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 to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Observers have struggled to explain ongoing sectarian violence in southern Thailand given that both Thai Buddhists and Malay/Thai Muslims are victims of violence, have historically coexisted peacefully, and share local customs and spiritual traditions. How should one make sense of the continuing conflict? Do Buddhist and Muslim majority and minority ethnic and religious identities have a role in fueling it, and if so, how can the fire be put out?

Descent into Violence

Conflict in southern Thailand with its Muslim majority population may seem recent, and in fact it has intensified in the last decade, but there is a long history of southern resistance to Bangkok’s rule and struggle for autonomy. Here are but a few of the key historical events. Patani, the region now comprised of the provinces of Patanni, Yala and Narathiwat, was as a sultanate subjected to internal colonization into Siam in 1905. The Thai state violently suppressed the Dusun-Nyor revolt by Malay Muslims in 1948. The Islamic teacher Haji Sulong disappeared in 1954. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Patani Liberation Organisation and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional conducted a separatist struggle, although these groups are not the key players behind sectarian violence today.

In 2004, conflict with the Thai state by insurgents increased under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, arguably due to changes in administration and more repressive security tactics. On 28 April 2004, Thai security forces killed more than 100 suspected separatist militants in response to attacks at Kru Ze mosque in Pattani Province. On 25 October 2004, 78 people died after being arrested for demonstrating at Tak Bai police station.[1] According to a local southern NGO, from January 2004 to April 2014, 6,097 people have died in sectarian violence, not to mention the trauma suffered by victims’ families in Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim communities.[2]

Religion, Ethnicity or Ideology?

Scholars have wrestled with the question of whether religious and/or ethnic differences have fueled the violence in southern Thailand. In his influential study of the region, Duncan McCargo argues that these differences are not the primary cause of violence. He sees the latter as stemming from a failure of the legitimacy of the Thai state, asserting that by having co-opted local Malay Muslim leaders, Bangkok robbed them of spiritual, moral and political authority. The removal of the “moderate middle” led to a situation that was expoited by those who used extremist Islamic discourse and customs as means to achieve autonomy and end the occupation of southern Thailand.[3]

However, there are a number of issues with McCargo’s contentions. Religious nationalism can, in fact, be mobilized to justify and legitimate killing.[4]  Furthermore, southerners do not categorically reject Thai identity, which means that the interests and identity of the Muslim Malay elite, who are central to McCargo’s interpretation, are not necessarily unified. As a grouping, Malay officials have diverse and particular interests of their own, separate from being seen as representatives of the Malay or Muslim community or, indeed, as betraying the “real” interests of Malay nationalists by being co-opted by the Thai state. To understand southern Thailand violence, it is not a question of whom do Malay Muslim elites speak for, but rather, the problem is whom do separatists speak for?

Scholars have also sought to determine whether the insurgency is ideologically driven. Marc Askew, underscoring the spectral nature of the insurgents, is clearly skeptical. After all, how many of the killings in the south that have been attributed to separatist insurgents were, in fact, committed by police and army hit squads, drug traffickers, criminal borderland gangs and rebels, or rival Muslim politicians? According to Askew, ethnicity rather than religion has driven local grievances and resistance, though “Malayness” was not enough to mobilize resistance against the Thai state in the 1980s.[5]

The enigmatic key to understanding southern violence is the view of ordinary local Malay Muslims. Not enough is known about their culture and way of life. Many are pro-Thai, while others are nationalist, though they are not focused on a past “Patani.” They are a mobile, diverse group who speak Malay and identify as Thai. Though they are critical of the Bangkok government, they do not seek regional autonomy. This suggests that militant insurgents are a small minority. The majority of Malay Muslims are neither pro-Thai state nor radical separatists. In fact, many Malay subdistrict chiefs and village heads are strongly anti-insurgent. There even exist Malay Muslim anti-insurgent hit squads.[6]

The reality of the south is a common shared local culture.[7] McCargo provides examples of spiritual hybridity that transcend Muslim-Buddhist majority-minority divides and ethnic identifications.[8] According to McCargo, exclusive “Malay” identification is situational and relational. Askew concludes by suggesting that at stake are “the hearts and minds” of ordinary Muslims, with the question of religion and identity—political capital used by competing Muslim politicians, elites and separatists—up for grabs.[9]

And yet, populations and individuals are divided as “same” and “other,” included or excluded within sociopolitical fantasy formations of Malayness and Thainess. As the work of Michael K. Jerryson and McCargo shows, people learn how to be, and perform being, a Buddhist or a Muslim in southern Thailand in particular ways, shaped by politics and power relations.[10] Islam and Buddhism can be peaceful but also can support violence. One must, therefore, understand how Islam and Buddhism are lived and used by actors in an arena of conflict, which in the case of southern Thailand is an arena of competing nationalist and religious myths, histories and truths, as well as reciprocal fears and fantasies of each other as savage and as threats to civilization. Individuals’ ethno-religious identifications and displays of loyalty and affiliation have been constructed as a national security issue by the Thai state and as a righteous insurrection by Muslim militants.

Buddhism, Race, Religion and Rule

While not denying the force of Askew’s arguments, southern Thais are subjected to unifying categories of race and religion. Jerryson demonstrates that the Thai state is performed as a Buddhist state, and Buddhism is a key aspect of an imagined Thai racialized identity.[11] In the south, ethno-religious ideologies articulated by the Thai state and by separatist insurgents struggling for regional autonomy force people to take sides. Buddhist peacekeepers’ and separatist rebels’ efforts have the problematic effect of creating simplistic Manichean moral dualisms of “good” and “evil” identities: un-Thai non-Buddhist Muslim dark strangers (khaek) and occupying alien Siamese unbelievers (kafir). Within Thai nationalism, ethnicity is a marker of religious identity: to be Thai, one must be Buddhist, and to be Buddhist is to be Thai. Likewise, to be Malay is to be Muslim. However, these constructs ignore the question of those southern people who identify themselves as Thai and Muslim rather than as Malay Muslims and Malays who in the past became Buddhists.

Any solution to the conflict, Jerryson argues, will require the “reworking of Thailand’s concept of racial formations,” which act to “displace minority identities by measuring their ethnic and religious identities against the norm of Thai Buddhism.”[12] How to be a Thai Buddhist is learned and performed in a specific way in the southern Thai conflict zone. The role of Buddhist monks has been politicized in response to violence. Mobilizing religion transforms security forces into “moral guardians, sacred avengers of the nation, not mere State servants, whose sacred duty is to uphold and protect the integrity of Thai Buddhism.”[13] Being Thai is a state-produced racialized identity, which has its source in Siam’s response to Western colonization and Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. Thai identity politics doubly excludes Malay Muslims, who practice the “other” religion and are khaek dark strangers.[14]

Jerryson’s analysis suggests that the political stake in southern Thailand is Malay Muslims’ desire “for autonomy based on ethnoreligious identification” and the “Thai State’s policies denial of their voice and space for sociopolitical aspirations and interests.”[15] Buddhist religion is used by and serves the state and nonstate actors both to justify and legitimate violence. Security forces, police, soldiers, militias and villagers are guided by Buddhist principles, but their role in the violence is played down by the Thai public image of Buddhism as nonviolent and the troubles in the south as an Islamic conflict caused by Malay Muslims. Race and religion are conjoined in an imagined community of faith and destiny.

A rise in insurgency since 2004, the year of the Kru Ze mosque and Tak Bai massacres by security forces of Muslims, makes religious practice a national security problem of who and what you are—either friend or enemy. But according to Jerryson, Buddhists are attacked, not primarily as Buddhists, but rather as symbols and representatives of the Thai state and rule by Bangkok.[16] This explanation helps clarify why Buddhist monks are targeted by insurgents and theatrical performances of extreme violence (e.g., beheadings) are perpetrated against them.

Monks have religio-political identities. They are embodiments of both dhammic truth and Thai nationalism. Attacks by militants upon monks are interpreted as attacks on the “body-politic” as well as on the Buddhist Sangha. Indeed, Buddhism has never existed outside the state; it has served as a source and as a means of legitimation.  Monks, as state agents, have promoted the sociopolitical objectives of reintegrating ethnic populations and creating moral communities of national belonging and solidarity. Monks are therefore seen as the “enemy” even though they have no enmity toward Muslims. Ironically, monks cannot let go and detach from their political role and ethno-nationalist significations. They are identified as religious and national symbols, not as individual human beings. Thus the conflict takes on the character of a supernatural drama of trans-individual actors and supra-human forces performing Buddhism and Islam at risk and in moral peril, not a mundane story of power politics, with separatist forces against the nation-state.

Racialization and Imperialism

Malay ethnic identity has become fused with Islam, but it has not always been so. From the 17th century until 1900, there were Malay Buddhists, and Patani was considered by Malays as neither Buddhist nor Muslim. This shows that although Malay is an indeterminate and ambiguous identity, identification as Malay Muslim fixes as set apart from dominant Thai society. Was this a product of Siamese colonization? Jerryson sees it as associated with Malay Muslims’ racial categorization, making them ethnically and religiously “other.”[17] Thai Buddhism is the normative measure of identity and civility, which others lack, and becomes a racial identity. Khaek is a racialized identity, including a religious marker, with a negative signification.

The Siamese forged a notion of chaat by combining nation, race and citizenship—a new form of national identity and racialized religious identification. Chaat was adopted in the 19th-century nationalist ideology of Rama VI, making Buddhism into a signifier of being a civilized, and indeed a superior race. Ethnic and religious minorities filled the roles of inferior or savage races. Malay Muslims were identified as “foreign and semi-barbarians,” unlike Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese who as Buddhists were viewed more favorably.[18] Faith becomes fate when identification is fixed to an essential culture, selfhood and primordial religiosity. Buddhism is used to construct otherness of those who question and oppose Thainess. According to McCargo, Malay Muslims are not attacking the legitimacy of the monarchy, but rather the racist and religious form of Bangkok “colonial” rule and domination.[19]

Putting Out the Fire

There is a need to abandon absolute notions of who is “right” and “wrong” and of past injustices, as moral judgments will not promote a truce and peacemaking. Thai state racist forms of rule and Muslim rebellion remain within a problematic of alternate authorities of truth and sovereignty, and mentalities of rule through religion and ethnicity. The challenge of coexistence is how well people can tolerate differences in ways of life and systems of belief/nonbelief other than their own. Can they live with “otherness” instead of seeking to convert or integrate the “others”?[20]

With the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), religion in the West became a matter of private conscience, not a state concern. This development led to tolerance of different faiths, histories, cultures and identities. Indeed, tolerance is defined by Henry Kamen as the “concession of liberty to those who dissent in religion.”[21] It is a mode of regulation and a norm of everyday existence. Grahame Thompson audacious argument is that truce seeking is more important than truth seeking in the pursuit of peace.[22] Whereas a fixation on justice will lead to an attitude of attributing blame, a truce situation moderates two parties where there is no winner or loser. Thus, political conflict and antagonisms can be moderated by cultivating a style of conduct “that embodies a studied indifference towards difference.”[23]

Such a practice of tolerance makes what others have elevated via religious discourse into absolute and cosmic differences insignificant; this has the effect of de-escalating violent conflict and depolarizing ethno-religious identities among social combatants to attempt to secure social peace. Attachment to religious and ethnic identities can drive violent forces that work against the right of exit of minorities and dissenters to leave a way of being Muslim or Buddhist and associated forms of religious rule to embrace other forms of hybrid identities.  Thus the problem and challenge of achieving an enduring peace in southern Thailand is whether the people living there can relate to each other as the same—southerners—in common humanity, not as symbols and representatives of ethnic and religious communities badged with otherness. The Thai state could play a role as promoting truce-seeking as a means to peace in the south, but it would have to let go of its  particular sacred ethno-religious identity, as incarnation of Thai Buddhist righteousness and form of rule, and have the capacity to govern through equanimity by ceasing to support Buddhist nationalism that excludes Muslims and Malays from being “true” Thais and citizens.

[1] Duncan McCargo, Tearing the Land Apart: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009), 2–5; Michael K. Jerryson, Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 28–49.

[2] Srisompob Jitpiromsri, “An Inconvenient Truth about the Deep South Violent Conflict: A Decade of Chaotic, Contrained Realities and Uncertain Resolution,” Deep South Watch [English], 2 July 2014,, adapted from a commissioned project conducted by the Center for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity for submission to World Bank Thailand.

[3] McCargo, Tearing The Land Apart.

[4] Jerryson’s and McCargo’s work shows this to be the case for Buddhists and Muslims. For Buddhism’s capacity for justifying killing as defensive violence, see Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds.,  Buddhist Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); S. J. Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Brian D. Victoria Zen At War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997); Tim Rackett, “States of Mind and Exception: Enactments of Buddhist Ontological Truth and Purification in Thai Religious Nationalism,” Journal of Religion and Violence, forthcoming.

[5] Marc Askew, Conspiracy, Politics, and Disorderly Border: The Struggle to Comprehend Insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South (Washington, DC: East-West Center, 2007) 128.

[6] Ibid., 144–47.

[7] Ibid., 146.

[8]  McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land, 20–21, 25, 138–39, 178.

[9] Askew, Conspiracy, Politics, and Disorderly Border, 148.

[10] Jerryson, Buddhist Fury; McCargo, Tearing The Land Apart.

[11] Jerryson, Buddhist Fury, 5, 15, 56–60, 69, 144.

[12] Ibid., 183.

[13] Ibid., 175

[14] Ibid., 157–59.

[15] Ibid., 5, 8.

[16] Ibid., 10.

[17] Ibid., 143–77.

[18] Ibid.

[19] McCargo, Tearing the Land Apart, 7, 13–18, 187.

[20] Grahame F. Thompson, “Toleration and the Art of Governance: How is it Possible to ‘Live Together’ in a Fragmenting International System?” in Habitus: A Sense of Place, ed. Jean Hiller and Emma Rooksby (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

[21] Henry Kamen, The Rise of Toleration (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1967), 7.

[22] Grahame F. Thompson, “Toleration and the Art of Governance: How is it Possible to ‘Live Together’ in a Fragmenting International System?” in Habitus: A Sense of Place, ed. Jean Hiller and Emma Rooksby (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 101.

[23] Ibid., 102.

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