the conflict are available and the conditions are conducive, they are ready to be engaged in negotiations. Ultimately, their nationalistic goals can only be achieved by political means, not via a jihadistic war. Even BRN regards the armed struggle as the means to achieve or back up its political struggle, not as its aim [2].   
 
It is still highly implausible that any members of nationalist groups from Patani might be influenced by transnational jiahdism, a body of ideology incompatible with their nationalistic struggles in current conditions. The jihad in Patani, their fight for self-determination, hasn’t yet finished. The influence of the insurgent groups, especially BRN, currently appears strong enough so as to prevent members and sympathisers  being attracted by transnational jihadism. Additionally, most Malay Muslims in Patani regard ISIS as the product of an international conspiracy. A number of people even believe that ISIS was created by the United States. In short, there is nothing conducive for transnational jihadism gaining influence among the Malay Muslims of Patani.  
However, there are some potential risk factors for the future. Firstly, what will happen if the struggle regarded as a jihad in Patani is over? An Achenese activist, a former member of the negotiation team for the peace agreement which ended the conflict in that region – the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), related that before the MoU the control of GAM over its movement was so strong that there was no space for transnational jihadists such as JI, the local affiliate of Al-Qaeda, to exert their influence. The ex-GAM member explained that “at the time of all the doors of Ache for the outside influence was closed” [3]. However, after the signing of the peace accord and its implementation, most of GAM leaders were integrated into the local political system, competing with each other for regional government posts and leaving few figures influential enough to successfully control the organisation at the ground level. Such disintegration and infighting added to local peoples dissatisfaction with the post-conflict social order, potentially opening up spaces for radicalism and extremism to encroach upon local society [4]. In 2013, 5 youths from Patani visited Aceh following a program organized by an international NGO. One of the participants recounted that they were approached by an old Achenese man, who, after hearing where they were from, shed tears and lamented that the jihad in his home was already over. “You are lucky that you still have your jihad in your place. You still can be a shahid. If I was younger, I’d join a jihad somewhere in the world. I’m too old now.” [5] One of the extremely few positives about the conflict in Patani is that it functions as a bulwark against the radicalisation of Malay Muslims in Patani. But as soon as the conflict is over, this feature will no longer be present. Although peace is still very far away for Patani, all parties which are concerned about post-conflict social rehabilitation should take this matter, the prevention of extremism after the fighting ceases, into serious consideration. 
 
Secondly, the over-simplified perception that every jihad is good is another risk factor. As the ICG report explains, for some insurgent members, ISIS is attractive simply because they are Islamic. The reason they don’t join such groups is that their local jihad isn’t yet over. Once again, the issue is what happens when it is over. Expressions of sympathy from Malay Muslims in Patani for extremist groups are visible only when they are poorly explained about such groups – a fad that soon vanishes when they are made more aware of what these extremists stand for [6]. The question is, to what extent is this situation sustainable, especially when peace is achieved? Although ideologically all the Patani liberation groups are anti-radicalism and anti-extremist, to what degree is this standpoint shared by rank-and-file soldiers? The example cited in Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, a notable 2015 study of the BRN, demonstrates that not all BRN members joined the organisation for merely ideological purposes [7]. A BRN member explained that after the eruption of the violence in 2004, the organisation shortened its period of training, which he described as something similar to ‘the non-formal education (kor sor nor, or การศึกษานอกระบบ)’ of Thailand [8]. Although a shortened course, according to the member, has advantages in intensity of the training, he also acknowledged that the digestion of the party’s ideology was not as thorough as before. 
 
The ICG report cited separatist prisoners who described feeling ‘comradeship’ with ISIS. This is an important and dangerous development. Compared to the outside world, access to information in prison is naturally limited. It is probable these inmates were not exposed to media reports on the cruelty of ISIS. Nevertheless, this kind of quick positive judgement for anything Islamic is problematic. 
 
This tendency is worsened by the vacuum of discourse concerning Islamic extremism in the conflict area. Although public space for fruitful discussion has been remarkably narrowed by the junta since the May 2014 coup d'état, certain level of open discussions on the issues surrounding the conflict is still possible. Publick forums on the on-going peace process are regularly organized. On top of this, religious forums have always been active in Patani, during times of both conflict and peace. However, these mainly focus on religious issues, such as the importance of religious duties and celebrations, or how to conduct religious duties including prayer and fasting, and so on. Current issues are rarely picked up in these discussions. This attitude of only talking about religious matters might be interpreted as the safety strategy for local religious leaders, securing their own position and gaining respect from local people while avoiding any inconveniently sensitive issues which might make them look suspicious undesirable to the authority.  
 
In the conflict area, three special laws (Martial Law [9], the Emergency Decree [10] and the Internal Security Act) have been enforced, Martial law, which was legislated in 1914 to defend the absolute monarch of the time and is still used to this day, allows security forces to detain anybody deemed ‘suspicious’ without warrant for seven days at any location. This is the legal basis for the detention for Southerners in military facilities. The Emergency Decree, which was proclaimed by the Thaksin administration, is slightly less draconian, allowing detention for 30 days with a warrant issued by the court, provided the detainee is held in certain places (including the Ingkhayutthaboriharn Military Base in Pattani Province). In almost all cases, local Malay Muslims are detained according to Martial Law (without warrant) and in many cases, the detentions are extended by the Emergency Decree for up to 30 days, the warrants for which are prepared in the first 7 days of detention following Martial Law.  
 
Here, the problem is the concept of ‘suspicious’. This is a subjective matter. No clear explanation is given in either Martial Law or the Emergency Decree. Therefore, for their own security, the safest thing for religious leaders in the region is to avoid anything which could be viewed as ‘suspicious’ by self censorship. Talking about the Islamic extremism is one of the things to be avoided. 
 
The combination of narrowing public space and careful avoidance of sensitive topics by local religious leaders has already created a vacuum of discourse which is exacerbating the perpetual lack of understanding on Islamic extremism and transnational jihadism in the region. Therefore, whe transnational jihadism gains momentum or exposure in the media, the local population can initially react in a positive way, regarding these groups as comradely Islamic fighters. Yet this vacuum of discourse cannot be utilized by transnational jihadists to mobilize local support, because the jihad of Patani, according to the insurgents, is not yet over. However, it is likely that a new question will arise as soon as the conflict is over: how to deal with the influence of Islamic extremism.  
 
The Thai authorities, especially the junta, have never been good at problem solving based on long-term visions. The latest example is the death of Pakapong Tanyakan, a student in military school, who was allegedly tortured. Instead of inquiring into the circumstances of his death and mitigating the public outrage that followed, the junta leaders, including the deputy Prime Minister and several ex-commanders in chief, dismissively stated that they had all gone through a similar experience. This is characteristic of the Thai authorities; whenever facing a serious problem they try to downplay the significance of the issue. Often the most visible punishment acceptable to the authorities is the transfer of officers allegedly involved in misbehaviour [11]. After this, it is highly likely no further action will be taken. So far, this attitude has worked to at least some extent, when the issue is purely domestic. But the influence of transnational jihadism, which, unfortunately, will not end with the collapse of ISIS, is not aproblem which can be merely dealt with organisational downplaying of the issue. 
 
The fact that Patani is still free from the influence of transnational jihadism is the result of co-incidence and local circumstances rather than active measures taken by the state. One of the positive aspects of the peace process, which is always being criticized for its lack of traction, is that we are beginning to understand who the insurgents are. Previously, they were too reclusive to understand. However, since the commencement of the peace process, fragments of information about their groups have come from the insurgents themselves, and they are far more open to outsiders. Some of them are ready to be interviewed. From these accumulated pieces of information, it is now clear that they are genuinely nationalistic and, totally different from transnational jihadists. Here, the government and the insurgents have at least one common aspect in which they should be able to cooperate. Both side don’t want to see the expansion of transnational jihadist influence in Patani. This problem is better dealt with sooner rather than later through constructive collaboration. the expansion of public space for discussion, in which everyone in the region can express their own opinion, is not only crucial for the peace process, but also for the prevention of Islamic extremism. As long as the government remains too cautions to allow such open conversation, it might lead to radicalisation. Once radicalisation sets in, there might be no way back.  
 
[1] p. 3, International Crisis Group (ICG), 2017, “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: Phantom Menace”
[2] Interview by the author, a senior BRN member, February 2017, Malaysia.
 [3] Interview by the author, a female ex-member of GAM, August, 2017, Aceh 
[4] Kamarruzzaman Bustaman-Ahmad (2016) explains the social changes which have happened in Aceh after the MoU between the Indonesian Government and GAM. See Memahami Potensi radikalisme & Terorisme Di Aceh. Banda Aceh: Bandar Publishing  
[5] Interview by the author, a Malay Muslim activist, December 2013, Pattani. 
[6] Hara Shintaro, “Bin Ladin was everywhere” 
[7] Helbardt, Sascha. 2015. Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence: Organisation and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing   
[8] Interview by the author, a BRN member, Kuala Lumpur, December 2016, Malaysia.  
[9] The English translation of Martial Law is available here.
[[10] The English translation of the Emergency Decree is available here.
[11] The news report on the transfer of some military officers after the death of the cadet here