With a bomb explosion killing nine people on January 25, this month’s toll of insurgency-related deaths in Muslim-majority southern Thailand rose to 22. Around 30,000 soldiers and thousands of paramilitary troops guard the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat that border Malaysia.
At least 4,000 people have been killed and over 7,000 injured in the tensions between Muslim insurgents and the Buddhist kingdom of Thailand after the conflict reignited in 2004. The Thai government blames the rampant violence on Islamist groups, but many accuse the security forces of carrying out killings with impunity. The region under conflict was a Malay sultanate and partially under Thai suzerainty until the early 20th century. It was principally a Malay-speaking, Muslim-majority region, and in the late 20th century a segment of residents took up arms against the Thai state, seeking independence.
The Thai government was able to broker a ceasefire deal with some key armed groups, but, for unknown reasons, militancy soon began to resurface. Along with the killings of many Malay Muslims, the minority Buddhist community reacted too. The ethnic, local and migrant Buddhists sought to consolidate themselves in relation to the majority Malay Muslims. In November 2004 the queen of Thailand added force to the emerging collective Buddhist identity and aggression by calling upon the region’s 300,000 Thais to learn how to shoot in one of her public speeches.
The Buddhist-Muslim conflict of southern Thailand is part of a larger pattern of Buddhist militancy, according to the recent book Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press) by Michael Jerryson and Mark Jurgensmeyer. The authors write that ordained Buddhist monks in southern Thailand have been involved in secret missions to kill Muslim insurgents. Monks condoning violence is not a new development. In 1976 a right-wing monk, Kittwutho, declared that “killing communists is no sin,” according to an article in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (Volume 40, Issue 1).
It is believed that Thai Buddhism—belonging to the Theravada school— became political and nationalistic particularly after the death of Bhuddadhasa Bhikkhu, an influential Buddhist philosopher, in 1993. The article also points out that Thai armed forces have been accused of large-scale brutalities under the pretext of serving the nation, the Buddhist religion and the king since the early 1970s.
— By Vishal Arora