Southern Thailand’s Malay Muslim Freedom Fighters

By Tim Rackett | Associate Professor - HELP University - Kuala Lumpur | May 04, 2017
Southern Thailand’s Malay Muslim Freedom Fighters
Paramilitary ranger - Yala, Thailand - March 7, 2013

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


Who are the mysterious and enigmatic insurgents in southern Thailand? What do they want? Who do they actually speak for? And what does a separatist struggle and violence mean for ordinary Muslims? Until recently, the very existence of a main insurgent group coordinating and executing attacks in southern Thailand was in doubt.[1] Often spectacular acts of anonymous violence seemed, to some, to have been carried out by illusive spectral agents.[2]

The Thai government, a military dictatorship led by Prayuth since the 2014 coup instigated by right-wing royalists, denies that there is a civil war happening in Thailand’s Muslim-majority “deep south.” It also denies that ethnic Malays are subject to racist exclusion from Thainess and are categorized as “kaek” (i.e., dark-skinned ‘others’ who constitute a non-Buddhist minority).

Sascha Helbardt’s work Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence (2015) explores the main Malay Muslim group that has been spearheading the insurgency, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C). Helbardt’s ethnographic fieldwork shows the BRN-C to be rational actors and discloses the necessarily highly secretive spectral nature of their operations and communication. Drawing on Helbardt’s study, this essay seeks to shed light on the BRN-C’s central role in waging the insurgency in southern Thailand — a role that until now has been poorly understood and greatly underestimated.

The Enigmatic Insurgency – Out of the Shadows

The enigmatic nature of the violence in southern Thailand stems from three facts. The first is that there is neither a clear pattern to the attacks nor typically have there been claims of responsibility for them. The second is that terror is used not just against Thais but also against Muslims, many of whom are poor farmers.[3] The third is that few high-ranking Thai officers have been killed. Thus, the insurgency seems mystifying and the violence irrational. But is it?

It was not until April 2013 that the BRN-C issued its first public statement. Yet, Helbardt shows that the BRN-C were, most likely, the major authors of violence prior to, and after, the 2004 Thai military’s massacre of Malay Muslims at Tak Bai and Kru Ze. He thus calls into question the assertion by some[4] that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin’s “illiberal” policies were the cause of  a spike in militant violence. The BRN-C were spearheading the insurgency in the south long before they disclosed their existence publicly.

The peace talks between the Thai National Security Council and the BRN-C that commenced in March 2013 and initially appeared to be a breakthrough in efforts to bring an end to the conflict, foundered within the span of a few months.[5] Nevertheless, the decision to initiate an official dialogue with the BRN-C was a watershed in that it conferred a certain degree of legitimacy on the BRN-C, in effect acknowledging the group as a key stakeholder and representative of the insurgents and of Malay Muslim aspirations.[6] Accordingly, the BRN-C emerged from the shadows to position itself in Thai national and international public sphere. It claims to have won over 40 percent of the local population to its cause.[7]

In its YouTube appearance, the BRN-C proclaimed itself as being a “liberation not a terrorist group.”[8] Meanwhile, however, the BRN-C has continued to mount attacks both within and beyond the “deep south.”[9] So, is the BRN-C, notwithstanding its own self-identification as a “liberation group” a terrorist outfit after all? Helbardt penetrates the secretive nature of the BRN-C to “identify collective actions on the Malay insurgent side.”[10] He brings to light the calculated use of violence and terror, which is often directed not against the “oppressor” but against other Malay Muslims, as “very few Malays actually want independence from Thailand.”[11] Helbardt argues that the BRN-C are more akin to Maoist guerrillas[12] than they are to terrorists, in that they are trying to incite the Malay Muslim population to rebel against the Siamese colonizer. He contends that the insurgency and its messages are symbolic and meaningful if understood situationally in their operational context.[13]

 The perpetration of violence has acquired a certain “sanctified” status — as a means to promote a national, moral order within which Malay Muslim dignity and righteousness are securedThe context in which the insurgency in southern Thailand developed, with the BRN-C as its vanguard, is one marked by the failure of the state at the regional level, the lack of control at the village level, and a regime of fragmented sovereignty.

The context in which the insurgency in southern Thailand developed, with the BRN-C as its vanguard, is one marked by the failure of the state at the regional level, the lack of control at the village level, and a regime of fragmented sovereignty.[14] But the focus of Helbardt’s study — and of this essay — is less on the structural roots causes of the conflict in southern Thailand and more on its “processes and organizational dynamics.”[15] The strength of Helbardt’s work is that it demonstrates the performance of religion in a conflict situation[16] by showing Malay Muslim insurgents’ “othering” and “demonization” of Thais as oppressive unbelievers. Helbardt’s unique access to the BRN-C[17] shows that Malay Muslim insurgents do not fit a reified terrorist profile and are engaged in a political war against the Thai population and Bangkok “colonial” rule. In so doing, Helbardt reveals that the BRN-C is the latest form of a series of historical struggles and is a highly organized irregular guerrilla war with fundamentalist Islamic local jihadist characteristics. Islamic moral absolutism and certitude incite hatred and murderous violence against Thais constructed as “kafir” (enemy-others), mirroring the Thai positioning of Malay Muslims by Buddhist nationalists, in constant negation of a tradition of amicable inter-faith and inter-ethnic community relations.

What does BRN-C want? How is it organized? And how does it operate?

The BRN-C seeks to establish an independent Islamic state using Islamo-nationalism as a legitimizing ideology to re-establish an imagined former Patani sultanate and implement sharia law in the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and the Malay Muslim-dominated states of Songkhla, Thepa, Channa, Sobai Yoi and Narithawat. Its objective is to wage jihad in order to drive out the “Siamese colonizer” and create a “Patani nation as a sacred religious community.” Hence, territorial control is a key aim of the BRN-C, pace “al Qaeda.”[18] Crucially, BRN-C insurgents are neither predominantly nationalist nor global jihadists, but are motivated by a hybrid mix of  “charismatic power of jihadist ideas” and the “cause of divine sacred struggle”[19] used to mobilize local rebellion.[20]

Helbardt shows that Thai military and security officers, along with “Jane’s World Insurgents and Terrorists” and Human Rights Watch were correct in seeing BRN-C as the key author of the insurgency and that Thai security forces are not “fighting with ghosts”[21] (i.e., a not just a product of the functional necessity for the Thai state to identify and justify security operations). Helbardt refutes McCargo’s claim that “the militants on the ground are very real, but their organization is much less so.”[22]

 The perpetration of violence has acquired a certain “sanctified” status — as a means to promote a national, moral order within which Malay Muslim dignity and righteousness are secured

Hybridity is key to understanding the social organization of BRN-C insurgents and their modus operandi. 

Hybridity is key to understanding the social organization of BRN-C insurgents and their modus operandi. BRN-C is urban and village-based; hierarchical central command-driven and loosely connected generating spontaneous and autonomous acts; local nationalist and jihadist.[23] The new BRN-C hybrid form is not jungle-based as in the 1980s and 1990s, but is a part-time “guerrilla-cum-terrorist force” that hides in villages to take advantage of the state’s limited control at the local level.[24] BRN-C uses terrorist violence and is a territorially-based guerrilla force systematically attempting to infiltrate villages and local institutions.[25] It operates with a mixed extemporized strategy, adaptive and innovative to contest Thai socio-political control. Helbardt corrects McCargo’s view that the old BRN has changed into a flexible and reflexive guerrilla group “bereft of a substantive ideological, societal, jihadist, or organizational core.”[26] BRN-C is all of the above.

Helbardt corrects McCargo, who fails to identify the organizational form of BRN-C and its leading role in orchestrating insurgent violence when he writes that “the militant movement cannot readily be equated with ‘BRN-C’ but is best seen as a ‘liminal lattice’, a loose network rather than a structured hierarchy.”[27] According to Helbardt, the BRN-C, like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), is “a cellular-based hierarchically organized authoritarian structure.”[28] BRN-C is a hybrid: “highly organized hierarchical at its core, command and control and a flat network … BRN-C does not have a ‘post-modern’ terrorist form as claimed by Liow and Pathan.[29]

BRN-C is a reflexive learning organization composed of “part-time guerrilla-cum-terrorist fighters”[30] most of whom are young unmarried males aged 16-50  (an average age of 26.6), who live in rural areas and are not members of the disaffected urban middle class.[31] BRN-C squads operate under the control of a leader.[32] The BRN-C is divided into military and political wings which plan, reciprocally update intelligence and feasibility of operations, and strategically calculate[33] what will incite animosity against the Thais. For instance, insurgents dress as Thai soldiers and attack Malay civilian targets.[34] As long as fighters and acts stay within the aims identified by the BRN-C units, they have flexible autonomy and remain coordinated.[35] There exists a code of conduct but fighters can innovate and extemporize to fight Buddhist militia and defense forces.[36]

By targeting civilians and Buddhists, BRN-C uses fear and indiscriminate violence to render areas ungovernable; demoralize security forces and enforce loyalty to insurgents in Malay villages by infiltrating them and killing village heads and sub-district chiefs.[37] Waging a war of “moral attrition,” it aims to escalate Thai state violence against villagers to gain international support and sovereignty while winning the hearts and minds of Patani Malays and legitimating itself as a political actor.[38] Pace doubts raised by Askew[39] and the official Thai government position, ‘BRN-C’ are separatist insurgents waging an irregular war, which is ideologically motivated by Islam and politics.

Another key to understanding the insurgency is how Malay Muslim violence is perceived by other local Muslims. If not everyone agrees with BRN-C attacks and choice of targets, how do insurgents manage to win support for their anonymous extreme violence? Importantly, Helbardt shows that insurgent violence is socially organized and communicative: the form and limits of what is acceptable violence are judged and decided by BRN-C in a context where, although the majority of Malay Muslims do not join the insurgency or actively support it may nonetheless be sympathetic. Thus, Helbardt hypothesizes that “BRN-C does not commit acts for God alone or itself, self referentially” but “constantly monitors Malay Muslim’s public reception of violence”[40] and reflexively responds. For example, through rumor networks,[41] BRN-C stages and narrates the meaning of violent acts in an effort to mobilize its fighters and supporters for consistent collective action and thereby neutralize opposition and manage dissent.

BRN-C’s power lies in its being embedded in villages, which serve as multiple-purpose operational bases ...  

BRN-C’s power lies in its being embedded in villages, which serve as multiple-purpose operational bases: havens for fighters; sources of popular support, recruitment, and revenue; locales in which to gather information, conduct surveillance, and stash weapons. The political wing prepares its activities in partisan villages, where its ghost-like fighters can seemingly appear out of nowhere, act quickly, and then disappear without a trace.[42] To the Thai police and army — who do not speak Malay, have no permanent presence in villages, and thus no capacity for surveillance — combatants are indistinguishable from non-combatants.[43] In fact, BRN-C’s success can largely be attributed to the Thai state’s failure to extend the rule of law to, and provide welfare for the locals.[44]

The Strategic Use of Violence and the Instrumentalization of Islam

Like the right-wing monk Kittiwuddho’s instrumental use of Buddhism in the 1970s to justify killing communists as sub-humans,[45] Muslim insurgents justify the killing of their enemies in religious terms, as “every breath you take under the rule of the infidels is a sin.”[46] The insurgency, to those actively participating as well as those supporting it, the insurgency provides “a framework that helps to make sense of all social ills and offers the promise of a better life through establishing an Islamic state of Patani to fulfil God’s will on earth.’[47] A “counter-truth” to Thai rule and sovereign myth is imposed through spectacular insurgent images and acts of political violence and terror.

What is the message of the violence and what does it mean? Helbardt’s answer is that it signifies as a violent form of communication. Its messages are ‘encoded’ and ‘decoded’ by its receivers, but are enigmatic to others. Hence, the need to ‘decipher’ violence in Southern Thailand. It is important to address the question of the reception of insurgent violence by the local population and whether they accept it or not? Helbardt’s hypothesis is that ‘BRN-C’ “employs demonstrative violence as a strategic tool… [the] group attempts to actively manipulate the Malay populations reception of the state and rebel violence.”[48]

Southern Thailand’s violence is not just local and general lawlessness.[49] It was misunderstood as such largely because for a long time no one had claimed responsibility for it. However, both before and since BRN-C broke its silence, the violence it has committed has conveyed its own message — the message that no one is safe.[50] The violence is rational and demonstrative: “regularly killing Thai Buddhists to drive them out and attack their symbolic order”[51] in spectacular ways. BRN-C insurgents capitalize on their secretive spectral presence, through a powerful strategy of influencing people’s perceptions of reality about the truth of events. BRN-C skillfully employs local rumor networks, out of the control of the Thai security forces, to exercise power over the Malay population and secure their preferred response to violent messages.

The perpetration of violence has acquired a certain “sanctified” status — as a means to promote a national, moral order within which Malay Muslim dignity and righteousness are secured.

Thais are blamed as symbols and agents of Thai state repression and for the non-recognition of Malay Muslims even though Buddhists and Muslims coexist inter-ethnically.[52] Rumors of atrocities by Thais are used by insurgents to justify killings, as a counter-move to the Thai perception that violence is caused by Muslims. What is evoked through rumor is received as real and fuels resistance to Thai domination.[53] The rise of middle class Malays and global Islam has led to greater recognition by Malays of the existence of modern alternatives to an imaginary revered royal Buddhist rule in the South.[54] The perpetration of violence has acquired a certain “sanctified” status — as a means to promote a national, moral order within which Malay Muslim dignity and righteousness are secured.[55]

Islam, like Buddhism, has been politicized to justify killing Malays, as traitors and collaborators, as well as Thais-as Buddhist oppressors. Does Islamic religion drive insurgent violence? McCargo claims that “the southern Thailand conflict is not centrally about Islam” and that “Islam has something to do with it, but the conflict is not about Islam.”[56] This is incorrect as Helbardt’s updated analysis clearly shows how Islam has not just been pragmatically appropriated as rhetoric and a separatist ideology in a political struggle against Bangkok rule, as asserted by McCargo, but rather is central to fueling and supporting a local jihad.

The BRN-C fight as Muslim-Malays against occupying Thai unbelievers (kafir). A version of Islam is being performed violently by the ‘BRN-C’ to institute a future theological state. Islam is crucial to driving the insurgents’ power in a “Patani jihad.” Islam engenders local dissent, disaffection, and has the power to internationally broadcast the southern Muslim Malay’s violent message “to gain recognition be acknowledged and mode public”; this is something “a purely “nationalist” or class-based frame would not provide.”[57] Violent acts signify defiance and intimidation of Thai authorities and rule. As a Malay local put it “Thais are only nice and respectful to us if we shoot at them.”[58]

Conclusion

Helbardt’s analysis demonstrates that the influential and standard view of McCargo[59] about the dynamics of conflict in southern Thailand, most notably the nature of the actors and their organization, is mistaken. The conflict is not a war over legitimacy. Neither the Thai king nor the Thai state have ever been endowed with legitimacy in the “deep south.” Furthermore, the prolonged silence and necessarily secretive behavior of the BRN-C has caused many observers to misunderstand and vastly underestimate it. Far from being a terrorist outfit, the BRN-C have cast themselves as freedom fighters, and are waging a localized jihad using irregular warfare against racist Bangkok Buddhist rule in an effort to gain justice. This begs the question, how far will BRN-C’s violence enroll a diverse population with multiple identifications and inter-ethnic solidarities?




[1] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009) 186.

[2] M. Askew, “Fighting with Ghosts: Querying Thailand’s ‘Southern Fire,’” Contemporary Southeast Asia 32, 2 (2010): 148.

[3] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 183, 203-204.

[4] D. McCargo, “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy crises in Thailand,” The Pacific Review (2005) 18; and D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land.

[5] See, for example, Kate Mayberry, “Thai peace talks in Malaysia face uphill task,” Aljazeera, March 27, 2013, accessed April 10, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/03/201332775726152690.html; Rashvineet S. Bedi, “Exclusive: Southern Thai peace talks brokered by Malaysia hit dead end,” The Star, July 31, 2013, accessed April 10, 2017, http://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2013/07/01/southern-thai-peace-talks-brokered-by-malaysia-hit-a-dead-end/; and Duncan McCargo, “Southern Thailand: From conflict to negotiations?” Lowy Institute for International Policy (April 2014), accessed April 10, 2017, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/179540/mccargo_southern-thailand_0.pdf.

[6] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate (Singapore: ISEAS, 2015) 1.

[7] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate 48.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Deep South Watch, “State Violent Conflict in Southern Thailand,” Deep South Incident Database Violence August 2016 Update, accessed April 9, 2017, www.deepsouthwatch.org/dsid.

[10] Ibid., xi, xii.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 30, 32.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 218.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] M.K. Jerryson, Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); T. Rackett, “States of Mind and Exception: Enactments of Buddhist ontological Truth and purification in Thai religious nationalism in the mid 20th and early 21st Centuries,”.Journal of Religion and Violence 2, 1 (2014): 135-167 and T. Rackett, “Review of Buddhist Fury. M.K. Jerryson,” Journal of Religion and Violence 2, 3 (2014): 494-498.

[17] Helbardt conducted over 18 months of participant observation over 2007-2011 and in-depth interviews with 37 currently active and former insurgents.

[18] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 29.

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] M.K. Connors, Democracy and National Identity in Thailand (Singapore: NIAS Press, 2007) 136, 156, 158.

[22] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009) 181.

[23] Ibid., 6-8.

[24] Ibid., 232.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009) 172.

[27] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009) 134, 174.

[28] J. Horgan and M. Taylor “The Provisional IRA Command and Functional Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence 9, 3 (1997): 1-32.

[29] J.C. Liow and D. Pathan, Confronting Ghosts: Thailand’s Shapeless Southern Insurgency (Longueville: Double Day, 2010) 69.

[30] Ibid., 82.

[31] Ibid., 14.

[32] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 72.

[33] Ibid., 74.

[34] Ibid.

[35] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 76.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 33-34.

[38] Ibid., 36.

[39] M. Askew, “Fighting with Ghosts: Querying Thailand’s ‘Southern Fire,’” Contemporary Southeast Asia 32, 2 (2010): 120-122.

[40] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 14.

[41] Ibid., 19.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Ibid., 44, 63.

[44] Ibid., 65.

[45] T. Rackett, “States of Mind and Exception: Enactments of Buddhist ontological Truth and purification in Thai religious nationalism in the mid 20th and early 21st Centuries,” Journal of Religion and Violence 2, 1 (2014): 135-167.

[46] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 119-120.

[47] Ibid., 169.

[48] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 181.

[49] Ibid., 183.

[50] Ibid., 185-187.

[51] Ibid., 187.

[52] Ibid., 194-195.

[53] Ibid., 195.

[54] Ibid., 186-187.

[55] Ibid., 197.

[56] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009) 187-188.

[57] S. Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence, Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, 197.

[58] Ibid., 198.

[59] D. McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009).