Buddhists move into restive southern Thailand

Separatist leader claims trans-migration policy is an attempt by Bangkok to dilute the region's Muslim-majority population with northerners

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:35am

Thailand is resettling poor Buddhists into the country's insurgency plagued south in a trans-migration programme that appears designed to dilute the Muslim majority.

Regional security officials, monitoring the situation, have reported recent movements of people from Thailand's north into several districts in Pattani province, among them the districts of Sai Buri, Kampung Laha and Mukim Pan.

The programme appears to have been a long-standing measure instigated by the ruling elite, according to a separatist Muslim rebel group.

"This has been going on for a long time and it is systematic," Kasturi Mahkota, president of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), told the South China Morning Post in a phone interview from Sweden, where he is based.

This has been going on for a long time and it is systematic

Pulo, largely known as a secular rebel group, is one of the several separatist Muslim insurgencies fighting for self-rule from the mainly Buddhist Thai government. "This programme is sometimes to re-settle Buddhist Thais in the south, and at other times, the Buddhist are brought in to work," Mahkota added.

The trans-migration issue comes as Thailand is scheduled to hold a fourth round of peace dialogue with the largest separatist Muslim insurgent group, the National Revolution Front (BRN), in Kuala Lumpur today.

Malaysia helped broker the talks which have now culminated into Thailand agreeing, for the first time, to meet Muslim militants in the south of the country, a breakthrough towards ending a nearly decade-long conflict that has claimed more than 5,300 lives.

Senior Thai government officials signed the sweeping peace deal with members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) last February.

Security officials described how 165 people had recently been relocated from the country's north to the three Pattani districts and given plots of land to cultivate.

The land is then turned into an integrated agricultural project which breeds goats, freshwater fish as well as growing vegetables and fruit."Each worker is paid a monthly wage of 3,000 baht (HK$752)," a Thai security officer said.

Resistance to Buddhist rule in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has been simmering for decades but resurfaced violently in January 2004. Since then, more than 5,300 people have been killed.

The three provinces were once part of a Malay Muslim sultanate until Thailand annexed them in 1909.

An estimated 80 per cent of the 1.8 million people living in the south are Malay-speaking Muslims. Many regard Buddhist rule from Bangkok and heavy military presence in the south as oppressive.

"The project of placing a Buddhist population from northern Thailand to the Muslim-majority location in three provinces in southern Thailand, I believe, can contribute towards provoking anger among the Muslim Pattani society against the Thai government," the security officer said.

"They [Muslims] may see this as 'soft' colonialisation by the Thai authorities over them by occupying their land and further proof of 'oppression' toward the minority in Thailand.

"On the other hand, some may see this as an effort in assimilation by the Thai authorities to get Buddhists and Muslims to live together in harmony."

Following the signing of the February peace deal, violence surged before declining.

In one day in February, suspected Muslim insurgents launched up to 50 bomb and arson attacks that killed three security force members.

This brought the total death toll in February to 119 , compared with 42 in January, according to the security officer.

In March, the number of deaths started to dip, falling to 104. In April, the number fell further to 76 followed by 58 in May, according to the officer.