A Bangkok military seminar in February concluded that the conflict in southern Thailand, now entering its sixth year, "will get worse before it gets any better." In the same week, insurgents gunned down a village chief, blew up two people and shot two soldiers, mutilating and burning the corpses. Some 3,300 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since 2004. Exactly how much worse does it need to get?
British academic Duncan McCargo counters such heartless defeatism with Tearing Apart the Land, an introduction to a scandalously underreported conflict. Most of the 1.8 million people in Thailand's three southernmost provinces are Malay-speaking Muslims, but they make up only 2% of a largely Thai-speaking Buddhist country. For a century, attempts at assimilation have been met with resentment and rebellion. The current hostilities erupted under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose hard-line response to what he dismissed as banditry turned sporadic militant attacks into a full-blown insurgency.
Despite its Islamic overtones insurgents rail against "Siamese infidels" this is not a holy war but a rebellion driven by homegrown historical and political grievances. McCargo rightly scorns the legions of post-9/11 armchair analysts who try to shoehorn every conflict into well-Googled theories of global jihad. No armchairs for this author: he researched the book by crisscrossing southern Thailand in a temperamental 1989 Mercedes, hastening back to the town of Pattani by nightfall to avoid militant booby traps. McCargo is the real McCoy.
The militant movement remains secretive and nebulous. Most attacks are carried out by small cells of youths "self-managed violence franchises," McCargo calls them enraged by a history of Thai oppression and modern-day abuses by soldiers and police. Their pitiless creed is summed up by a note left for the authorities beside a decapitated victim. "You caught someone who was innocent," it read. "We killed someone who was innocent."
Ranged against this ruthless foe are the bumbling and sometimes brutal Thai security forces. McCargo is scathing about them. The army subcontracts much of the fighting to ill-disciplined paramilitaries, he writes, keeping its best-trained troops close to Bangkok to stymie or stage coups d'état. The police, McCargo says, are "vicious and incompetent." His unsparing criticism is supported by groups like Human Rights Watch, which, in a 2007 report, attributed 21 "disappearances" to the security forces, including that of campaigning Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaichit.
So far, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand's new Prime Minister, hasn't helped much. He has extended an emergency decree that makes it hard for rights-abusing soldiers and police to be prosecuted, and his vow to boost the halal-food industry and other local projects does not address the conflict's complex roots. By blankly rejecting Amnesty International's recent claims that the Thai military was systematically torturing Malay Muslims, Abhisit also struck a yoga position familiar in Thai politics: saving face by burying your head in the sand.
For McCargo, the only long-term solution combines firm action against the perpetrators of violence and "substantive autonomy" for the three southernmost provinces. The problem is that, for the rest of this intensely nationalistic country, autonomy is regarded as a back door for separatism, a word whose closest Thai equivalent translates emotively as "tearing apart the land." Such sensitivities make public discussion of bold solutions impossible, laments McCargo. As his book suggests, putting the land back together isn't impossible. Tragically, it isn't imminent either.