Irredentism and Islamic separatism in Thailand

The one-month cessation of hostilities proclaimed at the beginning of April by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, the “National Revolutionary Front”) already witnessed to its end on the very first days of May. April was the first month without a single attack in 16 years. Due to the COVID-19pandemic, the rebels themselves took the decision to “cease all the activities” unilaterally in order to give way to health workers to operate in a secure context. The group kept faith to its communiqué stating that the hostilities would resume if the police attacked them[1].

Since 1963, the BRN spearheaded the whole secessionist movement of Malay Muslims, and, in a later period, started to organize a proper rebellion against the state with hundreds of members. The BRN’s course of action was embedded in left-wing aspirations of an Islamic socialism and Malay nationalism, in pursuit of the creation an independent Malay-Muslim country.

Nowadays, one of the debates concerning the insurgency’s nature is hinged on the question of the possibility that the struggle may be no longer based on ethnic claim of land, but on the modern-day Islamic extremism. There has been a great concern by intelligence assessment agencies[2] that the separatists could be redirect into new forms of action, namely the transnational jihad, by external actors and social forces.

In fact, notwithstanding the ethnic-based violence, it may seem plausible to conjecture a slow insertion of the insurgents in the larger context of terrorism taking place mainly in the Middle East. Such conjectures could be made on the basis of several attacks perpetrated, where pattern of victims’ shared identity traits was not yet Thai but actually Christian. Among the organizations that partake in the insurgency, a few have not only been described by the UN as terrorist groups, but also, like in the case of Jemaah Islamiyah, have been found linked with Al-Qaeda[3].In this case indeed, it is correct to speak of a religious motive behind the killings as, in 2005, it got sadly famous with the beheadings of Christian girls in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Yet, the essence of the unrest itself seems still to be linked to an irredentist will of conquest, not a religious one aiming at the establishment of a panregional caliphate, which is typical of Daesh, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, for example.

How is it then possible to discard the hypothesis of a jihadist motive? The BRN is not like the Jemaah Islamiyah. They have overtly declared their distance to Jemaah Islamiyah’s methods of warfare[4]. To BRN chiefs, there is no advantage in associating with jihadists, both for political convenience and for ideological reasons, although these may sometimes intertwine together.

The theatrical terrorism of ISIS and al-Qaeda, featured with mass killings, suicide bombings and identification of the whole West as the enemy, does not appeal to Thai insurgents, who have also tried to gain diplomatic support by Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia. Mimicking their style of action or openly siding with them would mean losing the little legitimacy that is left.

The ethnic-nationalistic goal puts the insurgents on another piece of the political chessboard: whereas Daesh and al-Qaeda have had notably the complete rejection and destruction of the western US-led international system, they would prefer to be a part of it, provided an independent state.

It may be of use to think of “jihad” and “jihadism” as two different concepts[5]. Whilst jihadism is more closely related to al-Qaeda and ISIS, asserting a transnational Islamic caliphate, the former may be intended more “simply” as a war against a non-Muslim enemy for, as in this case, a nation-building process – thus, virtually incompatible with the pan-Islamic state. As a matter of fact, it is already evident how different their projects fundamentally are, even conceptually. The Salafi doctrine embraced by the jihadists is altogether rejected by the military and ideological chiefs of the rebellion, meaning the BRN above all.

In Thailand, Salafism is spearheaded by the Saudi educated Ismail Lufti Japakiya, rector of the private Fatoni Islamic university, founded in 2004 by Arab foundations and now receiving government funding[6]. He preaches the reconciliation with the Thai state in a way that is not well-welcomed by the BRN, which is by eschewing violence and trying a more pacific way in approaching the issue. So, while separatists are generally against Salafism, the Thai government is fostering it in the perspective of laying down an alternative path for Muslims’ discontent.

Nevertheless, a collision of ideologies among the high-ranking leaders does not mean that the lower cadres are actually involved in these more nuanced questions. It is more realistic to think of the majority of them as engaged in a battle where one can get the most out of it when the Thai state and society is endangered.

The deadliest attacks of the latest years may shed a light on the question we are attempting to give an answer to. Some actors on this stage are clearly siding/sympathizing for UN-declared international criminals, but this does not permit to generalize to groups like the BRN or the PULO, who still remain organizations guilty of the death of civilians, children included[7].

Considering that the death toll, that was about 892 in 2007, went down to 218 in 2018, it does feel like having lost much of what was “accomplished”. On the other hand, there has been indeed a gradual rapprochement between the state and the rebels already before the shooting, represented by the talks to which the BRN have begun to participate just recently after years of internal disputes between currents. In the negotiations, the Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council, MARA Patani) is the body that stands for the militant groups, which have shown availability for ceasing fire temporarily, due to the COVID-19 situation.

The shooting took place at a security checkpoint on 5th November 2019, when rebels stormed in killing fifteen among policemen and village defense volunteers, making it one of the most disruptive and violent attacks of the last 20 years, also given the use of more advanced techniques of guerrilla and technologies in making IEDs[8]. It is suggested that the perpetrators could have been the BRN[9] and, again, as the target was clearly defined as the police and the village defense volunteers, the jihadist path may be excluded.

Yet, the conditions for a jihadist transition are present, meaning the fact of being a Sunni minority fighting against a non-Muslim country around which has been built a narrative of oppression and new colonialism. If violent fringes like the Jemaah Islamiyah continue to perpetrate horrible acts such the abovementioned one, or, conversely, massacres like those in 2004 at the Krue Se Mosque and in Tak Bai  keep on happening, there will be always a high risk of Islamization relying on the exasperation of tones between the state and the insurgents, contextualized obviously in a broader framework where Salafist terrorism gets popularized and finds financial means to sustain its action.

Apart from exacerbating the whole situation once again, resuming the fight means that it will be unlikely to have the BRN do such a thing in the future. The peace talks represent now the best and only possibility for southern Thailand to reach stabilization, but it depends on how each side will be prone to concede to the other.

[1]Benar News. “Bloodshed Returns to Insurgency-hit Thai Deep South after Month of Inactivity.” 4 May 2020.

[2] Peter Chalk, 2008. “The Malay-Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand Understanding the Conflict’s Evolving Dynamic”. RAND National Defense Research Institute

[3]UN Security Council Resolution, Consolidated list of Taliban associates. 12 December 2006.

[4] 8 November 2017. “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace.” Report n°219, International Crisis Group.


[6] Murray Hunter, March 24, 2020. “The Changing Nature of Thailand’s Deep South Insurgency.”

[7]Report of the Secretary General on Children in armed conflicts, UN General Assembly Security Council, 2017.

[8]Matthew Wheeler, 2019. “Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand”. International Crisis Group.

[9] BBC. Gunmen kill 15 in southern Thailand’s biggest attack in recent years.

Alessandro Russo
Alessandro Russo
I am a BA graduand in Political Sciences and International relations at "L'Orientale" University in Naples and currently studying as an exchange student at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (SciencesPo, Asian Campus of Normandy).