There are no links between Islamic State (IS) militants and insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South, according to a new study by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Leaders in the country’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region overwhelmingly reject the ideology espoused by IS, the Brussels-based group argues in the report, “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace,” which came out this week.
There is no evidence to date that the Middle East-based extremist organization has made any inroads into the Deep South, partly because insurgents there are nationalists who seek to create their own independent state, ICG said.
“Fears of jihadist influence based primarily on the argument that ‘things can change’ must be weighed against evidence that there is no appetite among the leadership of existing militant groups for affiliation with ISIS or like-minded groups,” ICG stated, using another acronym for IS.
Such fears have sharpened with the decline of Islamic State as it loses territory in its traditional Middle Eastern strongholds, along with the advent of IS-linked violence in Southeast Asia that has revealed “the possibility of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in the region,” the ICG suggested in its report.
“Indeed, the Malay-Muslim insurgency is distinguished by its parochialism. The militant organization pursues national self-determination over a specific territory, seeking to join, rather than destroy, the international system,” the report said.
ICG also warned Thai government officials against complacency toward the decades-old separatist conflict in the south, in which nearly 7,000 people have died since 2004.
Impatience with an ongoing peace process involving the government and MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing militant organizations in the region, could encourage splinter factions among the rebels to take extreme action, said ICG, a Belgium-based organization whose stated goal is to prevent wars and shape policy to build a more peaceful world.
To create the 31-page report, ICG researchers interviewed members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and other southern Thai insurgent groups, Muslim leaders, academics, professionals, military and police officers, and several Malay-Muslim women in the Deep South and neighboring countries since mid-2016.
BRN commands the overwhelming majority of fighters in the Thai Deep South. ICG reports that Malay-Muslim militants are suspicious of foreign operatives and have rejected proposals from outside militant groups to attack Thai tourist sites.
“Our field of struggle is different from theirs,” ICG quoted a senior BRN member. This man had turned down an invitation to meet Abu Bakar Bashir, the imprisoned Indonesian spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda linked group that carried out bombings that killed 202 people in Bali, Indonesia 15 years ago.
The director of Deep South Watch, a non-government organization that monitors conflicts in the region, agreed.
“This side has Malay-Muslim nationalist ideology and is not focused on an international concept,” Srisompob Jitpiromsri told BenarNews. “The Islamic State identity is universal. The two ideologies are not connected directly.
“The operations, violence, brutality, struggle and fighting of the Deep South are brutal, but will not harm civilians and innocent people because that would affect the feelings of people in the area.”
Still, Srisompob said, the Deep South was not free of IS sympathizers.
“While there might be some people in the area who believe in ideas of IS, it seems to be more toward individuals than the ideology,” he said.
ICG said the Southeast Asian nation could be a special destination. “ISIS reportedly has rewarded fighters with trips to Thailand for rest and relaxation.”
A Deep South security officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was difficult to confirm reports of IS members in the border region.
“IS members who entered the area have tried to instigate the young teens in this area, but locals here should not want to join because they have different ideologies,” the officer told BenarNews.
Faith a firewall against extremism
ICG said an overriding concern of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s government is to shield the nation from damage that international terrorism could inflict on the tourism industry, which indirectly contributes 20 percent of the gross domestic product.
Because of this concern, the government must not only prevent attacks, but must play down threats, “keeping terrorism out of the headlines.”
The ICG report also praised the government’s protection of religious freedom that does not interfere with Muslim practices in the Deep South for helping keep the IS ideology from taking root there.
“Their faith is the firewall against extremists’ influence,” a senior leader of the Patani United Liberation Organization, another rebel group in the south, told ICG, praising teachings at local Islamic schools for creating an “immune system.”
In its conclusion, ICG offered its suggestion for keeping the Deep South and the rest of Thailand free from IS incursions.
“Malay-Muslim militants and the Thai state have a common interest in keeping out ISIS and other jihadist groups. While for now, the conflict has not led to the pervasive disorder that jihadists have exploited elsewhere, it could evolve in ways that generate more promising conditions for jihadist intervention,” ICG said.
“Stalemate or miscalculation could lead some militants to employ more spectacular violence, which in turn could lead to a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Thailand, and a broader sectarian conflict,” the report went on to say. “To avert this, and to fulfill their obligations to the people of southernmost Thailand, Bangkok and the militant fronts should seek compromise and a negotiated end to the conflict.”