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Thailand’s Southern Insurgency – who’s fighting who?

Tim Newton



Trouble in the ‘south’. Attacks against civilians and rangers. Insurgents attack Thai soldiers – the sorts of headlines that people have read about Thailand’s southern conflict for the past 70 years or so.

Thaiger readers may wonder who’s fighting who, and why. The area has been coined the ‘deep south’ or the ‘restive south’ and has become, statistically, a more bloody conflict than the situation on the Gaza Peninsula in the middle east – it just gets a lot less international coverage.

Where is the ‘south’? The three Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and sometimes Songkhla, are the locations where most of the violence takes place, all near or bordering Malaysia. The border, usually fluid with tourists and local trade, are now closed due to the current Covid situation.

Thailand's Southern Insurgency - who's fighting who? | News by Thaiger

Despite successive Thai and Malaysian governments throwing words and resources at the problem, very little has been done to reduce the spate of violence, usually affecting southern civilians as well.

The South Thailand insurgency (Thai: ความไม่สงบในชายแดนภาคใต้ของประเทศไทย; Malay: Pemberontakan di Selatan Thailand) is an ongoing conflict centered around southern Thailand’s disputed border region with Malaysia. Although there’s been bubbling discontent around the region since the start of the 20th century, it emerged as a serious issue for the Malaysian and Thai governments in 1948 as an ethnic and religious separatist insurgency in the historical Malay Patani region.

It has become a more complex ‘land grab’, and increasingly violent since the early 2000s due to drug cartels, oil smuggling networks, and occasionally even pirates.

The former Sultanate of Patani, which included the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, also known as the three Southern Border Provinces (SBP), as well as parts of neighbouring Songkhla province and the northeastern part of Malaysia (Kelantan), was conquered and, except for Kelantan, has been governed by, Thailand (formerly The Kingdom Siam) since 1785.

Although low-level separatist violence had occurred in the region for decades, the campaign escalated after 2001, with a major recurrence in 2004, and has occasionally spilled over into other provinces. Incidents blamed on southern insurgents, including bombings, have reached as far as the capital Bangkok and the holiday island Phuket.

In 2005, PM Thaksin Shinawatra assumed wide ranging emergency powers to deal with the southern violence, but his actions served only to escalate the insurgency. In September 2006, Thaksin was ousted in one of Thailand’s periodic military coups.

The subsequent junta implemented a major policy shift, replacing Thaksin’s earlier approach with a campaign to win over the “hearts and minds” of the insurgents. That didn’t have much effect either.

Despite little progress in curbing the violence, the junta declared that security was improving and that peace would come to the region by 2008. By March of that year, however, the death toll had surpassed 3,000.

During the Democrat-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya noted a “sense of optimism,” but by the end of 2010 insurgency-related violence had increased, confounding the government’s optimism. Finally in March 2011, the government conceded that violence was increasing and could not be solved in a few months.

Local leaders have persistently demanded at least a level of autonomy from Thailand for the Patani region and some of the separatist insurgent movements have made a series of demands for peace talks and negotiations. However, these groups have been largely sidelined by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), the Muslim fundamentalist group currently spearheading the insurgency. The BRN-C has as its announced aim to make southern Thailand ungovernable and it has largely been successful.

Estimates of the strength of the insurgency vary greatly. In 2004 General Pallop Pinmanee claimed that there were only 500 hardcore ‘jihadists’. Other estimates say there as many as 15,000 armed insurgents. Around 2004 some Thai analysts believed that foreign Islamic terrorist groups were infiltrating the area, and that foreign funds and arms were being brought in, though again, such claims were balanced by an equally large body of opinion suggesting this remains a distinctly local conflict.

Is it safe to travel through Thailand’s south? Mostly, yes. There is a lot of security and patrols around the area these days and the attacks are relatively rare. The Thai government have much better intel about possible attacks than in the past and react quickly to any potential security problems.

Over 6,500 people died and almost 12,000 were injured between 2004 and 2015 in a formerly ethnic separatist insurgency, which has currently been taken over by hard-line jihadis and pitted them against both the Thai-speaking Buddhist minority and local Muslims who have a moderate approach or who support the Thai government.

You can read another aspect of the southern conflict from The Thaiger…

Boom boom on the border – Thailand’s unlikely red-light district

For a timeline of major events in the Southern Insurgency, click HERE.


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  1. Avatar


    Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 7:08 pm

    Might want to learn from China to give woman in the south more opportunity. I’m sure something like a military mon4rchy would do a great job.

  2. Avatar


    Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    I been to Songkhla some years ago. Pity to learn 6500 death in 10 years time.

  3. Avatar

    Mister Stretch

    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 8:01 am

    That 6500 number for 2015 was on the first page of Google Search.

    If we actually looked to see where we stand today, instead of 6 years ago, “…there have been 7,224 deaths and 13,427 injuries … 2004 to February 2021, according to the Deep South Watch Database.”

    Someone once said the greatest secret in the world is on page two of Google.

    I live in the Deep South, and neither I nor my Thai wife, have the courage to travel through those provinces. I did it a few times when working in Malaysia and coming home on weekends. 4 hours of watching the van driver and the front-seat passenger intensely look for ambushes and IEDs, combined with a heavy military presence, was enough to convince me I didn’t want to do that again.

    Southern Thais seem to be very angry and annoyed with the violence, especially when it spills out into other provinces. In conversations with them, they tell me that the violence isn’t going to change the government’s position, it’s just killing innocent people for nothing.

    I think they’re right. Since this annexation occurred in 1782, chances are the government isn’t giving up that area, and Malaysia has already said, “We don’t want you.”

    It’s an insurgency with no hope of getting what they want. What a waste of effort and life.

  4. Avatar


    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 9:00 am

    To understand the war in the south, one must be aware of economic and geopolitical interests.

    The conflict is linked to the Kra Canal, to the war between the Chinese and the Americans.

    Thaksin did what the Americans expected…

    The better informed are aware of the connections with the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar and with the Uyghurs in China, but unfortunately, it is not on this pro-US propaganda site that we can develop.

    • Thaiger


      Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 10:54 am

      The Thaiger is a “pro-US propaganda site”?

  5. Avatar


    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    It seems The Thaiger is under Wumao commies watch lol

  6. Avatar


    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    @Mister Stretch – I have lived full-time in one of the three provinces for the last 5 years. It’s not as dangerous as the media and many Thai and farang people want you to believe. But living here, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings at all times and to anticipate situations that could arise by not being careful.
    In general, the towns are safe from violence, both during day- and nighttime, but it’s not advisable for a newbie to go out at night in the countryside. It helps if you can speak some words of Malay and know some Islamic greetings. Still, it’s not half as bad as people think.

  7. Avatar


    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 4:21 pm

    Obviously, see last report about Myanmar not even reporting about what Russia/ China proposed, just saying the UN Declined the idea. Learn to report more than one side and you’ll look more credible.

  8. Avatar


    Monday, May 3, 2021 at 1:01 am

    @Thaiger – Everyone mainly sees what they want to believe themselves.

    But be happy that The Thaiger is not classified in the category “mainstream media”. Nothing is so bad as mainstream media.

  9. Avatar


    Monday, May 3, 2021 at 1:03 am

    @ynwaps – You can explain it here. Usually things proposed by Russia/China are a bad idea. But I am curious about what makes it so interesting…

  10. Avatar

    Joe Nyomozo

    Monday, May 3, 2021 at 8:22 am

    Hard to belive that a Government can’t get insurgency under control! Like Nigeria where Boko Haram seem to operate with relative imutnity kidnapping children and running amok! I would like to think if something would happen in my country we would hunt them down like rabbid dogs!

  11. Avatar

    J West

    Wednesday, May 5, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    @Centaur – 55555…really funny…you describe how dangerous it is…complete with sneaking past nocturnal pit falls and knowing Muslim passwords…and then divide it by two to say it’s ” not that bad”? It’s a bit like the guy who loses his arms in an accident and boasts about being able to get around just fine.

  12. Avatar


    Wednesday, May 5, 2021 at 7:36 pm

    @J West – I’m not saying it is not dangerous, just that you should always be attentive wherever you are.
    I have embraced Islam shortly after moving here though and feel that whatever happens it is God’s and only His will. I will be fine insh’allah.

  13. Avatar

    James Pate

    Sunday, May 16, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    Look at historically long conflicts. Many have their roots in British colonial rule. Some largely forgotten bureaucrats in London simply drew an imaginary line on a map, never actually going there. Take the partition of India and Pakistan for example. That single act accounts for why we have a thriving and successful Thai-Indian community in Thailand. Plenty of such examples in Africa and the Middle East. Complicating matters, the Sultan of Pattani pledged an oath of fealty to BOTH the British crown and the King of Siam. Talk about hedging your bets! Setting history aside, each generation in the deep South has its own reasons to hate the State. Thaksin was the absolute worst. The massacre at Tak Bai and other incidents remain festering wounds. I believe a lot of the disputes are personal, local or drug-related. Probably very few true jihadis in the Osama Bin Laden sense of the word (So far, Insh’allah.) Nonetheless, lack of ideological unity doesn’t make the situation less volatile. Probably makes it worse because the State can’t figure out who to talk to.

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 41 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented over 10,000 radio news bulletins, 3,900 in Thailand alone, hosted 650 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. As founder of The Thaiger, Tim now acts as the Content Manager and head-writer, whilst supervising the growth of the YouTube channel. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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