Shallow understanding of the violent conflict in Thailand’s Deep South has fueled Islamophobia in that country, academics and local residents told a seminar on the topic this month.
Exacerbating the problem is the media’s penchant for focusing on violence, according to Saki Pitakkhumpol, a professor at the Institute of Peace Studies at Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai district of southern Songkhla province.
“We cannot generalize that the violence in the Deep South was the sole work of the so-called Deep South bandits or perpetrators. It is more complex than that,” Saki told a seminar on May 13 titled “Islamophobia in Thai Society: How We Can Live Together” at the Central Islamic Center of Thailand in Bangkok.
“People on the ground start to understand the complex problems that go beyond separatism or problems between Muslims and Buddhists,” he added.
Panelists at the event cited “increasing anti-Muslim sentiment” as the impetus to hold the seminar.
On May 12, banners appeared at a mosque construction site in Mukdaharn province in northeastern Thailand rejecting its presence.
One of the banners referred to resistance in southern Pattani province to a proposed Buddhist park in the predominantly Muslim area.
“Cannot build Buddha Monthon Park in Pattani because they are Muslims. Here we are all Buddhists. Who is the mosque for?” one banner read.
Thailand’s Deep South, formerly the Malay kingdom of Patani Darussalam, encompasses Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces, and four districts of Songkhla. The region was completely annexed by the then-Kingdom of Siam in 1902.
Today 80 percent of the Deep South’s 1.7 million residents are Muslim Malay-Patani, or Muslim Thais, a term Thai authorities prefer. Muslims live elsewhere in Thailand, accounting for close to four million of the country’s total population of 67 million.
A separatist insurgency has simmered in the Deep South since the 1960s. Since it reignited in 2004, more than 6,500 have been killed, both Buddhists and Muslims.
There are some 9,000 militants in the region affiliated with a variety of insurgent groups and factions, according to estimates by the government and Mara Patani, a committee representing the rebels that has been involved in recent efforts to restart peace talks.
‘A bad impression’
Deep South Muslims are stereotyped as violent insurgents, according to one Pattani native.
“I understand why outsiders have a bad impression of people in Deep South, Muslims in particular. The government readily concludes that insurgents cause the problems. And in the government’s definition, insurgents means Muslims in the Deep South,” Tola Denglala told BenarNews.
“The reality is too complicated to be able to clearly identify who did the violence. And by generalizing, so the government unknowingly creates more problems,” he argued.
The media, meanwhile, pays little heed to the majority of Muslims and Buddhists who live in harmony, he said.
But Rukchart Suwan, president of Buddhist Network for Peace in Yala, said the stereotype stems from the fact that almost all suspected insurgents arrested in the region are Muslims.
On Wednesday police announced the arrest of two Muslim men suspected in an April 11 bomb attack near a railway station in Songkhla’s Jana district that killed a 4 year-old boy and a police officer. Eight others, including two sisters of the boy, were injured.
The two men were compelled to “re-enact” the bomb scene, a typical procedure in Thailand’s justice system. Furious comments about the bombing spread like wildfire on social media.
“Almost all suspects in violent incidents are Muslims. They kill both Muslim Thais and Buddhist Thais,” Rukchart told Benar News by phone.
In his view, Thai security officials have not added significantly to the southern death toll in recent years.
“Lately Thai officials strictly observe legal means,” he said, acknowledging that earlier the insurgency was fueled by deadly military clashes with southern rebels and civilian casualties.
He was likely referring to events in 2004 when police killed 32 suspected insurgents who had taken refuge in the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani, or the so-called Tak Bai incident in which 85 protesters died, many after being stacked like logs in military trucks.
Malay-Patanis want to prevent their ethnic identity from being subsumed in Thai identity, which is fundamentally Buddhist, according to Pornpen Kongkachonkiat, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, a Thai NGO.
Some Thais may harbor Islamophobia, but the government itself does not single out followers of that religion for discrimination. Rather, the state resists all efforts to deviate from mainstream Thai identity, she said.
“Thailand recognizes itself as a single state, indivisible, and it is unwilling to accept ethnic differences.” Pornpen told BenarNews by phone.
Rukchart said that Islamophobia could be addressed by curbing social media forums in which the Deep South conflict is hotly debated, and hate speech is rampant – and by forging peace in the south.
“It has been 12 years of violence already and it is time to put it to an end,” he said.