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On the protection of civilians in the conflict in the southern border provinces

Since 4 January 2004 when the latest wave of violence suddenly emerged in the southern border provinces of Thailand known as Patani, more than 7,000 people have been killed and over 13,000 injured, causing thousands of women to be widowed and more children orphaned. Among all these casualties, more than half are civilians.[1]

Unlike the rest of Thailand, the majority of the local population is Muslim (on average around 80 percent), and the rest are Buddhists. Since the eruption of the armed conflict, the entire region has been put under the draconian security laws, highly securitised with almost 2,000 check points (in an area of about 15,000 square kilometres) and countless CCTVs. Various kinds of security forces have been deployed all over the area, and every village has its own Village Development and Self Defence Volunteer team (called Chor Ror Bor in Thai).

Local people’s perceptions about these security forces vary. In the context of an ethno-nationalistic conflict, for nationalist Malay Muslims, the security forces are seen with antipathy, and in some areas with hostility. Being sympathetic to the causes held by the Patani liberation movement, these Malay Muslims (though not all of them) do not regard the security forces as their guardians but rather as a nuisance causing trouble in their daily life. Such feelings are partly caused by the fact that the security forces conduct their operations based on the security laws, paying hardly any attention to human rights. On top of that, operations are sometimes conducted at very wrong times. For instance, at the end of December 2023, after continuous heavy rainfalls for several days, many parts of this region were paralysed by a severe inundation. In most parts, the New Year holidays must be spent cleaning house or providing humanitarian support to those who were affected by this natural disaster. However, even under such circumstances, a cordon-and-search operation was conducted by the security forces on New Years Day itself, killing an alleged suspect in Su-ngai Padi, Narathiwat.[2] A military operation conducted during a humanitarian crisis will never do any good to improve the already negative image of the security forces among the local Malay Muslim population.

Apart from this, there are several cases in which Muslim civilians were killed by the security forces (including some cases children), but so far not a single officer has ever been legally punished for the deaths of these civilians. The culture of impunity is overwhelmingly prevalent in this area. Therefore, allegations against the security forces put aside, whether or not the security forces deployed all over the conflict area have been able to function as the safeguard for the local civilians is debatable, or even questionable.

In meetings of local civil society organisations or networks, Buddhist participants always express serious concerns about their security. This is understandable because, although the Buddhist population in the region is just around 20 percent, according to the statistics of Deep South Watch, about a half of the victims of all incidents are Buddhists. It is almost unthinkable that, unlike Malay Muslim counterparts, Buddhists would be attacked by the security forces. Their human rights have not been affected by the enforcement of the special laws too. Therefore, their concerns about their security are almost exclusively based on a fear of attack by the insurgents.

As a matter of fact, deploying an extremely large number of soldiers, rangers, volunteers and other security forces is not an effective option for protecting local civilians, especially Buddhists. This is because, since the eruption of violence 20 years ago, the insurgents have never resorted to conventional warfare. Their operations take the form of hit-and-run shootings, bombings (by using car or motorbike bombs or improvised explosive devices), arson etc. These do not correspond to the conventional warfare for which the security forces are trained. As a consequence, so far there has been no meaningful prevention of violent incidents in the region.

Even though the number of violent incidents has been steadily declining since the peace dialogue process started in 2013, the extremely unpredictable nature of such incidents has never changed. This in turn is among the main reasons for the Buddhist civilians’ concerns about their security.

According to international norms, civilians must be protected even in a war or an armed conflict. Principles of civilian protection are clearly stated in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In ordinary times we have nothing to do with IHL which is also known as the laws of war. However, once a war or a conflict starts, every party involved in the dispute must follow IHL. IHL is, as is shown in its name, originally an international law to be respected by states. However, the humanitarian principles stipulated in IHL are also recognised by some non-state armed actors. Geneva Call is an international organisation engaged in the dissemination of humanitarian principles among these groups.

The main insurgent group in the southern border provinces of Thailand, Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front or BRN) signed a document called Deed of Commitment on the protection of children in armed conflicts on 15 January 2020 just before the new round of the peace dialogue was resumed in Kuala Lumpur.[3] This is a positive development which indicates that the armed group is willing to follow international humanitarian norms on civilian protection.

Strangely, the Thai authorities have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge the situation in the southern border provinces as a conflict. The terms used by the authorities to refer to it can be anything but ‘conflict’, such as a ‘violent situation’, ‘the problems in the southern border provinces’, ‘unrest’, etc. This is partly due to the fear among state officials that the use of the term ‘conflict’ to refer to the ‘situation’ in the south would internationalise the conflict which, according to their perception, could lead to foreign or international intervention. Some officers even imagine that if the Thai state acknowledges the existence of a conflict inside its territory, it would justify deployment of UN peace keeping troops, and Thailand might be deemed a failed state.

In fact, having a conflict within a country’s territory is not at all uncommon in Southeast Asia, and allowing international actors to play certain roles in a peace process is not at all a sign of a failed state. The Thai state should objectively consider the pros and cons of a role for international actors in solving the conflict.

This reluctance of the Thai authorities, both to acknowledge the existence of an armed conflict and to internationalise the issue, has been a serious obstacle to the dissemination of information about humanitarian principles in the region. As a consequence, most Buddhists have not been sufficiently informed about these principles, despite the fact that they are among the very groups to be protected by them.

Dissemination of information about humanitarian principles and IHL could be an effective way to ensure better security for civilians, especially Buddhists in the conflict area, now that the BRN has signed on a document whose very purpose is to adhere to humanitarian principles. It is extremely unfair to leave Buddhist civilians uninformed about humanitarian principles only because of the allegation that there is no armed conflict in the region. Recently the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a book on Buddhism and IHL.[4] If the Thai authorities are serious about civilian protection, they should allow activities related to the dissemination of humanitarian principles so that respect for these principles becomes the norm in the conflict area.


[1] The latest statistics can be found at https://deepsouthwatch.org/th

[2] The operation was covered by a live streaming program on Facebook by Wartani, a local alternative media outlet.

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