The separatist violence in the south continues to decline and was lower in 2015 than in any year since the unrest turned nasty in 2004. There were only 674 incidents of separatist violence, which was 14 percent less than in 2014. The number of people killed (246) was down 28 percent from 2014. The average annual deaths down there has been 545. The decline has been the trend for several years as there were 456 deaths in 2013.
Opinions differ about why there is less violence down there. The government credits the efforts of 70,000 soldiers and police in the south plus additional economic aid to an area that needs it badly. But if you ask the locals and you will hear that the local gangsters who carry out most of the separatist violence have finally realized that the locals were getting so angry about the years of separatist activity, especially the number of attacks on pro-government Moslems that it was simply good business to back off on the bombs and gunfire. Instead the gangs are concentrating on the business of smuggling, extortion and making money. They are encouraged by the new government policy of replacing some of the army units with troops recruited locally. These are easier to bribe or intimidate and more likely to leave the gangs alone.
Meanwhile the majority of southerners (over 70 percent) continue to believe the peace negotiations will succeed even though they have been stalled since 2014. The government has persuaded most of the separatist groups in the south to resume peace talks but no date has been set. The southern separatist leaders (of six groups, which claim to have a total of 9,000 armed members) were reluctant to negotiate with the military government because they believed that government would soon be replaced by an elected one that may well refuse to honor a peace deal negotiated by the military. But in August 2015 many of the separatist groups changed their minds and agreed to resume negotiations. The separatists seem to realize that there won’t be a civil war over the reluctance of the military to allow elections sooner rather than later and that the military government is not as weak as some of them believed.
The negotiations are needed to try and settle problems in the south that have been going on sporadically ever since Thailand gained control of the area centuries ago. For most of that time the Malays down there were independent or allied with (and paid tribute to) Thailand. But in 1909 Britain, which had conquered most of the Malay Peninsula to the south, signed a treaty with Thailand that left the Thais owning what became the current three southern Moslem provinces. At the time, the Malays there considered this preferable to being ruled by the British. During World War II (1939-45) the Japanese took control of Malaysia and a rebel movement saw the resulting chaos as an opportunity to create an independent Malay state, incorporating the three Thai Moslem provinces as well. This did not happen, and the British regained control of Malay in 1945 and granted the area independence (as Malaysia) in 1957.
Unrest continued in the three Malay provinces, but was usually low key and considered a police matter. What made the current violence so much worse was the addition of Islamic radicalism. The basic problem is that the Buddhist ethnic Thais often have a hard time getting along with the Moslem ethnic Malays (and vice versa). But until the Islamic radicals came along, urging the use of terrorism, the independence movement was not all that violent and the south was pretty quiet. That changed on January 4th 2004 when Islamic terrorists raided a military warehouse to steal ammo and weapons. This set off a widespread (in the south) campaign of Islamic terrorism and frequently violent military responses. Since then there have been more than 6,500 killed down there along with over 11,000 wounded. There have been over 15,000 violent incidents, most of them involving property damage or non-fatal assaults. Since 2004 Islamic terrorists in the south have killed some 200 teachers and burned or blown up over 300 schools. The Islamic terrorists oppose secular education and especially non-Moslem teachers. Low educations levels in the Moslem south means most of the teachers are Buddhists recruited from the wealthier and better educated north. The "terrorists" are a combination of Islamic radicals (most of the two million people in the three southern provinces are Moslem), Malay nationalists (nearly all the Moslems are ethnic Malay, not Thai) and gangsters (smuggling has long been a big business down there). The ethnic Thai majority refused (as they usually do) to back down in the face of Malay Moslem violence. After years of futile violence the Moslem minority became increasingly hostile to the Islamic terrorists, and more frequently cooperating with the police. This happened gradually as it became obvious that the Thai government was never going to give in. As a result of this, the militants turned on the Moslem civilians, which was a downward spiral that is gradually destroying the remaining popular support they have. That led to the current decline in violence.
The national government has also sent more economic aid to the south and improved the educational system. The army claims that the number of Islamic militants in the south has been reduced more than half, to a few thousand with only a few of them regularly carrying out fatal attacks. The overall violence has also declined but all this is mainly because more and more southerners are fed up with years of violence. Despite all that there are still diehard separatists down there and many are organized.
The government shares intelligence on Islamic terrorists with neighboring Malaysia, the only majority Moslem nation bordering Thailand. Malaysia has not had as much Islamic terrorist activity as most other Islamic nations, but police intelligence estimates that at least a hundred Malaysians have gone to fight for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and about 50,000 (one in 360) of the 18 million Malaysian Moslems supports ISIL. So despite a comparative absence of Islamic terrorism in Malaysia and Thailand, the sentiment for it is there among a significant minority. In December 2015 Malaysian police arrested a Malaysian student who had gone to Syria and returned and sought to discover exactly what he was doing there. There have been about 25 similar arrests since 2013. Thailand has fewer (about three million) Moslems and while some of the separatist Moslems in the south (where most live) have tried to link their independence efforts to religion, it’s mostly about ethnic differences because 95 percent of Thais are Tai and the southern Moslems are nearly all Malays.
Follow The Money
The military government continues having economic and political problems. The two are linked as one justification for the 2014 coup was to restore order so the economy could get growing again. That recovery has not happened and the military is blamed. GDP growth was only .9 percent in 2014 and 2.5 percent in 2015. The latest World Bank predictions call for about the same weak annual growth through 2018. The generals have not been able to inspire much confidence among foreign investors and customers, the traditional source of economic growth. But a lot of the economic problems are linked to Thai dependence on the rapidly growing Chinese economy. Since 2013 the Chinese are having economic problems of their own and that is hurting Thailand and other Chinese trading partners. China is taking advantage of this, and the pariah status of the Thai military government in the West, to make itself useful and forge stronger ties with Thailand. While the Chinese economy is in trouble, the Chinese government still has lots of cash to invest in other countries and it has been using this to buy allies. The Thai generals are eager customers. China is making the investments and offering military aid and cooperation. At the moment Thailand has had many of its usual military connections with the West suspended because of Western opposition to the military coup. The generals are not surprised at the Chinese offers and are now rushing out to replace its largely Western weapons and equipment with Chinese models. But there are other ways to cooperate with China in a military sense. This includes intelligence sharing and joint training. Thailand has also won praise in China for arresting and sending back to China pro-democracy advocates who fled persecution in China. The Thais are sending back any Chinese citizens China wants.
January 7, 2016: The military budget for 2016 has been increased 16 percent (over 2015) to $831 million. Most of the additional $121 million will go to peacemaking efforts in the south. While the soldiers and police down there will get some of the added money, most will go to economic improvements. This will mean more jobs for southerners (to build or repair roads and other infrastructure) and a better life in general. Nothing like some prosperity to cheer people up and get their minds off mayhem.
January 6, 2016: In the south (Narathiwat province) an army patrol was attacked with a roadside bomb, killing one twelve soldiers. Separatists then opened fire and the shooting by both sides went on for about ten minutes before the separatists fled.
December 29, 2015: In the south (Narathiwat province) a dozen armed men attacked a government office and shot one person dead and took 13 others prisoner. Police vehicles speeding to the site of the incident were fired upon and one roadside bomb was used. The police suffered no casualties and when they arrived the gunmen fled, without their hostages.
December 13, 2015: In the south a soldier died when a bomb went off at the funeral of his mother. Local separatists were suspected, in large part because the dead soldier was a local and had been very successful in getting information on separatist activities.