An Accidental Vacation with the Royal Thai Army in the South of Thailand (1)

The intent of this article is to provide a context for the next series of articles on border and checkpoint security; the Amnesty and the insurgent re-education programs; and, the establishment of an economic zone, the relocation of communities along the Thai-Malay border, and the role of the Royal Thai Army in the relocation process.

An Accidental Vacation with the Royal Thai Army in the South of Thailand (1)

Rachael M. Rudolph, James Hughes, Pragyan Ghale, and Supark Maneein[1]
The intensive summer Asian security course I had been teaching was just about to end and thoughts of whether to go on vacation or to stay in the office to work on research were in my mind. I knew the September due date for my research paper on strategies for ASEAN Political and Security Community Development was just around the corner, so too was the start of Fall semester.  It had also been quite some time since I had taken a vacation. Never had I expected to have an accidental vacation with the Royal Thai Army in Thailand’s three troubled southern provinces—Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
To explain how this accidental vacation transpired, let me start from the beginning.  A colleague, James Hughes, who teaches in the communication’s department at Webster University Thailand, asked me if I planned to go anywhere for vacation.  It had been years since he traveled outside of Thailand, so he was contemplating whether to travel in the region or to explore something new within the country.  His wanting to explore something new and my wanting to walk barefoot in the troubled, unknown lands of Thailand led to my asking him to join me on an adventure in the south.  With an unequivocal yes, a plan was hatched.
The plan was simple; it was merely to play wandering explorers in the three troublesome provinces.  Our mode of transport was the train.  The selection was, in part, because of expenses.  It is far cheaper to travel by train than airplane.  Another reason was the raping and killing of a young woman weeks before, which led to the opening of, on August 1, 2014, women and children only train carts.  It was not those carts I wanted to take, however.  I was keen to see what sort of security presence was visible on the regular overnight trains since the policy change.  With not a security concern in mind, I slept like a baby and rose early to watch the morning sunrise from the train’s window.  It was around 8AM when we arrived in Hatyai.
As we exited the train station, James’ phone rang.  Our student, Supark Maneein, rang to say he was parking his car and would greet us shortly. Not having decided where to stay but wanting to stay within a certain budget, Suparak suggested we take two rooms at his cousin’s hotel.  He also suggested we go visit our other student, Pragyan Ghale.  Pragyan was staying with the head Monk at a temple in Hatyai.
On our arrival at the temple, Pragyan said he wanted us to meet his aunty and uncle, as he had told them his teachers might come to visit.  While we were waiting for them to arrive, the head Monk shared his life’s journey and took us around the grounds.  As we walked the grounds and the Monk talked with the others, my mind pondered the path that brought me to Thailand.  I looked across the water and smiled.  Never did I expect what would happen next.
Pragyan introduced us to his uncle, Major General Aksak Sangsiri, and his aunt, Ms. Yawluck Sangsiri.  They asked us to join them for lunch.  At lunch, Major General Aksak asked of my plans for the trip.  I explained the plan was to spend a day or two exploring Hatyai, as I wanted to cuddle with tigers and play with monkeys.  Then, we would head off to Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat to play wandering explorers. I explained my past research and what intended to work on in the context of the South of Thailand conflict. He asked if I intended to interview any officials. I said not at this time, as I first wanted to do an assessment or, rather, a cultural topography of the area, but that I was also not opposed to meeting with officials.  In fact, I said I would be most honored to have such an opportunity.  He then made a phone call to the Pattani Infantry Base. 

After explaining my research intent, I passed the phone back to Major General Aksak.  Major General Aksak informed me that everything was taken care of and that he would take us to Pattani on the next day; Yala on the following day; and, Narathiwat on the day after.  He then invited us to be their guest at the military banquet that evening.  The banquet would mark the start of the accidental vacation with the Royal Thai Army in Thailand’s three troubled provinces.  
Exploring the South of Thailand Conflict
The present day conflict is rooted in centuries past, when the Sultanate of Pattani was independent from the Kingdom of Siam.  Pattani would join Siam following British recognition of the latter’s suzerainty over her in 1909. Since 1909, there have been periods of conflict and unrest.  The temporal demarcations of those periods vary depending on the articles and books read and/or the individuals interviewed.  For example, a counterinsurgency study conducted by Chalk in 2008 breaks the conflict into three temporal periods—1960 to 1998, 1998 to 2004, and 2004 to the present.[2] Another insurgency study conducted by Royal Thai Navy Captain Sompaee breaks it into two temporal periods—the immediately prior to (1990s) and the years following the start of the 21st century (early 2000s).[3] Those interviewed in the accidental vacation provided not only an overview of the referenced periods, but also highlighted the changes in the conflict beginning in 2004. The changes and a general, simplified overview of the conflict are herein provided, but within the confines of the specified temporal periods.[4]  An in-depth historical review of the conflict is not possible within the confines of this article. 

The intent of this article is to provide a context for the next series of articles on border and checkpoint security; the Amnesty and the insurgent re-education programs; and, the establishment of an economic zone, the relocation of communities along the Thai-Malay border, and the role of the Royal Thai Army in the relocation process.
A Contemporary Temporal Overview 

The first temporal period is from 1960 to 1998.  Chalk (2008) posits the main aims of the insurgency campaign in this period were to illustrate that the region was beyond the reach of the centralized authority; to create a sense of insecurity among the non-Malays living in the region; to facilitate division between non-Malays and the Malays; and, to pressure the central government to consent to the insurgents’ demands. Insurgent campaigns in this period capitalized on the issues of secession and the standard of education in the region. They sought to foster and nurture political consciousness and ethno-nationalism identity; and, to generate international publicity for their cause. It should be noted that, ideologically, ethno-nationalism was salient across the actors within the insurgent network. Ideas of and discourse pertaining to anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and Islamic socialism were also prevalent.  Finally, the strategies and tactics employed were symbolic of the objectives sought and the shared grievances.  They were also primarily violent in nature.[5]
Toward the end of this period, and under the leadership of Prime Minister General Prem Tinsuanonda (1980-88),[6]  the south experienced years of relative peace.[7]    Relative peace was made possible through the implementation of the Tai Rom Yen (Peaceful and Stable South) approach. The Tai Rom Yen approach supported Malay-Muslim cultural rights and freedoms; facilitated the participation of Muslim leaders in political life;[8] promoted economic and infrastructure development; provided a blanket amnesty for insurgents; intensified relations between the Thai and Malaysian authorities[9] and improved border security;[10] and, finally, established a monitoring system to transform the conflict from confrontation to negotiation.[11]  The monitoring system established the Southern Border Provincial Administration (SBPAC) and the Civilian Police-Military Unit 43 (CPM 43) in 1981.[12]   SBPAC is responsible for governing the provinces; monitoring the implementation of the development projects; coordinating efforts for the alleviation of grievances; serving as a bridge between the central and local leadership; and, removing individuals in places of authority who are incapable of performing their duties for whatever reason.  The CPM 43 is responsible for coordinating security operations.[13]  In particular, it is accountable for interagency cooperation and intelligence collection.[14]
The initiatives undertaken toward the end of the first period illustrated a greater sensitivity to the grievances of the South.  They sought to facilitate understanding, to bridge socio-cultural differences, and to improve lives and condition of those living in the south.   Unfortunately, though, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 intervened.  With the financial crisis upon Asia, attention and resources shifted from the South of Thailand Conflict.  This meant that the overall economic and unemployment conditions of those living in the South went unaddressed.  There were also little efforts made to increase Malay-Muslim participation in local business and administration.[15] It is interesting to note that in the present day, in 2014, SBPAC has moved to address this through promoting the sale of Halal products from the South; facilitating relations between locals and civil society organizations to provide the needed skills training; and, promoting educational opportunities of men, women and children living in the rural and urban areas.  The role and importance of education were emphasized by those interviewed at the Hatyai Infantry Base.
By the second temporal period and with the dismantling of SBPAC and the transferring of its authority and responsibility to the police in 2001, the conditions in the three provinces and the relations with the people deteriorated. The situation intensified when insurgents waged five coordinated attacks on police posts in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat at end of 2001. The year 2001 would be the commencement of a systematic, violent campaign.[16]  According to Captain Somapee, the insurgency campaign had five main objectives: the targeting of local police and government agents;[17]   provocation of Thai authorities;[18] rejuvenation of Malay nationalism; opportunistic recruitment;[19] and, maintenance of the insurgency’s momentum.[20]  It is believed that they sought to attain these objectives through religious polarization; the exploitation of religious schools and recruitment of new operatives and the disenfranchised; the use and exploitation of the media (information and propaganda operations); and, the employment of violent tactics.  The campaign would reach a peak, or turning point, in 2004.[21]
The year 2004 signals the start of the third temporal period.  There were two incidents in particular that help to explain the significance of the turning point.  They are the Krue Se Mosque incident of April 28, 2004 and the Tak Bai Incident of October 25, 2004.  In the Krue Se Mosque incident, the insurgents who had taken refuge in the place of worship were killed.  They were killed following an incident, whereby insurgents had simultaneously targeted 15 security outposts and the police stations in Yala, Songkhla and Pattani. In the Tak Bai incident, protesters surrounded the police station at Tak Bai in Narathiwat to demand the release of six suspects.[22]  From that protest there were an estimated 300 people arrested,[23] 9 people killed, and around 78 or more[24] people who had suffocated as a result of unsuitable transportation from Tak Bai to Pattani.[25] The video footage taken by journalists present at the incident was made publicly available.
A month after the incident, on November 4, 2004, a female police chief was beheaded in retaliation.  There were also other police officers and some Buddhist village leaders who were targeted. These incidents exacerbated existing tensions on the streets and divisions among the security sector, community and governing authorities (central and provincial).  When looking at the data for incidents, it should be noted that a majority of those killed and injured by insurgents were civilians.  Prime Minister Surayud Chulanot publicly apologized in 2006 for the 2004 incidents even though they did not happen under his government.  Former Prime Minister Yinluck’s government offered reparations to the family members of the victims in 2012.  One year later, in 2013, locals Malay Muslims and Buddhists joined hands to protest against violence.
In spite of the protests, sporadic incidents of violence continue to this day in 2014.  With each incident of violence, the frustration on the part of residents can be heard.  The frustration can be framed with a simple question: When will it end?  Perhaps with genuine sincerity among all actors and with the conflict being made a priority, progress can be made in the search for peace.


[1] Rachael M. Rudolph is a lecturer in the International Relations Department at Webster University Thailand. She also serves as head of international relations for Facilitate Global, UK.  James Hughes is a lecturer in the Communications Department at Webster University Thailand.  Pragyan Ghale and Supark Maneein are students at Webster University Thailand.  Supark Maneein served as the translator for the meetings with officials.  
[2] Chalk, P. (2008). “The Malay-Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand,” RAND Counter Insurgency Study, 5: 1-27.
[3] Somapee, Captain S. “Insurgency in Southern Thailand and the Four-Track Mitigation Policy,” The Royal Thai Navy: 1-60.
[4] There is a body of literature that provides a more in-depth analysis of the conflict and its issues.  This article is merely designed to provide a brief overview to contextualize the forthcoming articles based on the information obtained from the accidental vacation. It was in conversation with others outside of Thailand following the trip that it was realized a primer was necessary.
[5] One of the main groups operating in insurgent network had employed a dual track strategy that encompassed both violent and non-violent forms of collective action.
[6] General Prem is originally from the South of Thailand, thus his knowledge of the area and the issues are deep.
[7] Sompaee supra note 3.
[8] Internal fragmentation within the groups comprising the larger, overarching insurgent network contributed to a reduction in incidents.
[9] Improved Thai-Malay relations led to many insurgents either accepting the blanket Amnesty or being forced from Malaysia.
[10] The increased border security between the two countries also helped to reduce cross-border insurgent activity.
[11] Cf. Sompaee, Patcharakanokkul, and Chalk.
[12] In 1981, the monitoring system was placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.  It would be disbanded by Thaskin 2001, reconstituted under Surayud 2006, and placed under the authority of ISOC. ISOC is presently under the authority of the Royal Thai Army. This distinction is important because of what transpired in the 2004 period.
[13] Patcharakanokkul, Colonel S. (2010). “Rethinking Strategy Policy of Counter Insurgency in Southern Thailand,” US Army War College, Carlisle, PA: 1-22.
[14] Sompaee supra note 3.
[15] Chalk supra note 2.
[16] Sompaee supra note 3.
[17] It should be noted that army intelligence agents were targeted by both the police and insurgents (Somapee).  The former targeted them in the drug crackdown led by former Prime Minister Thaskin, while the latter targeted them for working with the army.  What this suggests was a breakdown in the sharing of information between the police and the army during that particular time period.  The sharing of information is vital for effective security, peace and humanitarian operations.  Such incidences also do not help with facilitating trust and building confidence.  Trust is necessary for the effective implementation of confidence-building measures.
[18] Following the divisions created as a result of the targeting of intelligence operatives and police officers, the insurgents targeted military camps, police outposts and Buddhist Temples.
[19] It is believed that insurgents exploited the anger over Thailand’s support for the US Global War on Terrorism and US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
[20] Sompaee supra note 3.
[21] In addition to the existing literature on the South of Thailand Conflict, all of the Royal Thai Army officials from the Hatyai, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat military bases interviewed in the accidental vacation also emphasized this year as being significant for the insurgency campaign of the first part of the 21st century.  See Sompee’s assessment for the data.
[22] Captain Somapee’s assessment lists the number of those who surrounded the station as 2000.  Other media reports referenced 1500.
[23] Some media reports provide a higher number of those detained in this incident.
[24] Other media reports have cited 85 as the number who had suffocated.
[25] Sompaee supra note 3.

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