As Muslim-majority regions of Southeast Asia grapple with how to deal with extremists returning home from the Islamic State (IS) group’s fallen caliphate in the Middle East, southern Thailand has largely been spared the dilemma as it is believed that none of its citizens went to fight in Syria and Iraq.
According to Muslim activists from Thailand’s mainly Islamic southern border region, an on-going armed insurgency by ethnic Malays who are fighting the Buddhist-majority government for greater autonomy has acted as a bulwark against the influence of IS.
“No one from southern Thailand has joined the Islamic State,” Suhaimee Dulasa of The Pattani, a social activist group based in Pattani, one of the provinces of the troubled Thai Deep South, told BenarNews during a visit to Kuala Lumpur this week.
“There is no need for anyone to join IS to wage jihad. Anyone who wants to wage jihad for Islam sees themselves fulfilling that calling by joining Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN),” Suhaimee said.
BRN is the largest of the rebel groups in the Deep South. It has the strongest military capacity and controls nearly all of the combatants in the field. Since 2004, insurgency-related violence in Thailand’s far south has claimed almost 7,000 lives.
“BRN has been a bulwark against IS in southern Thailand,” Suhaimee added.
On March 23, the Kurdish-led and U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared that IS’ five-year “caliphate” had ended after the militants’ defeat in Syria.
Thousands of foreign fighters surrendered to the SDF as some governments considered stripping them of their citizenship, according to news reports from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Southeast Asians from Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines were among hundreds of foreign fighters who made their way to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS, officials said.
“We in Pattani do not adhere to Salafi jihadi. We are Muslims who follow the Syafii school of thought. We believe in Wasatiyah, the Middle Path,” Asmadee Bueheng, also of The Pattani, told BenarNews.
Analysts and Thai officials, meanwhile, have said before that there is no evidence of IS existing in the Deep South, but this was not for a lack of trying.
In December 2015, supporters of Islamic State in Thailand posted online IS propaganda videos that contained Thai-language subtitles. It was the first such effort to recruit local fighters to its violent cause, a senior Thai security official said.
“There are links between IS sympathizers inside and out of Thailand,” the source told BenarNews at the time.
But Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, a top army official who used another acronym for IS, said then there was “no report of Deep South natives joining ISIS.”
And in November 2017, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group published a study concluding that the Mid-East terror group had made no inroads into the Deep South. The Malay-Muslim armed separatist movement there, ICG said, was very different in nature than the extremist cause espoused by IS.
‘Not an international jihadist movement’
Unlike the southern Philippines where several separatist insurgent groups pledged allegiance to IS during the reign of its so-called caliphate, southern Thailand’s largest insurgent group, BRN, bucked the trend.
“This is an ethno-nationalistic movement, not an international jihadist movement. They do not believe in a global caliphate. Their struggle is local,” said Don Pathan, an independent Thai analyst and columnist for BenarNews.
Apart from BRN’s struggle and the moderate brand of Islam practiced by Muslims in southern Thailand, the cultural narrative was also an important factor, he pointed out.
“I will place equal importance to the cultural and historical narrative of the Pattani people that served as a natural barrier against extremist ideas or Salafi-leaning extremist ideas from coming in,” Pathan told BenarNews.
“Basically that narrative is – Pattani is a land of the Malay people, they have their own history, myths, fairy tales, which separate them from the Thai state’s constructed narrative,” Pathan said.
Past attempts by other extremist groups including Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the al-Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia, to recruit Pattani Malays had also failed, he noted.
“When JI was really hot In Southeast Asia after the Bali bombing in 2002, they (Pattani Malays) could have joined JI but they didn’t,” he said.
Wanted in Malaysia
While no Pattani Malay is known to have traveled to Syria, at least one is believed to have been influenced by IS, according to officials in Malaysia, which shares a border with the Thai Deep South.
In April last year, Malaysian police placed a southern Thai national, Awae Wae-Eya, 37, on the wanted list for allegedly planning terror attacks in Malaysia’s Johor state. He is believed to have had contacts with IS in Syria back then.
Malaysian police said Awae and three other IS-linked suspects were involved in a plot to kidnap and murder police officers, as well as attack on non-Muslim places of worship.
Thai authorities, who briefly detained and released Awae after questioning him in April 2018, dismissed the Malaysian allegations that he had ties to IS.