The protracted conflict in Thailand’s deep south, since reigniting in 2004, has cost some 7,000 lives and is now driving a slow exodus from the region. Initially Thai Buddhists, a minority in the majority Muslim region and increasingly targeted by insurgents, were the first to leave; most headed north, where they make up the majority. But in recent years protracted violence and instability has also driven a growing number of Malay Muslims to look elsewhere, primarily across the border to Malaysia, where they have to make fewer cultural accommodations to survive than in Bangkok.

Thai Buddhist migration north to Bangkok

‘I left Narathiwat around 2001, when my parents and I moved to Bangkok,’ Nara, a Thai Buddhist, recounts. ‘My dad, a military lieutenant, wanted me to get the best high school education.’ She wonders, now, if that was the only reason. ‘There was a series of small incidents that got him thinking that the situation wasn’t right.’

Nara feels deeply connected to the area where she grew up, in Thailand’s southern border provinces (SBPs). The maternal side of her family was in Narathiwat for generations, and she is in fact named after this place. As Thailand’s SBPs – comprising the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla – are majority Muslim, Nara belonged to a minority in the area, but received the benefits of the Buddhist military state complex. ‘Being part of the military family, we would get a military escort to school.’

Nara’s father’s decision to move his family out of Narathiwat proved timely. Bombings in 2001 at the train station in Hat Yai and the border town of Betong were at the time relatively rare but signalled a new phase in the conflict between Patani Muslim insurgents fighting for a separate state against those whom they perceived as Thai colonizers.

At the same time, changes in the Thai government’s policies towards the deep south under then Prime Minister Thaksin in 2002 – which included dissolving the Southern Border Province Administration Center (SBPAC) and the Civilian-Police-Military Task Force 43 (CPM43), two institutions that had been credited with keeping the area relatively stable in the previous two decades – only made matters worse. As the situation began to deteriorate, martial law and emergency decrees were instituted, facilitating arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killings of Muslims, mainly young men, including disappearances of Muslim activists.

In turn, indiscriminate attacks on Thai Buddhists, including teachers, hospital workers and Buddhist monks, became a key tactic of the insurgents. Killings would often be accompanied by leaflets demanding that all Thai Buddhists leave the area. By 2006, Thai officials reportedly estimated that 30,000 Thai Buddhists had left. According to national census data, Yala, the area with the highest number of Buddhists historically, saw its Buddhist population decline from 36 per cent in 1990 to 23 per cent by 2010.

‘We started to hear bad news,’ Nara reccounts. ‘Many of my parents’ friends died, they were officers, teachers, nurses. Then we lost one of our family members, my uncle in-law. He was a border patrol police officer who was shot in a terrorist incident.’ Only Nara’s grandmother refused to leave, asserting that her place would forever be with her land.

In 2017, more than 15 years after her departure, Nara returned to Narathiwat for the first time to attend her grandmother’s funeral. She was shocked by the changes. ‘The whole town is like a ghost – it made me feel really sad. To see check points, bunkers and those things is just weird. I don’t remember having to see any of these scenes when I was a kid. Every weekend, my parents and I used to go to the beach in a Muslim village to picnic, read and draw. We felt so safe then. Now the beach has changed so much – there are many abandoned properties.’

Malay migration across the border to Malaysia

However, Malay Muslim civilians have borne the brunt of this conflict. Of the nearly 7,000 people killed since 2004, two-thirds of whom were civilians, some 60 per cent were Muslim. While Malay Muslim migration to work in Malaysia or study abroad has been practised for decades, the situation has been further aggravated as a result of the conflict and the discriminatory policies of the Thai state: given the lack of economic and educational opportunities, the psychological toll of the violence and continued ethnic profiling by security forces, many have decided they have no option but to leave.

Ethnic and religious similarities between the Malaysian-Thailand border populations have historically facilitated temporary migration for work in Malaysia’s stronger economy. A variety of industries have benefited from this labour, including agriculture, food processing, restaurants and domestic work, which used to be primarily temporary or seasonal work. Most Malay Muslims reportedly entered the country on tourist visas or utilizing a border pass system that has been in effect since the 1940s, waiving the need for a passport if they reside no further than 25 km from the border. Most do not have a work permit and are active in informal industries.

Given the informal nature of their work, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the number of Malay Muslims working in Malaysia, but estimates from 2009 suggest that it is likely that at least 20 per cent of the working-age population of the southern provinces live or work in Malaysia. In another study, published in 2006, focusing on a community in Narathiwat, 70 per cent had family members who had worked in Malaysia and almost 20 per cent had at least one family member married to a Malaysian national. The general consensus is that migration to Malaysia is not only increasing, but also – particularly for women – taking on a more permanent character. In the same study, only 8 per cent of those over 70 years old had lived or worked in Malaysia, whereas almost 40 per cent of those in their teens or twenties had worked in Malaysia.

The increase in conflict has resulted in deteriorating economic and employment prospects for the SBPs. Malay Muslims experience on average poorer outcomes than their counterparts, including Thai Buddhists living in the SBPs, populations in the neighbouring provinces, people in Bangkok, as well as those living across the border in Malaysia. According to the Thai government’s National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), in 2015 the poverty rate in the SBPs was at 33 per cent, compared to a national rate of 7.2 per cent.

Schools in the SBPs have been specifically targeted by the insurgents, with bombings and killings of teachers a regular occurrence. Schools are regularly closed due to the security situation and students endure constant psychological stress. In addition, there are limited opportunities for Malay Muslim youth to obtain a quality secondary education. Thai language skills are often lacking, and many do not pass the competitive national entrance exams; also, there are no quotas to guarantee minority placements. Many Malay Muslims complete their high school education at private Islamic schools, in order to accomodate Islamic study and practice, but the quality of the education either prevents them from gaining a university place or leaves them struggling if they are accepted.

While Muslims in the SBPs with higher levels of education may move to Bangkok for further education and employment – one recent study found that more than half of Muslim migrants from within Thailand living in Bangkok were educated to graduate level or higher – working-class or unskilled Muslims often do not choose to move north due to the cultural separation between themselves and the population of Bangkok, while their lack of fluency in Thai also prevents them from being hired outside the SBPs. Indeed, many young men report trouble finding work in Thailand as they are profiled by employers as being involved in the insurgency.

Separation, assimilation and the difficulty of return

Arida, a Muslim 32-year-old mother of two, passed the national entrance exams after completing a private Islamic education. She studied at Pattani’s Prince of Songkla University, the only university in the SBPs among the top ten in Thailand. Her father, a village head in Narathiwat, was killed by insurgents in the early days of the conflict, leaving her mother to raise her and her six siblings. Some of her brothers are now addicted to drugs or mentally ill. Arida works in the non-profit sector, the only family member currently in employment, bringing in an income to support her whole family.

Her uncle is the only one of her family who migrated for work or study, working temporarily in Malaysia, ten years ago. She herself has not migrated for work or study, but her reasoning was illustrative – a fear of the assimilation that life in Thailand’s capital would bring. ‘Bangkok is the worst for me. If I had had the opportunity to study abroad, I would have. I did not want to be Thai by being in their culture.’ When asked to explain, she said she had observed her friends come back from studying in Bangkok. ‘They act like Thai people, dressing in a half Muslim, half Thai style. Some are strong [to resist] but many of them not. It weakens their Malay language ability too.’

For many, however, a new life beyond the SBPs can bring benefits too. Young Muslim women who migrate to Malaysia have reported a new sense of personal freedoms, without being seen as being ‘Thai-ized’ or compromising their Muslim practices. Similarly, Malay Muslim youth who study in Bangkok report a reluctance to return to the south, as they have enjoyed freedoms to associate with the opposite gender and realize that they will have to return to a more strictly controlled environment once they are home.

Some, however, do not have the freedom to return to the SBPs. For those wanted by Thai security forces for suspected involvement in the insurgency, both higher level members of BRN (one of the main insurgent groups) and young men accused of committing crimes, Malaysia serves as an accessible location beyond the grasp of the Thai authorities. The Thai government recently announced its Bring People Home project, a potential amnesty programme for accused insurgents, but has yet to finalize the details in its negotiations with MARA Patani, the umbrella group currently engaged in peace talks with the government. For the moment, though, many suspected insurgents live in Malaysia without access to personal documentation and its benefits in Malaysia.

The dialogue between the government and MARA Patani has not yet led to any concrete solutions for ending the violence in the south and creating a framework for autonomy to realize the rights of Malay Muslims. Despite this, since the inception of the official talks, violence has been steadily decreasing in the SBPs and reached a record low in 2017. The government’s attempts to pour development money into the SBPs, however, are unlikely to make any real impact as long as even low-level violence persists.

For Malay Muslims, who have endured decades of assimilationist policies by the Thai state, the conflict is driven primarily by the denial of their basic rights as a minority group, particularly their political, cultural, educational and economic rights. But until these issues are addressed, it is likely that the exodus from their homeland will continue.

Nicole Girard

Header photo: A Thai policeman checks the papers of a Muslim woman at a checkpoint in Pattani in Thailand’s deep south. Credit: Panos / Adam Dean.

Watch two MRG documentaries about these issues in the South Border Provinces of Thailand: