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  • “We Have No Freedom”:Losing hearts and minds in Thailand’s deep south
  • Abby Seiff (bio)

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PATTANI, Thailand—Ismail’s life splits neatly into two. There are the 12 peaceful years before the insurgency in Thailand’s deep south, and the 12 tumultuous years since. For half his life, Ismail has lived amid separatist attacks and a repressive state response. “In Bangkok, you can live in freedom and happiness; you have no trouble. In the deep south, we have no freedom,” he told me. [End Page 48]

Ismail was keen to talk about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Thai authorities, but he lives in constant fear of the government. “If we fight back, we’re labeled as a terrorist. In this country, if you’re against the military or government, it means you are a bad person,” said Ismail, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym lest his criticisms draw trouble.

Since 2004, an insurgency has consumed Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani, as well as parts of Songkhla. Almost 7,000 people have been killed and more than 12,000 wounded as Malay Muslim separatists push for autonomy in an area that is ethnically, linguistically, and culturally distinct from the rest of Thailand. Successive regimes have confronted the bloody insurgency in part through aid and development as a means of winning hearts and minds and encouraging economic activity. But they have also employed brutal security tactics, which have further alienated the region’s Malay Muslims who make up 85 percent of the population.

Like many villages in this region, Ismail’s community is under constant surveillance by the Thai military. “They come to school, and the teacher has to stop; they walk around and interrupt the students’ studies. They come to the village, and the atmosphere changes,” he said. Last year, the 25-year-old spent two weeks in custody at Ingkayuth military prison for alleged involvement in attacks. Soldiers kept him in a frigid room and interrogated him for 10 hours at a time, he said. His captors insisted over and over again that he was involved with the insurgency and urged him to confess. But they seemingly had little to back up their claims, and Ismail wouldn’t break. With neither evidence nor confession, there could be no charges and the case was dropped. Still the encounter left a mark on Ismail. When he was finally released, Ismail was so ill his family took him to a nearby hospital.

In light of such abuse, it is not surprising that Ismail and others have little faith in the authorities. And, even if they do not condone the violent tactics of the insurgents, many would back their claim far more readily than that of the Thai authorities. “The separatists are better. They have the same religion, language, traditions,” Ismail’s friend, Rusman, also a pseudonym, explained. “I think it’s different here from the rest of Thailand. I feel different. I don’t feel Thai—I am Malay.”

Once an independent sultanate, the kingdom of Patani was annexed more than a century ago and has seen sporadic pushes for independence ever since. After more than a decade of calm, on Jan. 4, 2004, separatists carried out a series of coordinated attacks. They burned 20 schools to the ground and raided a military armory, killing four soldiers.

While the attack took many by surprise, rights groups and researchers have noted that the two years prior had been a period of upheaval and violence, traced to policies enacted by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In the deep south, as in the rest of the country, a “war on drugs” saw mass disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Thai forces killed more than 2,500 people and arrested more than 70,000 as part of the nationwide crackdown. Simultaneously, a reshuffle of the governing bodies and figures in the deep south weakened Bangkok’s ability to monitor and control the situation.

After the January 2004 attacks by separatists, the government established martial law and deployed security forces across the deep south. In April of that year, soldiers gunned...


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pp. 48-54
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