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After Middle East failure, is Thailand the next 'caliphate' for the Islamic State group? Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

After Middle East failure, is Thailand the next 'caliphate' for the Islamic State group?

Thai Marines patrol the coast in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 July, 2018

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Analysis: The unrest in Thailand's south offers the Islamic State group all that it could need to build a southeast Asian franchise, writes Austin Bodetti.
While the Islamic State group remains all but defeated in its heartland in Iraq and Syria, its banner has continued to fly as far afield as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Sympathetic militants have already launched several suicide attacks under the Islamic State group's name. And now the militant organisation may choose to stop next in Thailand, which has been dealing with an insurgency by its Malay minority group since the early 2000s.

The unrest in the country's south offers IS all that it could need to expand the southeast Asian franchise of its floundering caliphate.

The National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, a secretive Malay resistance movement, has been waging an insurgency since 2004 with the goal of achieving independence for Patani, a Malay-majority region in southern Thailand.

Scholars familiar with the conflict caution that BRN has little in common with the Islamic State group and, in fact, will likely try to stop IS from coming here.

Read also: The Islamic State group is not finished – yet

"It has a completely different ideological basis," said Dr Duncan McCargo, a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and author of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand. "The Patani struggle is a deeply parochial one."

While BRN has referenced Islam in its propaganda to contrast itself with Thailand's Buddhist-led government, military, and police, its focus has remained on the insurgency in Patani, and the insurgents have shown few signs of collaborating with foreign militants.

"The southern Thailand insurgency is fundamentally a revolt of Patani nationalism - Patani Malays who feel they are not respected, their culture is not honoured, and they are not masters of their own land," said Marvin Ott, a former CIA East Asia analyst and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"The bureaucrats who occupy official positions in the south are primarily Thais from Bangkok. The teachers in the schools are Thais from Bangkok and students are expected to learn Thai and acculturate to Thai values."

The Southern Thailand insurgency is fundamentally a revolt of Patani nationalism - Patani Malays who feel they are not respected, their culture is not honoured, and they are not masters of their own land

A 2017 report from the International Crisis Group concluded that, despite speculation to the contrary by the news media and some analysts, the Islamic State group had little hope of making inroads within BRN's nationalist insurgency.

According to the report and in contrast to BRN's Indonesian and Philippine counterparts, BRN sees nothing to gain from affiliating with the Islamic State group and views the organisation as a potential competitor.

"Mindanao has a long history of having ties to transnational jihadist groups," said Dr Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College specialising in Southeast Asian insurgencies and author of The Ongoing Insurgency in Southern Thailand: Trends in Violence, Counterinsurgency Operations, and the Impact of National Politics.

"Moro groups, in turn, have reached out to transnational organisations for assistance, whether they personally subscribed to their ideology or not."

While most experts on the conflict in southern Thailand seem to agree that the region remains safe from the Islamic State group for the time being, many have warned that Malaysian and Thai authorities' failure to address the potential threat could have dire consequences in the near and long term future.

"IS members from Malaysia rely on contacts in southern Thailand to purchase weapons, which are very hard to get in Malaysia," Dr Abuza told The New Arab, noting the arrest in Thailand of a militant wanted by Malaysia.

"The real concern is that the insurgency, now in its fourteenth year, has stalemated, and younger militants who are growing impatient may seek assistance from outside groups."

IS members from Malaysia rely on contacts in southern Thailand to purchase weapons, which are very hard to get in Malaysia

A political settlement to the conflict in Patani may represent Malaysia and Thailand's best hope of continuing to keep the Islamic State group out of southern Thailand.

"Thailand has a natural ally against IS: the BRN," said Dr Abuza.

"But it will not negotiate in earnest with them. Thailand needs to be increase cooperation with Malaysia. They stonewalled several Malaysian investigations that tied weapons to southern Thailand. Likewise, they were in denial when the Malaysians arrested the Thai national in the IS cell."

While the Islamic State group has yet to develop a noteworthy presence in southern Thailand, its growth in Malaysia, on Patani's doorstep, should give Thai authorities a greater sense of urgency.

Read also: How will Europe deal with returning Islamic State group fighters?

"The obvious way to forestall an IS presence in southern Thailand is for Bangkok to develop a strategy that takes Patani grievances and desires seriously," said Ott, suggesting that Thailand could dedicate more economic and political resources to Patani.

"This would mean an openness to real autonomy and federalism for the Patani region - something the Thai state has refused to do."

Given that the conflict in southern Thailand has lasted a decade and a half with neither side closer to victory, both BRN and Thailand stand gain from a political settlement.

"Thailand is not going to shoot its way out of the insurgency," Dr Abuza told The New Arab.

"The only way forward is a negotiated settlement that addresses some of BRN's core grievances. The junta refuses to do that, thus the conflict festers, sapping resources."


Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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