Hard lined Muslim radicals are drawing headlines around the world. From surging conflicts in Mali and Nigeria to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, radical Islamists are sowing chaos across the globe. While these extremists represent only the radical fringes of the Muslim world they still possess the capabilities to inflict massive damage, especially on civilian or “soft” targets. One of the least reported conflicts, the battle against Muslim insurgents in Thailand, is now entering a new phase of intensity as insurgents expand their battle against non-Muslims in Southern Thailand.
The conflict in Southern Thailand is rarely reported on even though it has claimed over 5,000 lives since 2004. Like many conflicts part of the blame falls on the former European colonial empires. European colonial masters rarely paid attention to tribal and religious lines while forming new countries to take control of their former colonial possessions. S.E. Asia was no different.
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In the 19th century the British Empire came to control most the Malayan peninsula though generally granted the Malays a wide degree of self-autonomy. The British did not want to get into an expensive and cumbersome colonial administration of the Malayan peninsula so they concentrated their power into a few coastal cities, namely Georgetown, Malacca, and the modern city-state of Singapore. The Malay Sultans and the British Empire then essentially shared power on the Malay peninsula.
At the same time Thailand, then called Siam, was expanded its power down the Malayan peninsula. Siam was one of the few kingdoms of South East Asia not to fall under Colonial influence and was expanded its influence in northern Malaya. The British were primarily in Malaya to secure the Strait of Malacca between the Malayan peninsula and Indonesia. The Strait of Malacca is one of the most important and busiest trade routes in the world. It essentially connects the “Orient” to Europe.
Not wishing to get embroiled in a major conflict over the largely overlook Malayan states the British reached an agreement in 1909, the Burney Treaty, to divide the Northern Malayan kingdoms between Siam and British Malaya. Numerous Malays, a Muslim ethnic group found throughout South East Asia were then forced to become part of Siam, a Buddhist kingdom.
Now Malay extremists in the predominately Muslim states of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat are fighting to expel non-Muslims from their territory. The Malay insurgency has shot hundreds of non-Malay Thais and bombed shopping complexes and hotels.
There are rumors that some funding is coming from businesses inside Malaysia but the Malaysian government has flatly denied this. So far the insurgents have largely used targeted shooting and killings to attack known supporters of Thai control, including teachers and local officials. Increasingly, however, the insurgents have shown a willingness to use road side bombs and indiscriminately attack public targets.
As is common in Muslim insurgencies, most of the local people do not support the violence. Most Malays in the Southern Thai states now support or at least have come to terms with being a part of Thai rule. Whether or not the conflict will continue to widen remains to be seen but recent activities suggest that the Thai insurgents are increasingly the scope of their targets. Unless the Thai military and police forces are able to suppress the insurgents soon, there is a serious risk that the rebels will be able to launch increasingly deadly attacks.