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Thai Buddhism, Thai Buddhists and the southern conflict

  • Duncan McCargo

Thailand's ‘southern border provinces’ of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – along with four districts of neighbouring Songkhla – are the site of fiery political violence characterised by daily killings. The area was historically a Malay sultanate, and was only loosely under Thai suzerainty until the early twentieth century. During the twentieth century there was periodic resistance to Bangkok's attempts to suppress local identity and to incorporate this largely Malay-speaking, Muslim-majority area into a predominantly Buddhist nation-state. This resistance proved most intense during the 1960s and 1970s, when various armed groups (notably PULO [Patani United Liberation Organization] and BRN [Barisan Revolusi Nasional]) waged war on the Thai state, primarily targeting government officials and the security forces. In the early 1980s, the Prem Tinsulanond government brokered a deal with these armed groups and proceeded to co-opt the Malay-Muslim elite. By crafting mutually beneficial governance, security and financial arrangements, the Thai state was able largely to placate local political demands.

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1 For background analysis of the southern Thai conflict, refer to the five reports published by the International Crisis Group since 2005, at; Human Rights Watch, No one is safe. Insurgent violence against civilians in Thailand's southern border provinces (New York, Human Rights Watch Report, 19, 13 (C), Aug. 2007); Askew, Marc, Conspiracy, politics and a disorderly border: The Struggle to represent insurgency in Thailand's deep south (Washington, DC: East West Center, 2007); ed. McCargo, Duncan, Rethinking Thailand's southern violence (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007) (a revised version of the Mar. 2006 special issue of Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1); and McCargo, Duncan, Tearing apart the land: Islam and legitimacy in southern Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

2 Refer to Srisompob Jitpiromsri, 40 duan khwam runraeng: sotplaichob kanchaihetphol lae samanachan [40 months of violence: Reaching the edge of rationality and reconciliation?], 4 June 2007, updated in an oral presentation for the Social Science Research Council, New York, 26 Oct. 2007. This, and other invaluable Thai-language reports on the violence, may be found at (last accessed on 6 Aug. 2008).

3 Information from ‘Population and households census 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000: Southern provinces’, National Statistical Office (Bangkok: Prime Minister's Office, 2003).

4 Interview with an abbot before the 19 Sept. 2006 military coup, cited in Amporn Marddent, ‘Buddhist perceptions of Muslims in the Thai south’, paper presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Boston, 22–25 Mar. 2007.

5 Refer to The Nation, 17 Nov. 2004.

6 In general, homicide rates are highest in developing Christian countries, and lowest in developed and Muslim-majority nations. Thailand has proportionally more murders than any Muslim-majority nation.

7 For a critical view of the Thai military, refer to Ockey, James, ‘Thailand: The Struggle to redefine civil-military relations’, in Coercion and governance: The Declining political role of the military in Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001): 187208.

8 Somboon Suksamran, Buddhism and politics in Thailand: A Study of socio-political change and political activism of the Thai sangha (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), p. 7.

9 These acts are discussed in detail in Ishii, Yoneo, Sangha, state and society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986).

10 For a detailed discussion, refer to Jackson, Peter, Buddhism, legitimation and conflict (Singapore: ISEAS, 1989), pp. 6393.

11 The history of this suppression is explored in Tivavanich, Kamala, Forest recollections: Wandering monks in twentieth-century Thailand (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997).

12 Refer to Jackson, 1989, pp. 94–112.

13 Satha-Anand, Suwanna, ‘Religious movements in contemporary Thailand: Buddhist struggles for modern relevance’, Asian Survey, 30, 4 (1990): 405.

14 Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana of Siam 1860–1921, ed. and trans. Craig Reynolds (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979), p. 32.

15 Reynolds, Craig, ‘Power’, in Critical terms for the study of Buddhism, Lopez, Donald S. Jr (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005), pp. 222–6. In advancing this argument, Reynolds draws extensively on McCargo, Duncan, Chamlong Srimuang and the new Thai politics (London: Hurst, 1997).

16 Refer to Buddhist warfare, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer and Michael Jerryson (forthcoming), a collection of essays covering historical and contemporary examples drawn from China, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet. The volume also reviews a range of Buddhist texts supporting the use of violence.

17 For a discussion of this episode, refer to Morell, David and Samudavanija, Chai-anan, Political conflict in Thailand: Reform, reaction, revolution (Cambridge MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain, 1981), pp. 246–8.

18 For details, refer to Morell and Chai-anan, Political conflict, pp. 270–3.

19 For a critique, refer to McCargo, Duncan, ‘Buddhism, democracy and identity in Thailand’, Democratization, 11, 4 (Aug. 2004): 155–70.

20 Rob Stewart, ‘Defending the faith(s): Buddhism and religious freedom in Thailand’, paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Thai Studies, Amsterdam, 4–8 July 1999.

21 Refer to Satha-anand, Suwanna, ‘Signs of the time: Cultural tolerance in Asia’, Asia-Pacific Intellectuals (API) Newsletter, 3 (June 2002): 34.

22 These writings are discussed in Satha-Anand, Suwanna, ‘Buddhist pluralism and religious tolerance in democratizing Thailand’, in Philosophy, democracy and education, ed. Cam, Philip (Seoul: Korean National Commission for UNESCO and The Asia-Pacific Philosophy Education Network for Democracy, APPEND Philosophy Series, vol. 4), pp. 206–13.

Earlier versions of the three main articles in this symposium were presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, Boston, 22–25 Mar. 2007. I wish to thank Justin McDaniel of the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Group of the Association for Asian Studies for chairing and sponsoring the panel, and Amporn Marddent for her participation in, and contributions to, this project. Thanks are due to Marc Askew and Michael Jerryson for their contributions to this introductory article.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
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