Restoring harmony between Bangkok and the Malay Muslims of South Thailand

Peace can only come to South Thailand if freedoms and human rights are extended to all the country’s citizens.

Thai soldier in southern Thailand
Thai policies of cultural assimilation have inflamed tensions in Thailand's largely Malay Muslim southern provinces [EPA]

This article is the fourth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.

Washington, DC – On January 20, 2012, Jaesong Salae, a Muslim widow of a school janitor in the Pattani Province of South Thailand, was shot in a temple with a pistol by a lone gunman. At the time, she was sitting by her husband’s grave reading the Quran and praying.

The victim: a Malay Muslim. The perpetrator: a Malay Muslim.

We ask ourselves: How could such a heartless and brutal act be committed against a fellow Muslim at a moment of such piety and vulnerability?

By the end of 2011, 5,243 people had been killed in the southern border region since 2004.”

For the answer, we look more closely at the Malay Muslim community in Thailand. Few have heard of them, and even fewer know exactly what is happening to them.

The Malay Muslims of Thailand’s three southern border provinces, within which they compose roughly 80 per cent of the population, have been locked in a cycle of violence and retribution with the central Thai government in Bangkok. 

Dr David Kilcullen, the Australian anthropologist and counter-insurgency expert, called the widespread violence in South Thailand between the years 2004 and 2007 “second only to Iraq and Afghanistan”. The Southern Border Police Operation Centre in Thailand reported that, by the end of 2011, 5,243 people had been killed in the southern border region since 2004. The victims include soldiers, policemen, civilians, teachers, monks, and insurgents – Muslims and Buddhists, Thai and Malay alike. 

Many of the attacks are acts of revenge against oppressive measures employed by the Thai security forces, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings. This anarchic conflict between Bangkok and the Malay militants consists mostly of constant, low-scale attacks by decentralised cells lacking formal leadership, a “network without a core”. 

The violence can also be seen as a reaction against the Thai policies of cultural assimilation in the south. Despite being granted freedom to worship by the state, in practice the Malays are denied their ethnic identity, being declared “Thai Muslims”, and are not granted the right to education in their own language.

Formation of identity

Malays in southern Thailand, as distinct from the dominant Thai culture, draw their identity from three sources: as Malays with their own language and cultural traditions, as Muslims, and as the heirs to the Sultanate of Patani, the historical Malay kingdom that comprised the three southern border provinces. These three pillars of “Malay-ness” are so closely bound as to be interchangeable and inseparable parts of one integral identity. This is partly evidenced by the term in the Malay language for converting to Islam, masok melayu, which literally means “to become Malay”.

The Patani Malays developed a distinct culture under the Patani Sultanate, seeing themselves as belonging to the broader Malay world. Founded in the 14th century, Patani was, for centuries afterwards, an important shipping centre for pepper in Southeast Asia, serving as an intermediary stop for shipments between the ports of Malacca and China. It was a centre of Islamic learning and scholarship, known as the “Cradle of Islam” in Southeast Asia. Patani produced a number of prominent Muslim intellectuals educated in Mecca and Cairo. A Dutch scholar visiting Mecca in the 1880s noted the extensive network of Patani scholars in the city, holding prominent positions as publishers, writers, and teachers of other Patani Muslims, who would then return to Patani and were held in the highest regard.

Beginning in the 17th century, the Patani Sultanate came under the influence of Thai kings. The Thais received the bunga ma dan perak (golden and silver flowers) as a sign of tribute from Patani’s rulers, yet still honoured their autonomy. But in 1909, Patani was fully annexed and integrated into the borders of present-day Thailand, with the Malay political leadership being replaced with Thai Buddhist bureaucrats and direct control from Bangkok.

Religious and ethnic persecution under Thai rule resulted in a series of insurgencies following the annexation under the leadership of Malay elites.

The violence was reined in under Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond’s government in the 1980s by an amnesty extended to former militants – and the setting up of new security and governance arrangements through the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). This new administrative structure allowed Malays to participate in the political system and strove to integrate the Malay Muslim elite through a combination of political privileges and development funds.


With the election of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001, the situation in the south – which had been gradually improving – quickly deteriorated because of a rigorous and heavy-handed centralisation of political power. Thaksin dissolved the special administrative arrangements and gave greater powers to the extremely unpopular security forces in the south.

After 9/11, confused and contradictory statements emerged from Bangkok about possible al-Qaeda links with the Malay Muslims of South Thailand. To date, nothing concrete has been proven – but in the heated environment, whispers and rumours are sufficient to bring the dreaded security officials knocking at the door.

In 2004, a string of attacks and reprisals between Malays and the Thai authorities marked a resurgence of violence that has continued to the present. Unlike the previous insurgencies under traditional Muslim leadership, the dismantlement of the old system has resulted in a chaotic lashing out, without clear leadership or goals. 

The Malay Muslims … seemingly have zero tolerance for any other Malay Muslim associating with the Thai government in the southern provinces.”

The current period of violence began with an attack on a Thai army camp in January 2004, resulting in the declaration of martial law in the south, and hundreds of Malays disappearing into Thai custody. Another attack, on a military outpost in April 2004, resulted in a military siege of the 16th century Kru-Ze Mosque in Pattani Province, considered to be the holiest site in the south. Some 32 Malays were killed.

In October 2004, the Thai military fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters incensed at the previous incidents, killing seven. Hundreds of men and boys were beaten and arrested and, then, stacked four to five people deep in large army transport trucks. Seventy-eight protesters died in Thai military custody from suffocation, or from being crushed to death. 

Violence intensifying

Since the violence of 2004, the intensity of the conflict has increased, emerging in response to the many draconian and oppressive methods used to “mop up” the remaining resistance in the region. These methods included “shaking down” and torturing suspects in security cases, as well as an informal policy of extrajudicial killings. 

The Malay Muslims, responding to these measures, seemingly have zero tolerance for any other Malay Muslim associating with the Thai government in the southern provinces. Malay Muslims who are thought to collaborate with the security forces or work for the government – including teachers, janitors, and postmen – have been labeled munafik, or hypocrites, implying those who undermine Islam itself. They have increasingly become, along with their families, the targets of Malay Muslim violence over the past eight years, as seen by the tragic and brutal death of Jaesong Salae last month. This has torn the Malay community apart.

With the widespread violence in South Thailand continuing, even escalating by some accounts, it is clear that a military solution has failed.

Looking to past periods of peace provides lessons for resolving the Malay crisis. In the 1920s, King Vajiravudh, in response to early rebellions, granted the Malays a degree of autonomy including religious and cultural rights, a policy disrupted by renewed religious and ethnic persecution under Prime Minister Phibun in the 1930s. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond similarly saw the need for addressing the conflict with a political solution sensitive to the cultural traditions of the Malay people. Yet this was halted with the intervention of Prime Minister Thaksin’s security-first policies.

In contrast to the oppressive and politically motivated measures of Prime Ministers Phibun and Thaksin stands the king, a revered figure of benevolence and compassion among the Thai people and an embodiment of Buddhist principles. One of the authors of this piece saw the reverence for the king first-hand growing up in Bangkok in the 1950s and 1960s. He witnessed people in cinema halls respectfully standing and bowing their heads in unison when the picture of the king came on the screen. The king was viewed by the Thai people – non-Muslims and Muslims alike – as a towering and benign figure of unity. He represented the accepting and compassionate traditions of Buddhism.

The problems between Bangkok and South Thailand are not insuperable. As the upholder of religions according to the Thai constitution, the king is largely a benefactor of the Islamic faith across Thailand, paying for Muslims to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage and funding the construction of new mosques. 

Drawing on the example of past kings such as King Vajiravudh, the current king, King Bhumibol, should intervene. He must advocate religious and cultural freedom, autonomy, and the extension of human rights for all citizens of the nation. Only then can Thailand begin to work towards a solution to the state’s security crisis and peace for the long-suffering people of South Thailand. The current fractious relationship between Bangkok and the Malay Muslims would then only be a tragic interlude in the history of Thailand.

This article was written by Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins. Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.