There is a forgotten war in the south of Thailand. A conflict between Muslims and Buddhists which has been raging far longer than just the terrorist organizations in the last two decades. One cannot begin to understand the conflict between the Thai government and the regions of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla, without first understanding the historical context in which these separatist conditions have blossomed.
The Sultanate of Patani:
The founding of the Patani Kingdom is shrouded in myth and legend. Some historians have related it to an ancient Hindu kingdom known to the Chinese as Pan Pan, which existed somewhere in the Malay Peninsula between the 3rd and 8th Centuries. Pan Pan fell to Srivijaya in 775 C.E. As the centuries passed, the name for this land could have evolved to “Pan Tan i”. This theory is lent some credence from the fact that natives of Patani have a markedly different language and culture than bordering Malay regions.
There are two main legends among Malay fisherman as to the founding of the birth of Patani. The first is a tale of a fisherman in the 14th Century, sent by a king from a central region to survey the coast. His name was Pak Tani, or “father of Tani”. Soon his little fishing outpost turned into a prosperous trading port—one which still bears his name.
The second legend—favored more by Muslims in the region of Patani today—tells that in the 13th Century, the Sultan Ismail Shah came to the area. Upon seeing the region, the Sultan Ismail Shah exclaimed, “Pantai ini!” (pronounced as “patani”, meaning “this beach!” in the local Malay dialect known as Jawi).
The Sultan Ismail Shah:
The Sultan Ismail Shah is seen as a legendary source of legitimacy for the Islamization of the Sultanate of Patani. In the 14th Century, the Ayutthaya Kingdom—from what is now called Thailand—conquered several countries in the northern region of the Malay Peninsula, uniting them under a common rule. One of these was the kingdom of Patani.
According to legend, the king of Ayutthaya suffered from a chronic skin condition that no one could cure. A sheik named Sa’id from Pasai (a small community from the outskirts of Patani) was able to heal this rare skin condition. The king returned to his land, and soon the skin condition returned. The sheik said he would never be fully cured of the skin condition until he converted to Islam. Therefore the king converted, and soon his officials followed suit. Upon converting, he changed his name to Sultan Ismail Shah.
History of Ayutthaya:
Historically, there is evidence from early Portuguese traders (and traveler reports like that of Ibn Battuta), which state that there was a community of Muslims in Pasai, on the outskirts of Patani, far earlier than when the legend of Sultan Ismail Shah’s conversion was said to have taken place—even as early as the late 12th Century. However, for the most part, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya practiced Theravada Buddhism, with several regions practicing Mahayana Buddhism, Islam (and even a few enclaves of Roman Catholicism introduced later in 17th Century).
During the 15th Century, the kingdom of Ayutthaya conquered parts of what is now Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Malaysia, bringing a stability in the region which would open it up to trade with Chinese merchants seeking specialty goods. Foreign accounts often called the kingdom of Ayutthaya by another name: Siam. However, many historical accounts say that the people of Ayutthaya called themselves “Tai”.
Relationship between Ayutthaya and Patani:
Patani was one of those conquered vassal states under Ayutthaya rule from the 14th Century forward. These vassal states retained a large amount of autonomy, yet were required to pay tribute to Ayutthaya and support them in times of war. This system remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
Meanwhile Patani grew as a vastly important international port. The first to arrive in the 15th Century to Patani were the Chinese, who were led by the famous explorer and fleet admiral Zheng He. Then in the 16th Century, Portuguese traders began arriving to Patani to trade with China.
It was during the 16th Century that another kingdom called Burma rose to power. This kingdom soon overtook the northern kingdoms of Chiang Mai and Laos. Within a matter of decades, they set sights on the kingdom of Ayutthaya. In 1563, a siege was led by King Bayinnaung. Though the capital Ayutthaya was supplied and supported by three Portuguese warships during the siege, the following year the king of Ayutthaya, named Maha Chakkraphat, was forced to surrender. He and his whole family were moved to the capital of Burma, and one of King Bayinnaung’s sons was installed as King of Ayutthaya.
There is some historical evidence which indicates that Patani may have achieved independence during this power vacuum and period of Thai instability. However, this independence was short lived. What it does demonstrate however, is that there was a long-standing tradition of political unrest and malcontent in Patani toward their Siamese overlords.
Growth of Patani as an Independent and International Hub:
The Portuguese traders were soon followed by Japanese traders at the end of the 16th Century. At the start of the 17th Century, they were joined by the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company. Trading in Patani became a lucrative opportunity, whereby Western European powers could exchange wares with Chinese traders from the north. In fact, so many Chinese traders flocked to Patani that a Dutch report released in 1603 by Jacob van Neck estimated that there were as many Chinese traders as native Malay.
Between 1584 and 1688, Patani was ruled by a series of four queens—each known by a color. First the Green Queen (Ratu Hijau) from 1584 to 1616, then to her sister the Blue Queen (Ratu Biru) who ruled until 1624. Then the Violet Queen followed, a third sister (Ratu Ungu) ruled until 1634. Finally, her daughter the Yellow Queen (Ratu Kuning) would take the throne until her death in 1688. Each of these capable leaders fought the Siamese kingdom to the north with their own measures of successes.
Siamese Control Over Patani:
After the death of the Yellow Queen in 1688, Patani fell once again under Ayutthaya rule. Furthermore, due to a grass-roots insurgency against the Siamese conquerors, and the resulting political instability, the traders which had made Patani an economic powerhouse over the last few centuries gradually left for greener pastures.
The 18th Century dominion over Patani had a two-decade-long break when the Burmese once again invaded the Siamese kingdom. When the capital of Ayutthaya was destroyed in 1767, Patani once again declared independence. However, by 1785 Siam was reunited under new leadership which would come to be called the Chakri Dynasty lead by King Rama I. His younger brother Prince Surasi was soon dispatched to quell any hopes of long-term Patani independence. Patani never lost hope however. They continued their insurrection against the state until King Rama II was compelled to divide Patani into seven smaller kingdoms in hopes of causing dissension among the nations: Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu, Perlis, Penang, Sebarang Perai, and one last state named “Pattani”.
British Involvement in Siamese Claim over Patani:
The story of British involvement in the early 19th Century has more to deal with a long-standing tradition of British imperialism. However, to put it briefly, the British were engaged in the First Anglo-Burmese War at that time, and as the old adage goes: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Thus, King Rama III and a representative of the British East India Company (named Henry Burney) signed a treaty in 1826 known as the Burney Treaty. A Siamese army was raised, though it didn’t see much fighting. The real importance is that, in this treaty the British recognized the Siamese claim over the 5 northern Malay states of Perlis, Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu, and Pattani. These were five of the seven kingdoms originally called the Sultanate of Patani. The other two kingdoms, Penang and Sebarang Perai, would fall under British rule.
A second treaty, known as the Bowring Treaty was signed in 1855—solidifying this claim by offering no dispute over the territories.
However, a third treaty known as the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 enabled the Siamese kingdom to retain its autonomy from British rule. However, it gave control of all of the Malay states to the British—except for one: the state of Pattani.
Thaification and Rebellion in Patani:
The coming decades were tense though relatively peaceful because southern regions were allowed to govern their land by islamic law. Then a policy of cultural assimilation called The Natural Culture Act was initiated by the Siamese government in 1934. This policy sought to foster cultural unification and homogeneity among the Thai nation. This policy was aimed at folding diverse populations like those in the southern region of Thailand into the same culture. In 1944, Siam began to enforce Thai Civil Law on the southern states—effectively removing the southern autonomy and ability to instill civil law based on the principles of Islam. By 1948, the South Thailand Insurgency had begun.
*As an aside, during World War II from 1939 to 1946, the government changed its name officially to Thailand. From 1946 to 1948, there was a brief return to Siam, and from there it would be known as Thailand until the present day.
The South Thailand Insurgency:
In response to the cultural assimilation policies of the early 20th Century, and the loss of civil autonomy, the southern states of Thailand rebelled against the Thai government. A man named Haji Sulong spearheaded this movement. Born in 1895 to a family of religious leaders, he followed in his parent’s footsteps by studying religion. He also earned a formal education from the University of Egypt where he was exposed to the Shafi’ite approach to Islam which sought to modernize Islam for a changing, secular world. He then lived for a time in Mecca where he was exposed to the more radical and fundamentalist practice of Wahhabism found in the Saudi kingdom. He felt himself drawn to a more modernist approach.
Haji Sulong formed a coalition of like-minded activists to launch a campaign called the Patani People’s Movement. They demanded autonomy to formalize their own religious schools, rights to conduct affairs in their own language, and an end to the Thaification policies pushed on the Jawi people during the first half of the century. They released a seven point document calling for:
- The unification of Pattani to be ruled under a Muslim governor
- Schools be taught in Malay for the first seven years
- Taxes collected from Malay states be spent in Malay states
- The government be run by 85% Malay individuals
- Both Thai and Malay would be used as official languages in the southern states
- The provincial islamic committees would have authority over the practice of Islam
- The islamic judicial system be separate from the provincial judicial system
He did gather a certain following, however he also gained scrutiny from those Jawi who believed his views were too radical and would stir up the status quo, thus garnering a response from the Thai government. They were not wrong in this regard, because by 1955 he had been arrested for inciting rebellion. Haji Sulong disappeared with his eldest son while on his way to face trial.
Pattani Insurgency as It Stands Today:
The campaign for Thaification disappeared by the 1980s, and the southern states in Thailand have since been granted a modicum of autonomy. Many civil laws allow for the observance of Islamic law. However, the struggle for independence—as the Malay see it anyway—continues. The attacks of September, 11th, 2001 seem to have only furthered the fundamentalist impulses toward terrorist violence. 2004 saw an escalation of violence, and 2005 saw a backlash by the Thai government under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This only lasted until 2006 when the former Prime Minister was overthrown, and since then a policy of inclusiveness and tolerance has been directed toward the people of the southern states of Thailand. This new approach is aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the people from the Patani region.
Nevertheless the terrorist insurgency has continued, escalating to over 7,000 deaths, and another 12,000 wounded to this day. These terrorist attacks have been carried out largely by car or motorcycle bombings—not only toward military targets, but also toward civilian targets such as crowded bars, restaurants, and grocery stores. On May 20th of 2018 for example, during the holy month of Ramadan, a series of bombings took place directed at banks and cash machines, and thankfully only a few people were hurt with no fatalities.
However, there has been progress and there is hope. In 2007, there were 4,000 insurgency-related attacks. By 2017, this annual figure had lowered to 500. The Thai government has deployed over 60,000 troops, which can be seen patrolling the area in almost any location.
Perhaps most surprisingly, in the most recent turn of developments, a new Buddhist nationalism is arising to combat the Muslim identity in the southern states of Thailand. Though the Buddhist population in the southern states has steadily dwindled, those who have stayed have pushed to forge a stronger Buddhist identity complete with community outreach programs. There have been no indications that this newfound Buddhist identity will lead to an escalation of violence.
Some Closing Thoughts:
One cannot predict what will happen in the southern region of Thailand. Violence does seem to be decreasing correlated with the southern states attaining a more cultural homogeneity and autonomy. However, history has shown us that the road to revolution is often bloody and needless when compared to the ease by which one can attain peace and compromise.
This article is not meant to condone the violence, merely to outline the historical context in which the violence and its subsequent ideology have arisen. We hope to illustrate why a peaceful resolution to the events in the south seems to run in such stark contrast to the way the region of Patani has developed culturally over the last five centuries. In effect, rebellion has become second nature to the people of Southern Thailand.
*For more information on the current standing of the insurgency, click here.
*For a first-hand account of what it is like to see travel through the region, click here.
*For a complete list of events during the South Thailand Insurgency, click here.
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