A review of a new book which is the result of a courageous and compelling study of the insurgency in the far south of Thailand.
Tearing apart the land: Islam and legitimacy in southern Thailand
Author: Duncan McCargo,
Publisher: Cornell University Press/National University of Singapore
264 pages, USD28 or SD38, paperback.
This book is the best investigation in English of the recent troubles in Thailand’s southern border provinces.
It does not tell you who exactly is behind it, what they really want, or how they can easily be stopped. But it puts a lot of new information on the table, and sifts through it with great common sense and clarity. Without doubt, its conclusions will be controversial, and the security forces will try to discredit them. That will be a measure of its considerable achievement.
Professor Duncan McCargo spent a year in the southern provinces. He interviewed 270 people ranging across officials, soldiers, ex-rebels, politicians, academics and local bystanders. He collected many unusual documents, and watched what was going on. He has also read the literature and followed the press reporting, but in this book he deliberately draws mainly on his own data collection. The historical and social background is sketched in a single page. The reader is expected to know this. The focus is on events of the last four years, in a context of the prior decade. The result is a lean book that is short and gripping enough to read in one sitting.
After the last flare-up in the 1970s and 1980s, McCargo argues, the government set out to control the far south by co-opting local elites. Local Islamic leaders and teachers who co-operated in new educational schemes were richly rewarded with funds and honorary posts. More locals were recruited to the bureaucracy. Local politicians were elected to Parliament and local government, and rewarded with the perks and recognition of office.
For a time this seemed very successful. But this co-optation destroyed these elites’ foundations within local communities, and offered no real participation for the mass. Teachers lost respect and influence. Politicians including Den Tohmeena and Wan Muhammed Noor – who sought success at the national level – found their local support eroded. The Wadah politicians were punished by the electorate after 2001. Although Thaksin’s abolition of SBPAC in 2002 removed the institutional instrument of this co-optation strategy, McCargo emphasises that the policy had already failed by its own internal logic.
McCargo argues strongly against the oft-made linkage between imported reformist Islam and militancy. Certainly, several local scholars have been educated abroad and returned with new teachings on stricter practice and a modern, globalised vision of Islam. But McCargo argues these “new school” teachers and preachers appeal mostly to a modernised, middle-class intelligentsia, and their influence waned from the early 1990s onwards. He estimates some 70 to 90 per cent cling to the “old school” of folksy traditional Islam, and the militancy has sprung from this segment of the population.
McCargo also finds no significant links to international Jihadist organisations. Certainly the militants use Islamic and Jihadist language to recruit members and express anger. But the flare-up “is an insurgency not a Jihad”. It is not “about Islam” but about the position of Malay Muslims in the Thai state and society.
McCargo condemns the Thai security forces from top to bottom. Thaksin’s 2002 decision to put the corrupt and hated police in charge of this delicate region, and the subsequent campaign of killings and disappearances in 2003, led directly to the explosion in 2004. But the army has been no better. In McCargo’s words, “The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities.” Army units do not have the training, expertise, or equipment for this kind of warfare.
They are incompetent at even simple procedures such as manning a checkpoint. Their intelligence is poor and conflicting. They rely on tactics used in past anti-communist campaigns when the conditions and context were very different. As a result, measures such as the surrender campaign end-up totally counter-productive.
Instead of converting militants into peaceful citizens, it often turned bystanders into either enraged militants or sitting ducks for assassination.
The militants now have the initiative. Large tracts of the three provinces are wholly or partially “no-go” areas, effectively beyond state control. In the face of failure, the military increasingly subcontracts its work to rangers and other paramilitary forces who are even less well-trained, competent and sensitive. McCargo concludes that a military “victory” is unimaginable. The generals who pop up regularly to predict imminent success should simply be ignored.
Who are the militants? By delicately analysing the Krue Se incident on 28 April 2004, McCargo suggests there are two strands at work.
The first is somehow related to old militant organisations such as Pulo and the BRN-Coordinate. Their operations follow the traditional pattern of symbolic attacks on government personnel and installations.
The second strand is less structured and more frightening. A local religious teacher recruited young men, lectured them on the evils of the Thai state, persuaded them they were protected by magic, put crude weapons in their hands and dispatched them on suicidal attacks against the security forces. He then disappeared.
McCargo argues that this second pattern of small cells of local recruits who work virtually independent of any wider organisation, and who blend easily into the social landscape, has increasingly become the norm. The juwae (fighters) seem motivated, not by any complex Islamic ideal but by simple but passionate hatred of the Thai state for colonising their homeland and subjecting them to the oppression of disdainful officials and predatory policemen.
There is some organisation that enables many of these units to participate in complex, co-ordinated attacks. But the figures – especially those overseas – who occasionally claim to talk on behalf of the movement probably have no control.
The movement is a “network without a core”, which constantly frustrates the military who are trained for set-piece battles or campaigns against the rigid structures of communist insurgency.
Over 2004, the incidents at the Narathiwat armoury, Krue Se mosque and Tak Bai market won the movement great sympathy among the local population. The army realised that it was being lured into delivering martyrdom, which increased hatred of the army.
In subsequent incidents at Saiburi, Kapho and Tanyong Limo, the army refused the gambits to draw them into similar traps, even though this meant the sacrifice of Teacher Julin and several soldiers.
But this failure to engage delivered the militants victory in another form. Territory slipped out of effective control. Patrols were reduced to driving around at high speed to evade attack. The militants keep up a daily stream of bombings and killings, increasingly directed against civilians, especially those suspected of co-operating with the state.
Whether for love or for fear, few in the three provinces would now dare side with the security forces.
What do the militants want? Famously, there has been no formal manifesto or demands. McCargo lays out what little can be gleaned from various seized documents and statements by ex-militants, and advises that any conclusion from this material is inevitably tentative. A multi-stage plan for establishing a Pattani state has been found, but McCargo doubts it is a guiding document.
Militants seem to dislike being described as either “separatists” or “terrorists”, preferring the simpler “fighters”. They seem motivated by resentment against their treatment by the Thai state, rather than by any specific political goal.
McCargo’s analysis leads to a simple but compelling conclusion. The Thai security forces cannot prevail. To put it another way, the militants have already won. Although the army has restored the pre-Thaksin structure for managing the region, the situation has spun beyond the point that old methods will deliver the same old results.
There is little sign the militants wish to separate, either to join Malaysia or to constitute a scarcely viable state of Pattani. What they seem to want is a way to live within Thailand without being treated as a form of outcasts. The solution, McCargo argues, is “to give Malay Muslims substantial control over their own affairs, while retaining the border region as part of Thailand. In other words, substantive autonomy”. That was the solution most of his informants favoured.
In the past, this solution has always been blocked by the fetishism of a unitary state. But in today’s world when the stature of the state has been diminished, and Thailand flirts tentatively with multiculturalism, this fixation seems outdated. Besides, McCargo argues, Thailand has already lost much of the territory and most of the people so political re-incorporation would be a gain.
This is a very important book because of the courage it took to research, the new information it conveys and the clarity and power of its argument. McCargo asks us to view the South as a typical minority problem, which has been very badly handled but which should be susceptible to a disarmingly simple solution that has been on the table for at least the past 60 troubled years.