The Tourist Haven … At War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because thousands of civilians have been killed for more than a decade — and nobody seems to care.
Part of an OZY series on little-known wars.
If I say “Thailand,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Dream beaches? Buddhist temples being slowly swallowed by the jungle? Sex tourism? This multifaceted country has become one of the world’s most sought-after travel destinations. But what few wide-eyed, sunburned backpackers roaming its cities and sands know is that their future desktop background is at war.
Thailand’s forgotten conflict started a while ago — as in 1948 — but has been particularly bloody for the past 11 years. In that time, about 6,000 people have died, 90 percent of them civilians. Since 2004, the insurgency of the predominantly Muslim southern provinces of Thailand (bordering Malaysia) has been fighting the central government in Bangkok, which they accuse of having “illegally incorporated” their Malay Muslim region about 100 years ago. Back then, the country was still Siam. Today, this geopolitical dispute is killing an average of 26 people a month and wounding another 149, according to professor Zachary Abuza, an expert on the subject from the National War College.
In the southern provinces of Songkhla and Pattani, locals don’t want to go outside for fear of drive-by shootings, improvised explosive devices and beheadings. “No one feels safe,” says Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The militia’s campaign to drive out the Thai is bordering on ethnic cleansing.” Professors and Buddhist monks are the main targets of insurgent attacks, since secessionists — who have long asked for more linguistic and educational autonomy — see both groups as state puppets. Many teachers have left long ago, which explains why the region has the lowest literacy rate in the nation, and, ironically, increases the odds of disenfranchised teenagers joining the militia.
The militia number only about 6,000 and are sometimes as young as 14. Yet the cycle of near-daily violence between them and the national military is undercutting the development of this resource-rich region that 2 million people call home. Tens of thousands of people have fled, and conducting business is difficult in an area that ranks fourth for monthly IED explosions — only after Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Just this month, a bomb went off in Pattani’s Khok Pho district, killing two defense volunteers and wounding five civilians.
To be sure, the government’s military retaliates in force, and their suspicion toward the Muslim community does little to appease their feeling of alienation. “Their antagonism only adds fuel to the fire,” Phasuk says of the government. While military intelligence operations are proving increasingly successful, Human Rights Watch has accused them of employing extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and harassment of local civilians. Thailand’s ministry of defense did not respond to request for comment.
The level of violence has plateaued since 2009, but there’s no end to the conflict in sight. The most promising negotiations took place in 2013, but the military stymied the process and, since last year’s military coup, the diplomatic route is now being ignored. With little to no pressure from the outside world — there are no jihadist undertones or dead Westerners to make headlines — there’s little incentive for either side to negotiate.
Yet ignoring the problem will not make it go away, experts say. On the contrary, “if the insurgents are backed into a corner, they will hit Phuket or Koh Samui,” says Abuza. Until then, the news of thousands dying hardly reaches the resort beaches.