Double Trouble: Thailand's Two Souths, Thailand's Two Conflicts

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway.

Thailand’s recent political conflicts are in some ways all about the South: southerners have been at the core of both Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt / People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protests since 2006. To compound matters, there are two southern Thailands, politically speaking. The upper South comprises the eleven provinces that separate Bangkok and central Thailand from the other South, the Malay and Muslim majority southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat—sometimes dubbed the deep South. The upper South, electorally dominated in recent decades by the Democrat Party, has become a stronghold of bureaucratic and royalist thinking, serving as Bangkok’s loyal henchman in the capital’s project of internal colonization. Both the upper and the deep South are sites of contestation and resistance.

Thailand’s southern border region was only formally incorporated into Siam in 1909, prior to which the Malay sultanates of Pattani enjoyed a tributary relationship with Ayuthaya and, later, Bangkok. Despite zealous attempts to cajole and coerce the peoples of Pattani into becoming truly Thai, the state has run up against three essential problems in accomplishing this task: wrong nation, wrong religion, and wrong king. Pattani people have a strong sense of their distinctive history. The majority are Muslim rather than Buddhist. Lastly, they had their own traditional local rulers—including queens—long before the infidel Siamese arrived on the scene. Over the past 105 years, many Malay Muslims have reached a pragmatic accommodation with Thailand, and have become very comfortable with carrying Thai passports, studying the Thai school curriculum, and speaking Thai. This has not been enough for government officials, who insist that these “Thai Muslims” should simply abandon their original identity in favor of embracing Thai-ness. The unwillingness of the Thai state to embrace a broader definition of what it means to be Thai has helped fuel tacit support amongst significant elements of the population for a violent insurgency that has continued intermittently for decades and has claimed more than six-thousand lives since 2004.

The southern conflict has often been portrayed as one between Pattani and the Thai capital, but precious few Bangkokians have even visited the deep South, let alone lingered there. Senior officials in the three border provinces—military commanders, police chiefs, provincial governors, district officers, judges, prosecutors, head teachers, hospital administrators—are predominantly Buddhists from the upper South. The upper South is overproducing graduates in law and political science, especially from populous provinces such as Surat Thani, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Phattalung, and Songkhla. Typically highly ambitious, talkative, and excitable, these southerners find it hard to enter the higher echelons of Thailand’s administrative and political class, where they are often unwelcome. Just as Britain used “socially inferior” Scots to run India and the rest of the Empire, so Bangkok uses upper southerners to rule Pattani. The results are predictable: some upper southerners treat the Malay Muslims like dirt and make tensions in the region far worse than necessary.

In January 2009, I was having coffee at my favorite roti stall on the roundabout in front of the Prince of Songkhla University Pattani campus. There had just been a change of government in Bangkok. A couple of guys I knew joined me: “Can you ask Abhisit [Vejjajiva] to come and talk to us?” they said. “Only two conditions: don’t bring Suthep [Thaugsuban] and don’t bring Thavorn [Senniem].” I’d heard the same thing many times from Malay Muslims during my fieldwork in the deep South: we have no problem with the people in the rest of Thailand, please just get these arrogant upper southerners out of our hair. Suthep (from Surat Thani) and Thavorn (from Songkhla) controlled government policy towards the South for the next two and a half years, until Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister. Predictably, when Abhisit made his first visit to Pattani a couple of weeks after my roti stall conversation, the Bangkok Post reported that his delegation was “led by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep [Thaugsuban].”

Throughout Abhisit’s tenure, no Malay Muslim MP from the border region was made a minister—continuing a longstanding Democrat practice. The deep South was run not by the Bangkok government, but by a cabal of upper southerners, who ensured that no substantive decentralization of resources to the region was seriously discussed—let alone autonomy. The main contribution of the upper southern clique of the Democrats was to noisily deny reality, pretending that the insurgency was not a political struggle to challenge the legitimacy of the Thai state. Instead, they asserted that it was a problem centered on criminality, drugs, smuggling, and economic underdevelopment. Bangkok Democrats, who could or should have known better, colluded with these explanations.

In recent years, the upper South has put the brakes on efforts to scale back central power over the lower South, supporting the military-backed assimilationist line promoted during the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanond, himself a Songkhla native. The rise of the anti-Yingluck People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) at the end of 2013 closely parallels what has happened in Pattani. A movement led by upper southerners—primarily Suthep—and closely linked to the Democrat Party set out to deny the political reality that the majority of Thais had voted consistently for pro-Thaksin parties since 2001. While most of those who joined the 2014 “Bangkok shutdown” protests were from greater Bangkok, “Lung kamnan” Suthep relied on upper southerners to provide core backing: they were the people who slept in tents at the rally sites in week-long rotations and served as the armed guards who provided “security” for the demonstrations. Just as the Thai capital had for a century subcontracted the suppression of Malay Muslims to the upper South, so Bangkokians suspended their initial disbelief about Suthep, authorizing him to oust the Shinawatra clan from power using whatever means proved necessary.

Even pro-Thaksin forces have drawn on the rich political resources of the upper South: the three original leaders of the Red Shirt movement all hail from the same region. To rouse a crowd, fuel emotion, and exploit anxiety, southerners have been conscripted by all sides. The recent rise of regionalist sentiments in the North and Northeast has some parallels with the anti-state tendencies of some Malay Muslims in the deep South. The mushrooming of the Suthep-led PDRC showed how Bangkok elites once again permitted hot-headed Southerners to do the establishment’s dirty work—a high-risk strategy given the ever-present possibility of more widespread political violence. The growing assertiveness of aggressive elements from the upper South constitutes one of the greatest threats to Thailand’s political stability. In any future reforms of Thailand, a new and more constructive role should be found for the passionate, talented, but sometimes troublesome citizens of Surat, Nakhon, and Songkhla in the interests of forging a more tolerant and inclusive nation.