Thai Troubles: Combating Terror or Creating Insurgency?

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Thai Troubles: Combating Terror or Creating Insurgency?

April 8, 2005 4 min read
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

Three bombs exploded across southern Thailand on April 3, 2005, the latest attacks in a 15-month-old terrorist campaign that has claimed almost 700 lives. But Thai authorities still do not know who is behind the growing insurgency, what their motivation is, or even if all the terrorism is due to Islamic radicals. No one claims responsibility for the almost weekly attacks, and there is no published evidence that the attackers originate from outside Thailand. One thing appears certain, however: the current Thai counter-insurgency strategy is a complete failure.


Thai authorities and most terrorism experts suspect Islamic insurgents because the southern Thailand provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat are home to most of Thailand's three million strong Muslim minority. Also, terrorists linked to Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are known to have traveled through southern Thailand, and Southeast Asia's Al Qaeda mastermind, Hambali, was captured there in August 2003. The presence of JI in Thailand and the documented regional cooperation among Southeast Asia's terrorist groups[1] are indicators that contact with international groups is possible or even likely. But despite the large number of insurgents captured and documents seized, there is still no published link between the insurgency and international terrorism.


Even if there were no international terrorist network, Thai Muslims would have plenty of reasons to be angry with the government in Bangkok. Their principle complaint is a powerful sense of injustice. Thai Muslims have been second-class citizens in their own country for centuries. The symptoms are poverty, lack of development money when compared to other parts of the country, limited access to government jobs, and few education opportunities. Furthermore, Thailand's security forces are unaccountable and act more like an occupation army than a national security force. There are few Muslims in the military or police, and hardly any soldiers or police speak the local Malay dialect. Extra-judicial killings and disappearances of Thai Muslims are endemic.


The lack of accountability of Thai security forces is best illustrated in two examples:

  • In April 2004, 108 Muslim Thai youths, armed only with machetes, were killed while attacking heavily armed Thai police and army security posts. Security forces shot thirty-two of the youths at point-blank range after they fled the scene and took refuge in a mosque. Those rioters were shot despite explicit orders from the Thai Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security not to use force at the mosque. No police or army officers were ever charged with crimes related to the massacre.
  • In October 2004, 78 Thai Muslim demonstrators died while in police custody. Most of the demonstrators suffocated in trucks during transport to the police station. The others had broken necks. At the time, Prime Minister Thaksin blamed the deaths on the fact that it was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the protesters were weak from fasting. There was an investigation, and three senior military officials were transferred. Again, no Thai security force personnel were ever charged with crimes related to the negligent deaths of the demonstrators.

There is also the possibility that the recent attacks are not all related to a Muslim insurgency. From the beginning of the insurgency, it was apparent that many other elements were active in southern Thailand that might account for some of the violence, such as criminal gangs, corrupt officials, and perhaps corrupt security forces as well. For example, Muslim separatists were blamed for a raid on an armory that supposedly netted them 380 M-16 rifles. But the raid on the armory has the look of an inside job. Armories are heavily constructed buildings, and there was no sign of forced entry. Following the armory raid, the Muslim youths attacking the fortified police and army units in April 2004 were armed mostly with machetes, and none of the stolen rifles have ever turned up in the hands of Thai Muslims.


Prime Minister Thaksin's tactics are being condemned at home and abroad. In the February 2005 national elections, Thaksin's party won a landslide victory everywhere except southern Thailand, where it did not win a single seat. At the end of that month, the U.S. State Department's 2004 Human Rights Report criticized Thailand's security forces for excessive use of force and impunity from prosecution. Even Thailand's neighbors are joining in the condemnation. Chairman Achmad Muzadi, from Indonesia's largest and moderate Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, visited southern Thailand and told Thai government officials that they hoped that Thailand's insurgent problem did not become "an international one."


Muzadi's statement encapsulates the problem for American policymakers. The United States cannot stand by while heavy-handed Thai security forces create an international terrorist problem where there was not one before. The United States has a deep and sophisticated military-to-military relationship with Thailand's security forces, and it is time to use that leverage to bring more discipline to the Thai military. Pentagon officials must closely review this relationship and convince Thailand to emphasize human rights and the rule of law. Furthermore, when Pentagon officials meet with their Thai counterparts, the excessive force issue must not be ignored or glossed over but underscored as a serious national security problem for both countries. Members of Congress should emphasize the issue with their counterparts in Parliament, and the Bush Administration should stress human rights to Prime Minister Thaksin.


The April 3 bomb attacks are especially troubling because the timing of the attacks was evidently coordinated and they took place outside the traditional territory of Thai Muslims. Those characteristics demonstrate the growing sophistication and outward focus of the insurgency. The United States must act to help instill discipline in Thai security forces before international terrorists become entrenched in southern Thailand.


Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] See Dana Dillon, "Southeast Asia and the Brotherhood of Terrorism," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 680, December 20, 2004.


Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst