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Backgrounder: The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Carin Zissis, Staff Writer
February 1, 2007


Over the past three years, an insurgency in the southern, predominantly Muslim provinces of Thailand has claimed nearly two thousand lives. The rise in violence has been largely blamed on the government of Thaksin Shinawatra: His aggressive response to the insurgency was criticized by the country's military leaders who staged a coup in September 2006. Yet Thailand faced separatist movements long before Thaksin's premiership. Now, the military junta in power seems incapable of either identifying those responsible for the attacks or mounting initiatives which might slow the bloodshed.

Why is there an insurgency in southern Thailand?

Thailand annexed the independent sultanate of Pattani in 1902, making the area the southernmost tip of the country. A policy of forced assimilation enraged the ethnically Malay Muslims, who represent the majority in the region. Many of the region's Muslims adopted Thai names and the national language. But local traditions were secretly cultivated, and between the 1940s and the 1980s, separatists staged a series of opposition uprisings. In the 1980s, the Thai government reversed its assimilation policy under the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem supported cultural rights and economic development in the historically marginalized region, and also worked with the Malaysian government to enhance security in the southern border area.

By the late 1990s, the separatist movement fell quiet. But when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001, a new series of separatist attacks began. His government responded aggressively, causing renewed bloodshed. Many blame his reaction for exacerbating tensions. Joseph Liow Chin Yong, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the current violence stems from Thaksin's "policy missteps, one after another."


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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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