Region: East Asia / Thailand


An ethno-nationalist insurgency spearheaded by rebels representing the country’s minority Malay-Muslim communities has been active in southern Thailand since January of 2004. With a history of separatist tendencies, the native Malay Muslims consider the majority Thai Buddhist government to be an occupying force. By 2017, as a result of this violent campaign, an estimated 7,000 people had died and over 10,000 people had suffered injuries.1 Violent incidents and fatalities have declined gradually since 2013, however, coinciding with peace dialogue and reconciliation efforts between Thailand’s National Security Council and the five insurgent groups represented under a conglomerate called MARA Patani (Majlis Syura Patani or Patani Consultative Council). The MARA Patani includes several members of the most powerful Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN). Despite these unofficial dialogues, however, factional violence has persisted, albeit on a more limited scale.

After nearly two decades of conflict, prospects for a sustained and just peace remain elusive; the Buddhist-dominated national government emphasizes the indivisibility of the Thai nation-state, largely based on the values and principles of the Theravada School of Buddhism, while the Muslim minority insists on a measure of genuine political autonomy, if not self-determination.

The situation surrounding Islamism in Thailand has remained largely unchanged over the past year. While a Muslim insurgency persists in the country’s south, that struggle - involving the country’s Malay community - remains largely structured around nationalist rather than religious grounds.

Level of Islamist Activity:


Islamist Activity

The separatist conflict in southern Thailand is ostensibly an ethno-religious one, waged by ethnic Malay Muslims against Thai government forces.2 However, a more detailed examination of the conflict suggests that the insurgency and violence are more nationalistic exercises than a manifestation of global jihad.3 Indeed, even some sixteen years after the start of the latest incarnation of its insurgency, Thailand’s uniquely localized conflict has not metastasized into a broader jihadist struggle within the country or beyond.

Nevertheless, localized violence has taken a heavy toll on southern Thailand since 2004. The violence spiked exponentially during the first five years of the conflict, with the highest number of casualties recorded in 2007 at 892 deaths and 1681 injuries.4 According to one moderate estimate, nearly 7,000 people died and over 10,000 people were injured between 2004 and 2017.5 As of that year, the death toll remained relatively low, at just over 235.6 However, after a short-lived quiescence, the specter of violence seems to have returned in recent times – embodied by an improvised explosive device blast in January 2018 that killed three civilians and wounded several others in Yala.7 Subsequently, that May, a series of bombings targeted symbols of economic life, including electricity poles, cash machines, and banks, across a dozen locations in the country’s Muslim-majority southern region. Although there were no casualties and only slight injuries as a result, the attacks underscored the persistence of violent jihadism in Thailand.8 Even though militants primarily target government forces, Thai civilians often bear the brunt of the violence. In 2019, Thailand witnessed one of the most violent incidents of jihad in recent history; on November 6, a terrorist killed 15 people at a security checkpoint in Muang Yala, a district of the southern Thai province of Yala.9 In recent years, Thailand’s deployment of as many as 60,000 Thai security personnel has transformed the country’s Muslim-majority southern provinces into an occupied land. This has, in turn, provoked increasingly brazen attacks on the part of an amorphous and decentralized domestic insurgency – albeit one driven by local grievances rather than a broader ambition of creating an international caliphate.10

Two major militant formations have long dominated the Islamic militancy landscape in southern Thailand. The first is the Mara Patani militant conglomerate (Patani Consultative Council), which came into existence in May 2015 after six militant groups merged and entered into an informal political dialogue with Thai government. The second is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which is among the oldest and by far the strongest militant network in southern Thailand.

Initially conceived by senior members of the BRN, the Mara Patani consisted of six Islamic groups. All of them at first supported dialogue with the government, and were made up of senior members of the BRN, the BIPP (Barisan Islam Pembebesan Patani or Islamic Liberation Front of Patani), three factions of the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization) and Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (Patani Islamic Mujahidin Movement, GMIP). However, in June 2015, one of the PULO factions backed out of the Mara Patani’s founding agreement, leaving five groups in the conglomerate.11

While these groups are open to peace negotiations, the government’s ongoing counter-insurgency efforts, coupled with Bangkok’s unwillingness to concede to the demands of insurgents, have sidelined more moderate elements. Over the years, Mara Patani networks have been weakened by state security forces and many of its leaders have been forced into exile in Malaysia. With less firepower and manpower, the Mara Patani conglomerate is considered less powerful than the BRN, and lacks control over the larger insurgency.

In contrast, the BRN remains powerful. The vast majority of the current generation of Patani Malay combatants falls under the command of the BRN, which emerged in response to Thailand’s policy of assimilation in the mid-1960s. That policy included the move to ban all madrassas in the region and to demand that only Thai language, customs and traditions be taught. The insurgents are locally referred to as juwae in local Malay dialect or perjuang in standard Malay, both of which mean “young fighter.” The juwae/perjuang are organized in small cells and scattered throughout the Malay-speaking region.12 BRN cadres, along with those of other separatist organizations, disarmed in the late 1980s. But, unlike other organizations, the BRN managed to maintain its network and infrastructure, and thus was able to reconstitute itself quickly and take up arms anew in 2004. The BRN’s main base of support is found in the hundreds of madrassas that dot the entire Malay-speaking region in the south of Thailand.

The BRN has faced internal feuds and splits over the years. The group’s most powerful faction, BRN-Coordinate (BRN-C) or Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani-Melayu-Koordinasi, was responsible for much of the violence that plagued Southern Thailand. Still hesitant to engage in dialogue, the BRN-C has denounced the ongoing peace process with MARA Patani and its own three senior BRN members. In an April 2017 statement, BRN announced that it was willing to negotiate directly with the Thai government, but nothing substantial has happened since that declaration.13 The peace process remains largely deadlocked over a few issues, including implementing a violence free “safety zone” that would facilitate peace negotiations. In 2018, the Thai military junta announced that “major headway” had been made in the previously-stalled negotiations with the BRN, which previously spurned talks. Yet, prospects for peace remain dim, with negotiations even over relatively low-hanging fruits such as violence-free “safety zone”, for instance, still bogged down over technicality debates. It reflects the lack of mutual-trust as well as a lack of political will to make necessary concessions. Ahead of the 2019 elections, the country’s junta was largely focused on further strengthening its half-decade old grip on national politics. By 2020, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former Army general and former head of the National Council for Peace and Order, had emerged triumphant. He has since leveraged emergency powers granted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate his hold on Thai politics.14

Moreover, Malaysia’s role as mediator has also been complicated by the shocking defeat of the Najib Razak administration in that country’s mid-2018 elections, especially given the critical role played by Zamzamin Hashim, a close associate of the former Malaysian prime minister, during peace talks between Thai government and Muslim insurgents.15

In late August 2018, the new Malaysian administration under Mahathir Mohamad appointed former police chief Abdul Rahim Noor as the new peace mediator in Thailand’s so-called Deep South. In his former capacity as a senior law enforcement official and peace negotiator, Rahim played a critical role in ending the insurgency carried out by the former Communist Party of Malaya, convincing them to lay down their arms as part of a 1989 peace deal with the Malaysian government in 1989. In fact, it was the Thai government that facilitated the Peace Agreement of Hat Yai. Some therefore hope that the new Malaysian peace negotiator can build on this legacy by assisting the Thai government in dealing with the Islamist insurgency. Towards the end of 2019, there were discussions about expanding the scope of the peace beyond the MARA Patani umbrella group of rebels – which excludes the BRN – and the Thai government, and incorporating other political actors.16 But Malaysia’s role in the discussions entered another phase of uncertainty following what experts described as a “royal coup” against the Mahathir administration in early 2020.17 It remains to be seen how the new Malaysian government will improve upon the two previous administrations.

Global jihadi outreach

At present, militant Malay youth in the south embrace Shafi’i Islam rather than the Salafism or Wahhabism of many other global jihadi outfits. Their agenda is driven as much by ethnic and political concerns as by religious ones. While local Malay Muslim villagers in Thailand’s far south support the movement, the militant movements hardly ever garnered support or sympathy from Thai Muslims at large.

A number of media reports over the past several years have alleged that foreign fighters from the Islamic State had attempted to exploit the situation in southern Thailand, but most have turned out to be either false or unsubstantiated. For example, reports about IS fighters visiting a religious school in Sungai Kolok district in Narathiwat province in late 2015,18 or news about several IS militants entering Thailand to attack Russian interests,19 remain uncorroborated. Similar reports surfaced in January 2018 about a Pakistani national identified as Muhammad Iqbal who was arrested in Bangkok’s Phasi Charoen district. Iqbal was accused of producing fake passports for Islamic State operatives and transnational criminals to arrive in Thailand.20 While the investigation into this case is still underway, the country’s Immigration Bureau has confirmed that so far Iqbal’s attempts to facilitate IS-linked individuals from Middle East to Thailand have been unsuccessful.21

Regardless of the veracity of past news reports about jhadi inroads, these types of media reports still crop up every now and then as fear of transnational jihadi outreach looms large over the southern Thailand’s militant movements. In early August 2019, as Thailand hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting, Bangkok was rocked by several bomb attacks.22 While there are concerns about potential links to ISIS, no corroborating evidence as yet exists. Nevertheless, with the radical organization losing its foothold in the Middle East, there have been fears about a potential pivot to East Asia.23 Sleeper cells, suicide bombings, and coordination between Islamic State fighters and sympathizers represent issues of continued concern for the Thai government.24

Islamism and Society

There are about 7.5 million Thai Muslims, representing 12% of the total country’s total population of 62.5 million. The rest is comprised of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and adherents to other religions. Muslims who are ethnically Malay reside in the three deep southern provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat, and constitute about 18% of the total Thai Muslim population.25 There is a sizable, largely multi-ethnic Muslim population scattered throughout the country. The majority of southern Muslims speak Patani-Malay as their primary language, and are not fluent in the official Thai language. Patani Malay is identical to Kelantanese Malay spoken across the border in Myanmar, and remains an important identity marker for local communities.

The Malay Muslims of Thailand’s south strongly emphasize the ethnic aspect of their religion. Ethnicity and faith are key and deeply interconnected parts of their identity, resulting in the formation of an ethnicized view of Islam. From the Malay perspective, mere religious conversion to Islam is not enough; rather, one has to masuk Melayu — “become a Malay” — in order to be accepted as a Muslim. The ulema (Muslim religious scholars) keep the Patani Malay narrative and identity alive, encouraging the Muslim population to question the Thai state narrative. The combination of their strong convictions in favor of the Muslim minority in Thailand, their role as custodians of religious traditions, Islamic values, ethnic identity, as well as their robust network of affiliations, connections, and influence across the Thai-Malaysian border render them important players in the ongoing insurgency.

In fact, the first person who tried to negotiate terms for coexistence between the Thai state and Patani was an Islamic cleric named Hajji Sulong bin Abdul Kadir, who was a reformist and political activist educated in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Upon returning to Patani in 1927, he engaged in the reform of the Malay Muslim community and represented Malay Muslim interests before the government. Sulong sought political autonomy for the south within a federal system as proposed by then-Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong. In April 1947, Sulong, as President of the Provincial Islamic Council, led a group of Malay Muslims who submitted a list of seven demands to the Bangkok authorities. These demands centered on the issue of political freedom for the Malays and the preservation of Malay language and cultural identity. The only religious demand concerned the recognition and enforcement of sharia (Islamic law). In his own words, Sulong explained the aspiration and desire of the Malay-Muslims in the South as: “We Malays are conscious that we have been brought under Siamese rule by defeat. The term ‘Thai Islam’ with which we are known by the Siamese government reminds us of this defeat and is therefore not appreciated by us. We therefore beg of the government to honor us with the title of Malay Muslims so that we may be recognized as distinct from the Thai by the outside world.”26 In 1947, Sulong made several demands to the central government. Since his mysterious death in 1954, “Haji Sulong has become a symbol of resistance to the Thai state”.27

Even today, the Malay Muslims of southern Thailand view national integration as equivalent to cultural disintegration. According to them, Thai Buddhism and Malay Islam are “closed systems” belonging to two fundamentally different orientations.28 The conflict in the Patani region has also become an excuse for continuing Thai nationalism and Islamophobia.

Islamism and the State

In response to the reemergence of the southern insurgency in the early 2000s, the ruling government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra responded with excessive force and imposed martial law on the southern state. In particular, two episodes in 2004 left a lasting imprint on the insurgency:

The Krue Se Mosque raid (2004)

After the imposition of martial law in the south on April 28, 2004, insurgents attacked 11 security posts in Yala, Songkla and Patani. The resulting battles led to the death of 107 Muslim militants and five security personnel, while several militants were arrested.29 Thirty-seven militants were killed in the blockade of the Krue Se mosque. A 34-page Jawi/Malay language booklet, Berjihad di Patani, was found on the body of one of the dead militants. Published in Kelantan, Malaysia, it called for a separate Patani state and for the extermination of people of different religious faiths should they stand in the way of this objective. It concludes by suggesting the formation of a constitutional state of Patani based on the Sunni-Shafi’i school of law. Local clerics who studied the booklet described it more as an organizational manual aimed at motivating the combatants, rather than a theological work. It also reflects the local Shafi’i school of thought and how it incorporates animism, popular beliefs, and pre-Islam practices that continue even today in this historically contested region.

The Tak Bai Incident (2004)

Violence spiraled out of control in another episode in October 2004, when police accused a group of Tak Bai district village defense volunteers of handing over their government-issued weapons to the insurgents, arresting them. In response, a large group of Muslims held a rally outside the Tak Bai district police station. Seven were killed when soldiers and police moved against the mob, and some 78 died of suffocation after they were piled into trucks to be transported to a military camp.30 The government was sharply criticized for excessive use of force, negligence and human rights violations, as well as Prime Minister Thaksin’s refusal to apologize for the tragedy. The incident became part of the insurgent narrative to reinforce the notion that the state has never treated Patani Malays fairly. The government set up an independent fact-finding commission into the incident, which yielded criticism of the method of transport and its supervision by inexperienced, low-ranking personnel. Ultimately, however, the commission did not find that the deaths had been caused intentionally, but blamed some senior security officials and suggested that compensation be paid to the families of those who died, were injured or went missing.

The Tak Bai event triggered several revenge attacks by the Islamic militants. One such incident occurred in early November of that year, when a senior Buddhist deputy police chief was found beheaded in Sukhirin district of Narathiwat province. A leaflet there described the killing as a retaliation for the deaths at Tak Bai.31

In 2006, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin launched a bloodless coup and removed Thaksin from power. Former army chief General Surayud Chulanont became prime minister. Surayud officially apologized for the Tak Bai massacre and other atrocities committed by the Thai state against the Patani people. He also invited the international community to help Thailand mitigate the conflict in the far south. Surayud sought to reconnect with older generations of separatists from PULO and BRN, hoping that they would take on a mediating role between the government and the new generation of younger, more violent, more devoted insurgents. However, the BRN-C, the most active insurgent group, rejected negotiations. While other groups did not respond, General Surayud’s government remained open to talks and to the possibility of granting autonomy (albeit not separation) to the southern province.

By all indications, Prime Minister Surayud was sincere in his overtures for the southern conflict, but his preoccupation with national politics took up much of his time and energy. His government’s apology and dialogue-centered approach was not supplemented with other measures such as delivery of justice, recognition of local language and culture, and allowing locals to manage their own affairs. Nevertheless, Surayud’s apology marked the beginning of a more peaceful governmental approach toward the conflict, supplanting Prime Minister Thaksin’s approach of meeting violence with violence. However, this shift in approach did not curb the number of assassinations, abductions and bomb attacks.

Besides the Krue Se mosque and Tak Bai episodes, Malay Muslims faced more violence at the hands of suspected government forces in June 2009 when unidentified gunmen opened fire at worshippers performing the evening prayer at Al-Furquan mosque in Joh Ai Rong district, Narathiwat. At least ten people, including the chief priest of the mosque, died in the shootout; several others were injured. The killings generated global outrage and both Thai and Malaya Muslims of Thailand heavily criticized the then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s administration for serious rights violations in the southern border provinces.

The 2011 Thai elections led to the victory of the Pheu Thai Party, also supported by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra. Yingluck Shinwatra, Thaksin’s sister and the leader of the Pheu Thai party, became the first female Prime Minister of Thailand. In March 2012, Thaksin met with separatist leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in an attempt at reconciliation, but he stopped short of apologizing for his heavy-handed approach during his earlier premiership.32 Peace talks were attempted once again on February 28, 2013, between Thailand’s National Security Council and the BRN, with Malaysia acting as a mediator. But in the months that followed, violent attacks continued and several insurgent groups remained absent from the negotiating table.33

In the wake of the May 2014 coup, the country’s Constitution was revoked and the military backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) invoked martial law and reorganized the administrative structures in Southern Thailand, amid stepped up escalated counter-insurgency measures. The NCPO’s actions largely stifled the militant movements and significantly reduced - though did not end - the overall violence. Today, more than five years after it came to power, Thailand’s military government is formally committed to dialogue and conflict resolution with insurgent formations, including the powerful BRN. However, the communal situation remains tense in the country’s south, and has deteriorated since the passage of Thailand’s new constitutional mandate in 2017 which strengthened national efforts to protect and spread the Theravada school of Buddhism.

This state patronage of the dominant majority religion may jeopardize religious freedom in the country in the coming years, exacerbating sectarianism. In a troubling sign for the future of peace talks, Malaysian chief peace negotiator Rahim went so far as contemplating in early December 2018 an ultimatum against BRN leadership based in Malaysia: either join the stalled peace talks or risk expulsion. The move underscored the depth of frustration that now prevails among the peace brokers to the process. Meanwhile, Retired Army Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, the new Thai chief negotiator, has seemingly ditched earlier efforts at negotiating a “safety zone” and a ceasefire in favor of a new strategy which aims to rally civil society groups in the Deep South and isolate the BRN. Experts, however, are skeptical that this new strategy will work.34

Despite all of the above, however, there are currently few indications that terrorism and radicalism in Thailand will extend beyond their current manifestations of localized struggle and transform into a transnational jihadi struggle – as has occurred in Marawi in the Philippines.35 Nevertheless, there are reasons to conclude that the situation is particularly challenging at present; as of July 2020, both Thailand and Malaysia are grappling with the adverse socioeconomic and public health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed prospects for sustained peace negotiations on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.


[1] “Death toll in Thailand's southern conflict hits record low,” Straits Times, December 27, 2017,

[2] Michael K. Jerryson, Buddhist Fury : Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Yusuf, Imtiyaz and Lars Peter Schmidt, eds., Understanding Conflict and Approaching Peace in Southern Thailand, Second Edition (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2006); Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Cornell University Press, 2008); Man KadirChe, Muslim Separatism : the Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand (Singapore: Oxford University press, 1990); Surin Pisuwan, Islam and Malay Nationalism: A Case Study of Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand (Thai Khadi Research Institute: Thammasat University, 1985).

[3] “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace,” International Crisis Group Asia Report No. 291, November 08, 2017,; See also, “Southern Thailand: Insurgency, Not Jihad,” International Crisis Group Asia Report No. 98, May 18, 2005,

[4] “Violence in Thai Deep South Reached Record Low in 2017,” Benar News, December 26, 2017,

[5] “Death toll in Thailand's southern conflict hits record low,” Straits Times, December 27, 2017,

[6] “Violence in Thai Deep South Reached Record Low in 2017,” Benar News.

[7] “Bomb explosion kills three, injures at least 18 in Yala market,” Thai PBS, January 22, 2017,

[8] “Blasts from the past: Terrorists in southern Thailand go on a bombing spree,” The Economist, May 24, 2018,

[9] Hannah Beech and Ryn Jirenuwat, "15 Killed in Southern Thailand in the Worst Violence in Years," New York Times, November 6, 2019,

[10] Ibid; Zachary Abuza, "The Ongoing Insurgency in Southern Thailand: Trends in Violence, Counterinsurgency Operations, and the Impact of National Politics." Strategic Perspectives 6 (September 2011),

[11] “What Is Mara Patani?” Deep South Watch, June 26, 2015,

[12] Marc Askew and Sascha Helbardt, “Becoming Patani Warriors: Individuals and the Insurgent Collective in Southern Thailand,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 35 (11), 2012, 779-809.

[13] “Thai Deep South: BRN Rebels Speak Out Against Current Peace Process,” Benar News, April 10, 2017,

[14] Marwaan Macan-Markar, "Thailand Seeks to Extend COVID Emergency despite No New Cases," Nikkei Asian Review, June 29, 2020,

[15] “Blasts from the past: Terrorists in southern Thailand go on a bombing spree,” The Economist, May 24, 2018,

[16] Muzliza Mustafa, Zam Yusa and Mariyam Ahmad, “Malaysia Appoints New Facilitator for Southern Thai Peace Talks,” Benar News, August 24, 2018,

[17] Mahathir Mohamad, "The Guardian View on a Royal Coup: A King Overturns a Historic Election," Guardian, March 3, 2020,

[18] “ISIS may have tried to make alliance in Thailand’s South,” Thai Tribune, January 23, 2016,

[19] “Syrians Linked to Islamic State Traveled to Thailand to 'Attack Russian Interests,” Reuters and VICE News, December 4, 2015,

[20] “Pakistani was Islamic State forger, Prawit says,” Bangkok Post, January 17, 2017,

[21] “Thai police arrest Pakistani passport forger linked to Islamic State,” South China Morning Post, January 19, 2018,

[22] Nash Jenkins, “Thai Authorities Say Bangkok Suspect Did Not Act Alone,” TIME, August 19, 2015,

[23] Richard Javad Heydarian, “The Philippines’ counter-terror conundrum: Marawi and Duterte’s battle against the Islamic State” in Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, ed., Countering Insurgencies and Violent Extremism in South and South East Asia (Abingdon: Routledge, (2019).

[24] Zachary Abuza, "Suicide Bombings Take Root in the Southern Philippines," BenarNews, November 12, 2019,

[25] See Dina Abdulsuko, “Islamic School at Southern Thailand,” Deep South Watch, September 19, 2017

[26] For a detailed history of Islam in Thailand, See Thanet Aphornsuvan, “History and Politics of the Muslims in Thailand,” Thammasat University, 2003,; See also Thanet Aphornsuvan “Origins of Malay Muslim ‘Separatism’ in Southern Thailand,” Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series no. 32, October 2004,

[27] Imtiyaz Yusuf, “Faces of Islam in Southern Thailand,” East West Center Working Paper no. 7, March 2007, 9,

[28] Ibid.

[29] Human Rights Watch, “Thailand: Investigate Krue Se Mosque Raid No Justice Two Years After Deadly Clashes in South,” April 28, 2006,

[30] “Victims Cannot Forget Tak Bai Tragedy in Thailand,” Benar News, October 22, 2015,

[31] “Buddhist chief beheaded in revenge for Muslim deaths,” Independent (London), November 3, 2004,

[32] Don Pathan, “Deep South peace talks lead back to square one,” The Nation, May 13, 2013,

[33] “BRN YouTube clip threatens talks,” Bangkok Post, April 29, 2013,

[34] Dan Pathan, “Malaysian Broker to Push BRN Rebels toward Southern Thai Peace Talks,” Benar News, December 6, 2018,

[35] Eugene Mark, “Understanding the terrorism threat in southern Thailand,” Today Online, June 7, 2018,