Understanding the Situation in the South as a “Millenarian Revolt”

Nidhi Aeusrivongse


The Protagonists are the “Small People” 

It is difficult to deny that the situation in southern Thailand this year [Ed: 2004] is a social movement numbering hundreds of people. 1 If we include those people who have lent their support to the operations, that number might reach a thousand or more.

I am not interested in who led such a large-scale social movement, who the mastermind was, or from where the movement has gained support. Searching for the ringleader does not help us to understand anything. The raid on the arms depot [on 4 January 2004], the assassination of government officials, school burnings, or attacks on police units by militant forces, etc., are not isolated incidents but a movement that involves a large number of people. No one person can lead or attract such a huge number of people to carry out such violent operations (even through the use of drugs – this is a reference to comments made by the Prime Minister and circulated in the media that the militants were drug addicts. ed). There must be certain factors that have led these small people to mobilize themselves out of a common interest. In order to understand the situation in the South, therefore, one must understand the surrounding conditions and factors that are affecting the lives of these small people.

An authoritarian state does not often pay much attention to the small people who participate in social movements. It never conceives that the common people could mobilize a political or social movement by themselves. It always assumes that they must have been incited by someone else to take part, or else have been lured into it through bribery or deception.

Although such incitement, bribery, or deception may indeed exist, none of these things can explain the actions of the small people who actually joined the movement. Since a large number of these small people chose not to participate in the movement, apart from the large number who did, the question is, why did one group join the movement while the other group did not?

Who are the Protagonists?

By chance, the 28 April [2004] incident that led to the deaths of so many people has enabled us to learn who these small people actually are [The “incident” refers to coordinated attacks by militants on a number of police posts in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, and a stand-off with security forces at Kruese mosque in Pattani province. The attacks were suppressed leaving 107 of the militants dead, includnig 32 at the Kruese mosque seige. ed.]

If we look at the forces that took part in the incident of 28 April, the majority of them, as has been reported by the media, were rural people. This is consistent with an interview with the 4th Army Commander who stated that these people received military training in certain areas of Amphoe [district] Sabayoi, in Songkhla province, or Amphoe Kabang, Amphoe Yaha, Amphoe Thanto, Amphoe Aiyaweng, and Amphoe Betong in Yala province. He pointed out that these are jungle-covered, mountainous areas where security officials had not been able to inspect (Matichon, 3 May 2004).

This interview with the 4th Army Commander is in accordance with information provided by military intelligence sources that the youth had received secret military training (I am not sure what “youth” means here, because a press release following the incident stated that most of the dead were around 25 to 30 years of age, which means they are too old to be referred to as “youth”). This military training took place in mountainous, jungle areas, or close to remote villages. Those who underwent the training course were able to advance to the high-ranking groups that carry out hit-and-run attacks on police targets (Perspective Section, Bangkok Post, 2 May 2004).

When the author attempted to find out about the backgrounds of those killed it appears that this subject has received hardly any interest from the media. Therefore, we barely know about these people.

Among the injured was Mr. Abdulroning Cheloh, a villager from Amphoe Khokpho, Pattani province. His wife stated that he worked as a laborer tapping rubber (Matichon, 2 May 2004). This suggests that his family is quite poor since he works as hired laborer in a rural village without his own working capital.

The kamnan (head) of Thankhiri sub-district, the administrative area that includes Susoh village, where nineteen of the dead militants who attacked Amphoe Sabayoi police station came from, stated that “the most serious problem is education, because most of the kids here are unemployed. They can’t find work because they don’t have any knowledge. Most of them finish their education at the compulsory level of grade six, or at most junior secondary school. Then they have to help their parents in rubber-tapping. Apart from this they don’t have anything to do” (Matichon, 2 May 2004). Their level of education and the nature of the work they did suggest, therefore, that they were victims of the disintegration of rural society.

There were, however, some different cases, such as those of Mr. Sanphu and Mr. Maroning Yogmakeh, both of whom were shot dead. Their father expressed his sorrow, especially for the loss of his elder son (it is not known which one) who had just finished high school at Islam Witthaya school and had just applied to enter the police training college. But besides this, the evidence suggests that the militants who carried out the operation, and perhaps even the whole movement itself are not be linked to the traditional elite. For example, the Bangkok Post of 27 April reported that it had discovered a leaflet distributed in three provinces, i.e. at Dalohala-Raman Road, in Amphoe Raman, Yala province, in Amphoe Khokpho, Pattani province, and in Amphoe Roesoh, Narathiwat province, which features a picture of a religious leader handing something to a uniformed police officer. The leaflet, written in the Thai language, demands that Islamic religious leaders cease their cooperation with the police in providing intelligence about the unrest in the South.

This demand would appear to suggest that most religious leaders are not involved with the movement. They have no real links with the militants or the movement. The author suspects that neither the militants themselves nor the movement they lead have any real connection to the traditional elite. In fact, following the government’s arrests and the charges laid against the “ringleaders,” up until now there has been no clear evidence to prove the charges. I have had the opportunity of reading two case studies contained in the “Case Study Report into…” prepared by the Military Intelligence Agency of the Internal Security Directorate for the 4th Army Region, 2nd Division, that attempts to link the whole movement with the traditional elite, both at the local and the national levels. But all of the report’s conclusions are groundless suppositions based on conjecture and suspicion with no factual basis. The report may even have been deliberately intended to misrepresent the facts in order to fit the story it had concocted (even though it was credible enough to convince a number of government leaders). The author still believes, therefore, that this is a movement of the small people, and that those who carried out this operation had no links to the local traditional elite.

The author is also skeptical as to whether even those well-known anti-Thai government organizations such as PULO, BRN, Bersatu, etc. 2 are as linked to this movement as they wish to claim. 3 Of course, they will give their support and praise the actions of these small people, even though they are not the main force directly behind the movement, since it obviously fits in with their political objectives. In actual fact, however, movements such as PULO, BRN, etc. appear to lack the necessary organizational strength for such actions. They have never been able to carry out operations on such a large scale and of such an on-going nature as this.

It is noteworthy that the communiqué released by PULO following the incident on 28 April still does not claim responsibility, which suggests that PULO itself may not know a great deal about the “heroes” it has praised for their sacrifice and bravery. The PULO communiqué prefers to keep these “heroes” anonymous, even though they ought to know very well that it is not difficult for the Thai government to trace the names and families of the dead militants.

The Ideology of the Protagonists

MalaysiaThailand_(en)The mass media, which has obediently accepted the information provided to it by the government or high ranking state officials, depicts the militants as a separatist group whose aim is to establish an independent state of Pattani free of Thai political control, while at the same time receiving inspiration from an extremist strand of Islamic teaching.

It is true that certain evidence found on the dead militants or gained from the interrogation of those militants who have been apprehended may indeed support such an interpretation. But let us look at the details of this ideology as claimed above.

Even if the militants and their movement (including organizations that supported them, such as PULO) may have wanted to establish an independent Pattani state, up until 28 April these organizations had done nothing to make such a political separation practically viable under the prevailing conditions in the world today. There has been no serious attempt to gain the recognition, understanding, and sympathy of the world’s superpowers for a new, would-be political entity. There has not even been any dissemination to the outside world of the sufferings of the Melayu Muslim people under the rule of the Thai Buddhist state.

In today’s world, political separation from a state that has the economic and political importance of Thailand cannot be achieved without the recognition, at least implicitly, of the superpowers. In this respect, the United States, China, the European Union, Japan, or even ASEAN countries, stand to benefit more from Thailand’s stability, national integrity, and tranquility than from its disintegration and the resulting chaos.

The on-going activities of the militants, such as the assassination of state officials, the attacks carried out on small government security forces, and the burnings of schools and government offices, are certainly not a viable means of establishing an independent state. It is impossible for the militants to defeat the Thai armed forces. Moreover, the more they carry out these types of operations, the more they stand to lose in terms of their own manpower. And careless operations that result in the loss of mass support, such as school burnings, make it even less likely that they will be able to defeat the Thai state through the use of violence. At the same time their ability to foment unrest is even more restricted.

The Thai public cannot sympathize with these violent operations, and political separation from the Thai state would certainly require its consent. Yet the separatist movement has never seriously attempted to communicate its position to the Thai public (it is only recently that some organizations’ leaflets have begun to be written in Thai; formerly they were all written in the local Malay dialect and in Jawi script). The actions of the militants, therefore, would seem only to result in the strengthening of the Thai public’s opposition to the separatists.

The question is whether these organizations have ever seriously thought of achieving their goal of a separate state, or whether they just use secessionist sentiment in order to mobilize the small people in armed uprisings – while their real objective is simply to achieve a stronger bargaining position in negotiations.

These organizations have never laid out their plans for a viable future state. Some PULO statements have referred to an abundance of natural resources in the “Melayu Pattani” territory.  While it may be true that this area has natural resources, what exactly these natural resources consist of has never been made clear in their statements (PULO has mentioned the existence of gold mines, but in reference to the past). It would appear that PULO itself does not have any clear plan as to who, in an independent Pattani state, would have access to these resources and how these resources would be distributed to the people; what the role of the 20 percent of the population that is not Melayu Muslim who dominate the urban economy would be; and how to deal with those outside capitalists who have invested in fisheries and related industries, so that these abundant resources could be used in a way that is fair to every party.

Moreover, the cultural identity of this new Pattani state is even less clear, other than the use of the local dialect and Islam. Would this new state be an Islamic state? But what is referred to as an “Islamic state” can have varying degrees of intensity. How Islamic would this newly constituted Pattani state be?

People always speak of Pattani’s glory in the past, but the resurrection of Pattani history did not come about through the efforts of the separatist movement. The latter part of the Hikayat Pattani was a work written by Ibrahim Syukri whose name, as far as I know, is not linked with any separatist movement. Moreover, the Melayu manuscript that was disseminated in mimeograph form was written in Rumi script in high Melayu, which means that most common people could not read it. In fact, it is the Thai version translated by an academic institution belonging to the Thai state that has been more widely published than the original version itself, and it has also been widely cited in Thai academic works.

Amidst this absence of ideology, the Kreuse mosque became the only tangible cultural symbol for the villagers. The attempt to revive the Pattani kris, or the search for and reproduction of ancient technologies, were projects carried out by Thai academics (in collaboration with local villagers) and were funded by the Thailand Research Fund, which is a Thai government agency. It was represented in the Thai academic community as the local culture of the Thai state. There is no context for a Pattani state independent of Thai political authority, either in the past or in the future.

I believe that the separatist organizations do dream of an independent Pattani state, or at least one free of the “oppression” of the Thai state. But these organizations, and especially the militants, have only a vague idea of this fantasy. But that is unimportant, because the imaginary Pattani state they dream of is just a symbol, or more specifically, a utopian state … something – anything – except the reality of today.  No one has been able to conceptualize a viable state, so what we have instead is a fantasy state. It has no future reality, since there are no real means in the present to realize the ideal.

Even one of PULO’s own statements, which claims that “with the natural resources from both the land and the sea we could build a country as rich as Brunei, our brother,” suggests that this is all just about a utopian state.

As for Islam, certain high-ranking state officials and some secret intelligence reports have attempted to connect this social movement to international Muslim fundamentalism, both in terms of funding sources and ideology. In fact, no one has ever been able to provide any concrete evidence to prove this fantasy. Some intelligence reports have compiled biographies of foreign Muslims who have come to teach in several schools and pondoks in the South, but there is not a single piece of intelligence that clearly demonstrates that they are a risk to national security. Most of them were not granted extensions to their stay from the Immigration Department. So they simply went to Malaysia and clandestinely re-entered the country as tourists and stayed illegally, which is no different to those migrant laborers who fled poverty in their own countries to work in Thailand. One foreigner suspected of undermining Thai national security who had secretly re-entered from Malaysia could not find his former teaching job and so turned to smuggling illegal beef from Malaysia. He was certainly not a learned ulama who could gain a faithful following from the people. He was not conversant with the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism and did not seem to be a devoted follower of the doctrine of those radical militant groups such as Al Qaeda. He was just a man living as an itinerant, struggling to survive a poverty-stricken life in today’s borderless world.

If we consider the “Islamic” aspects of the militants’ behavior, it to consist simply of the common principles with which every Muslim is familiar. There is nothing to suggest that the militants or any of the various organizations have any profound knowledge of Islam. The police and military like to link the movement and the militants to religious teachers (toh khru) or foreign Islamic scholars. But even if a real relationship does exist, there is no profound Islamic teaching in this social movement. There is no document that explains the separatist rationality in sophisticated religious doctrine. One PULO statement purportedly quoted the Qur’an as declaring that “it is forbidden to live under kafir (heathen) rule; in fact those who take a kafir as their ruler will never achieve success, either in this world or in the next.” However, the Islamic experts that the author has consulted said there is no such verse in the Qur’an, and verses that do exist of a similar nature could be interpreted in many ways. Moreover, the statement’s call, “Awake, brothers of Melayu Pattani and Melayu brothers everywhere! Awake to fight against Siamese injustice in every form!” is certainly not aimed at a Muslim audience.

Some newspapers reported that some of the dead militants wore shirts on the back of which was written in Arabic script, “There is no god but God.” This declaration in Arabic is as familiar to every Muslim as the beginning of the Buddhist prayer, “Namo tassa,” is to every Buddhist. It is the first half of the declaration of faith in Arabic which every Muslim has to pronounce, “There is no god but Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is his Messenger.” 4

Some media sources mentioned other messages written in Arabic script on the clothes of those killed, which they loosely translated as “let me die for God.” In fact, “Lâ ilâha illâ Allah” means, according to the villagers of Datoh village, “there is no god worthy of worship except Allah” (in fact, this is simply the first half of the declaration of faith, as mentioned above). Traditionally, when a sick person is gravely ill, his relatives and friends will lead him in uttering the first half of the declaration, because it is believed that Prophet Muhammad also uttered this phrase before his death (Srisakra, p.33).

Therefore, the most that the Arabic text written on the clothes of the militants could mean is that they were ready to die. Or, they may have used this important declaration for Muslims as a kind of mantra, for what other Arabic phrase could be more “sacred” to the Muslim villagers than this?

Similarly, the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” which according to some media reports the militants cried out during their attacks, is a phrase in praise of God that is familiar to Muslims around the world and has been uttered for centuries. And it could also be understood to be a “sacred” word.

All these elements suggest that the militants’ understanding of Islam is rather basic and does not differ significantly from the knowledge of Islam that is common among ordinary Muslims. This also appears to be in line with the conclusion mentioned above, that this social movement is not related to the traditional elite. The militants’ knowledge of Islam is hardly very profound in comparison with that of the toh khru.

(In fact, despite police and government claims, there is no proof whatsoever of relations between the militants and the pondok schools. For example, whenever there is a report that weapons are hidden in some pondok schools, the security forces that are sent to investigate have never been able to find any evidence of illegal activities. The government always concludes that the failure to find weapons is due to intelligence leaks… So, if weapons are found it confirms the government’s suspicions; but if they are not found its suspicions still remain. When will the government cast suspicion upon its own suspicions?)There has been another media report that could lead to a further misunderstanding. The villagers who were the relatives of the dead militants did not arrange the bathing ceremony for the dead. Some media sources said that this was based on the belief that those who died in the path of God should not be bathed before burial. But according to Muslim custom in southern Thailand, people who have died from drowning, or have been burnt to death, or have been killed by wild animals, or have been left dead for several days, or have died defending their country or religion, similarly will not be bathed (Srisakra, p.18) (they are all examples of violent death). This is related to the idea of cleanliness which is very important in Islam. Therefore, the relatives’ insistence that they would not perform the bathing ceremony for the dead is quite normal Muslim practice that does not necessarily have any political significance.

The reaction that the militants have towards the Thai state, therefore, does not originate from any new political or religious ideology with which they have recently been indoctrinated. But, as I wish to argue in this essay, the change that has affected the villagers has not come from any ideology. The problem is related rather to the impact of economic and social changes on the villagers’ lives.

Indeed, in contrast to Islam, if we follow the reports that have been disseminated in the media, the author feels that it is supernatural beliefs (which are forbidden in Islam) that have played the more significant role in this conflict.

Some media sources reported that on 28 April 2004 the militants wore strings of beads (some reports say they were white) and wrapped their heads with red headbands. While the media gave considerable attention to the red headbands because they were comparable to those worn by the Hamas group in Palestine, the author is rather more interested in the strings of beads they wore. What is the reason they wore these strings of beads, which are not required by Islam and are not a necessary element of Islamic prayer? The Islamic sect that commonly uses strings of beads is the Sufi, whom the mainstream Sunni sect does not particularly approve of. In the history of Islam, the Sufi have rebelled against the Sunni ulama and their governments many times, and these rebellions have also been suppressed by the Sunni many times. But a string of beads is merely an instrument for use in Sufi meditation rather than a talisman giving the wearer powers of invulnerability. The reason those Sufi “rishi” [ascetics] wore strings of beads around their necks was in order to prevent them from being lost.

It appears that the militants’ knowledge of Sufism was not particularly profound. The Sabayoi youth stated that they were followers of “Latthi Supri” [Sufism]. (Note the pronunciation of this word; there is no “f” sound in the Melayu language, therefore Arabic words that contain this consonant may be pronounced in two ways, either with an “f” or a “p” sound, which is the closest sound in the Melayu tongue. Whereas educated people can pronounce the “f” sound, ordinary villagers would pronounce this consonant as a “p” sound. For example, the Arabic word faham – meaning to understand – would likely be pronounced by villagers as “paham.” Thus the youths’ reference to Sufism as “Supri” or “Supi” is a reflection of their level of familiarity with authentic Sufism). These youths said that according to Sufi principles they had to perform the “ma-umna” ceremony before carrying out the operation, which consisted of meditating, chanting sacred verses, and counting the “gacabek” or strings of beads. This ceremony was secretly performed in a cave for one month. When they were ready to begin the operation they had to drink a cup of sacred water (Matichon, 2 May 2004).

This chanting of sacred verses before carrying out the attacks on the police posts was reported in almost all the media. One TV channel reported that the police found sacred verse on the body of one of the dead militants. However, when the police investigated its origin, they found it belonged to a young Muslim man who was not one of the militants. He testified that he was indeed the owner of the sacred verse, but that it in fact had belonged to his deceased father who had been a police warrant officer. The sacred verse gave the owner powers of invulnerability, for example, the ability to conceal oneself from the enemy and to protect oneself from weapons. One of the dead militants had asked him for the sacred verse, but he did not know what they were going to do with it.

Another report from the Kreuse mosque stated that each of the militants had to drink a kind of blue liquid before carrying out the attack. The author believes this drink was sacred water rather than a drug. 5

The belief that they were protected by supernatural powers gave the militants such courage on 28 April 2004 that the Thai Army Commander acknowledged in an interview that, “from our experience in battle we have never encountered such wild, fearless, exceptional fighters” (Matichon, 2 May 2004). Just as in militant uprisings in the past, when the combatants depended on supernatural powers and found that the sacred verses could not protect them from the enemy, they fled to save their lives, as in the case of the 16 bodies found in Sabayoi district. After losing their friends in the attack, the militants fled and hid themselves in a local restaurant, but were pursued by the security forces who killed them all. In the case of the incident at Kreuse mosque, although we are not yet clear as to what actually happened, the release of three hostages (Bangkok Post, 29 April 2004) suggests there was a possibility of negotiation with the militants. It seems they had begun to doubt the efficacy of their supernatural powers.


Millenarian Rebellions

The author has presented this account of the facts in order to argue that there is no way of understanding this social movement in southern Thailand if we rely solely on the theory (or perspective) that focuses on the “ringleader,” or that attempts to explain only certain phenomena while totally neglecting many other related phenomena. The theories presented by government leaders and certain officials in the bureaucracy contradict one another (and sometimes even contradict themselves) and are unable to explain all these phenomena.

The author would like to argue that any theory that is to fully explain this social movement must focus on the large numbers of “small people” who participated in the uprisings. It is they who form the real substance of this social movement, and this movement must be understood as a twentieth-first century “millenarian” rebellion.

“Millenarian movements,” which are referred to in Thai as “peasant revolts” (kabot chao na) or “Phra Sri-arn rebellions” (kabot phra sri-arn), are resistance movements of the small people at the local level, for example, peasants, rubber-tapping laborers working deep in the thick jungle, coastal fishermen, itinerant animal herders, miners, indigenous people, etc. These small people have regularly risen up in opposition to changes they can not very well understand other than the fact that the changes have come from the outside and are having a devastating effect on their lives. These outside forces are typically the central government or its officials, outside traders, capital and outside capitalists (since the villagers tend to possess a means of dealing with local capitalists, i.e. accusing them of being blood-sucking spirits), new religious organizations, etc.

Because these changes affected the small people worldwide in the nineteenth century, that century witnessed millenarian uprisings in many countries. And because there is a wealth of information about these social movements, the millenarian movements of the nineteenth century have been employed as a model to explain similar movements in other centuries. One must be aware, however, in presenting an explanation based on the pattern of millenarian revolts in previous centuries, of the different global context that exists today. For example, better communications can facilitate peasant uprisings over a larger area compared to the locally-based operations of the past. The organizational capacity of movements is also more efficient, not to mention advances in technology which have produced much more lethal weaponry. 

As mentioned above, the small people do not clearly understand the changes that are affecting their lives, thus they do not know who their real enemy is. Their mobilization of force is not directed at any specific targets. They tend to target their enemy’s symbols rather than the enemy itself, since the enemy is most often an outsider and out of reach of the anger of these small people. One example of these millenarian movements in Thailand was the Ngiaw rebellion in Phrae in the late nineteenth century. The rebels sought to kill only the “Thai people” in the local area of northern Thailand, specifically referring to the officials dispatched from the central government. In the case of contemporary southern Thailand, those officials who have been attacked were low-ranking policemen or soldiers, teachers, district or village heads, and even hospital guards. Most of the government offices that have been targeted in arson attacks were abandoned or remote police checkpoints. All of these targets are so small that their loss is hardly even felt by the Thai state which they consider their enemy. One villager in Yaring commented that if the militants really wanted to burn down schools, they could carry out arson attacks on schools every day. But the burning down of schools is a symbolic gesture, so they selectively attack only those schools that are located close to the street and are easily accessible, which is more dangerous than burning down a remote school which is far from the government officials (Note from a conversation between academics and villagers, in Srisakra, p.29).

With regard to ideology and organization, these small people tend not to think in complex ideological terms. Their thinking derives for the most part from popular religion and is not particularly closely related to religious organizations. Their religious beliefs are therefore not those of the learned religious scholar. As in “peasant rebellions” led by religious leaders, such as that of Chao Phra Fang following the fall of Ayuthaya in 1767, the leader often adopts unorthodox religious practices which deviate from the norms of organized religion; i.e., it was said that Chao Phra Fang dressed himself in a red monastic robe. At the same time the leaders rely on supernatural powers, which is consistent with the nature of millenarian rebellions that tend to depend upon the leader’s personal charisma. For example, in the “Holy Men rebellion” during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, the leaders were former monks who had spent periods of their lives in monasteries and could perform supernatural acts, such as placing their hand in boiling oil, etc. Such beliefs are also consistent with the limited weaponry available to peasant rebellions. Most of the weapons they use are easily available agricultural tools.

Because millenarian movements are a reaction to undesirable changes – for example, the shift from tax in kind or service to monetary taxation – or to the peasants’ exclusion from access to natural resources which they had previously used freely – such as the prohibition on wood-cutting in the forest – the ideology of millenarian movements is often based around the promise of a coming utopia or an ideal state in which everyone is equal, extending to relations between men and women, or in which there is no private property. Such idealism is often taken from the ideals of the small agricultural communities they are familiar with and is easily understood by the general “peasantry.”

And because millenarian movements originate among the small people, who do not enjoy significant political connections, these movements are often not linked to the traditional elite. For example, they are not linked to leaders in the religious establishment, the intelligentsia, local political leaders, state officials, or capitalists. (However, they may receive covert support from certain parties who take advantage of “peasant rebellions” in order to acquire power and influence; for example, it was believed that the Ngiaw rebellion in Phrae was secretly supported by some local rulers). The absence of the traditional elite means that the space for resistance available to millenarian movements is limited, not just in geographical terms but also in terms of politics, the mass media, academia, religion, education, and the economy. In most cases, these spaces for struggle are completely closed off to them. Thereby, they have only one space left: resistance to authority. If this provokes government suppression, then armed conflict is likely to be the response.

The author believes that we can only explain the current large-scale social movement in southern Thailand by viewing it as a millenarian revolt. The difference between it and nineteenth-century examples are only found in the changed global context mentioned above. For example, some news reports stated that the signal given for the commencement of operations on 28 April 2004 was a local radio program popular throughout lower southern Thailand. Such internal organization is of course more efficient than the millenarian rebellions of the nineteenth century, but only because of modern communications technology.

The relationship that exists between the militants and the traditional elite, whether they be the toh khru, imams, local politicians, or even former anti-government organizations, is rather superficial, or at least a deeper relationship has yet to be proven. 6 Therefore the association of this movement with the long succession of Pattani “rebellions” that have occurred over the last century explains nothing. In fact, this movement represents a decisive break from former political movements, since all of those movements were led by the traditional elite, whether they were descendants of the royal families, toh imam, or local politicians (all of whom were part of the elite of Thai society, or to put it in other words, were already an advantaged group in Thai society …one need only look at the background of Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, Den Tohmeena, Aripen Uttarasin, etc. These people have already “invested” heavily in Thai society and the Thai system, and at the same time have reaped considerable “profits” from it, in the same way as those who have been able to devote long periods of time to religious study and have become toh khru or toh imam – to the extent that these positions in many areas have been the preserve of certain leading families – or those who have traveled to Mecca for the Haj and have returned as Hajji). Thus it is rather difficult for this elite – both the traditional elite and the new elite that has emerged from modern changes – to participate in a social movement that lacks a clear objective or a practical means of achieving it. Furthermore, what could be said to be the movement’s objectives are certainly not in their interest, and might even directly conflict with their interests.

However, this does not mean that the villagers lack the historical knowledge that would relate their movement to the past. The villagers do retain their own version of Pattani history in their memories. The villagers of Datoh village can remember that a tomb surrounded by a fence in Yaring cemetery belongs to a Pattani ruler and his royal family. They know that this ruler was a former Trengganu king who once ruled Pattani but fled after being attacked and defeated by Thai forces. Therefore, no one brings their dead to be buried in this cemetery, and no one has ever visited this tomb (Srisakra, pp.19-20). But as mentioned above, this movement is a millenarian revolt, not the continuation of a struggle against the Thai state by the traditional elite.

If there is any relationship with the movements in the past, it might be with the Duson Nyoir incident of 1948.

The author does not know whether the choice of 28 April for the date of the militants’ operation was intentionally made to coincide with that of the Duson Nyoir uprising or not. If it was, it surely demonstrates that this was indeed a “millenarian rebellion,” because the Duson Nyoir incident was certainly a real, authentic millenarian rebellion. It began with villagers taking part in a supernatural ceremony to confer upon themselves the power of invulnerability in their fight against Malayan Chinese bandits who had plundered the community’s provisions and food stores. When government officials became suspicious of their conduct the villagers became angry and eventually fighting and killing broke out 7 with the objective of eliminating state authority from the community. There does not appear to have been any clear political objective beyond this.

If the militants wanted to link their movement with the Duson Nyoir uprising, it is particularly interesting, since the only movement that the militants considered related to their movement was a famous millenarian revolt.

Although millenarian revolts are movements of the small people from the lowest class, this does not mean that other people do not become involved in order to manipulate the movement to their own advantage (as mentioned above). The former anti-government organizations such as PULO or BRN certainly want to link themselves to the movement (but as mentioned above, the author feels that these links are not particularly close). Competition between local politicians is also likely to lead other people to become involved based on political interest. Despite this, the author still maintains that the heart of the movement is the low-ranking small people, and that other parties are only marginally involved.


Factors Contributing to the “Peasant Revolt”

Over the last few decades the three or four provinces in the lower part of southern Thailand have experienced profound changes. We might sum up these changes as being the result of the expansion of national capital (that is linked to transnational capital), which has led to villagers’ dispossession of natural resources from the villagers, some of whom have been unable to adapt to the changes. The author would like to refer here to the experience of Ajan Srisakra Vallibotama in the Pattani Bay, which clearly demonstrates these changes:

“Over the last ten years I have witnessed … economic and social changes from Ban Bangpu to Panareh and Yaring. Internal changes include a coconut plantation around the bay that was turned into a shrimp farm. As for those changes influenced by external factors, the villagers have organized demonstrations against the fleets of large fishing trawlers. According to the villagers these trawlers were accompanied by a fisheries research vessel belonging to the Department of Fisheries. Trawlers with push nets owned by capitalists in the fish export industry are wiping out the shellfish. These trawlers can catch tens of tonnes of shellfish each day, and have devastated many different kinds of marine life. At that time local fishermen used the local koleh offshore fishing boats that could catch at most 12 kilograms of fish a day.” 8

 Today this fleet of large fishing trawlers owned by outside capitalists has devastated fish stocks and marine resources in Pattani Bay. The villagers’ response to this deterioration of the ecosystem is very limited, and in some cases might even be leading to an acceleration of the process of deterioration. Srisakra has described the changes that have taken place in the Pattani bay:

 “Three or 4 years ago when I returned to Panareh the villagers had been forced to increase their catches of fish; from 12 kilograms previously it had increased to 20-30 kilograms per day. The once clean seashore had become dirty, littered with rubbish, decomposing fish, crabs, and shells (meaning that people have less time for common concerns). Shrimp farms had replaced the coconut plantations. These were some of the changes that had taken place within these communities in response to external changes.” 9

Outside capitalists are increasingly arriving, seeking opportunities in the Pattani area. The author has witnessed the daughter of a Muslim family in Rusamilae village who must leave for work as early as 2 a.m. A car is sent to pick her up to sort fish at the pier where fish are landed and auctioned daily. She has to work with male laborers who carry baskets of fish from the boats, which appears to conflict greatly with local custom which regards women as the family’s honor. The fishermen have to go into debt, borrowing money to install engines in the native koleh boats; since there are no more fish left close to the shore they are forced to go further out into the open sea. And because they go further into debt they have to catch more fish, which means they need bigger and more powerful engines, with the result that they are endlessly in debt. Meanwhile, women also work now on the fishing boats in the open sea, despite the traditional custom forbidding women from setting foot on the koleh.

Social relationships within the community have also changed from mutual dependence to contractual relationships between capitalists and wage laborers. Srisakra argues that the relationship has become one of profit-seeking and exploitation. The outside capitalists who have come to invest differ from local capitalists with whom the villagers are familiar: their relationship is based solely on employment, and the distant capitalists may not even set foot in the locality. The villagers at Chana (Songkhla) were unable negotiate with factory owners who have drained polluted water into their paddy fields. Similarly, villagers who own agricultural land close to shrimp farms have been forced to abandon agriculture as a result. Naturally, appeals to government agencies are useless; gossip and backbiting, which were once very effective as a social control mechanism, have become useless in the present situation.

The author has no statistics relating to investment by outside capitalists in rubber plantations or other industries in the three southern provinces, but I have heard from the local people that it is quite considerable. Wherever the villagers turn they meet people with whom they are unable to develop a power relationship based on a more equal footing, either locals who have transformed themselves into new capitalists, or outside capitalists. At the same time the villagers have less access to natural resources. They are increasingly being forced to sell their private property and turn themselves into wage laborers, making it difficult for them to sustain a traditional culture that has roots in a different social and economic structure.

What these small people in the lower southern provinces have experienced in the last few decades has been their impoverishment in every respect. They have been unable to respond successfully to the ever-encroaching changes that have pressed down upon them. One last recourse considered by the villagers is entry into the educational system, but this path is not open to very many. One villager in Yaring district remarked that today there are so many Muslims who want to study that there are not enough places for them. They believe that Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani does not maintain a quota for local students like other universities (in fact, Prince of  Songkhla University in Pattani does maintain a quota, but like other regional universities it only gives attention to the quota percentage, not to differences between students from country areas and those from towns and cities). Some villagers question how Muslim students who are not fluent in Thai can compete with other Thai students if the universities employ a centrally determined standard for student entrance.

So even if they try to adapt themselves to the capitalist system there is simply no opportunity for them to do so. Their future is full of darkness because they simply do not know how to live amidst changes they are unable to respond to.

In fact, this fate is not limited to the Melayu Muslims, but is the same fate of other small Thai people. But for reasons the author will not go into in detail here (problems related to identity, or the fact that although they may share a similar sense of alienation in regard to their identity, other factors limit their alternatives), small people in other regions choose to struggle within the existing political system, for example, the Assembly of the Poor, the Forum of Indigenous People, etc., while the Melayu Muslims have chosen to pursue their struggle outside the system.

“Peasant Revolt” and the Modern State

In traditional states, millenarian uprisings were actually able to destroy the state or, in many cases, at least shake its foundations. For example, the Tayson rebellion in Vietnam was able to topple the Le dynasty and establish an alternative (to the extent that it could be called ‘revolutionary’) political regime over Vietnam until it was crushed by the Nguyen family and the Gia Long dynasty. In China, the Taiping rebellion shook the foundations of the Ch’ing dynasty and was able to control over half of China before it was defeated. Chu Yuan-chang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, was in fact the leader of a millenarian movement, but because he received the support of the Chinese intellectuals, he was able to establish a new dynasty to rule China using an old model.

However, for modern states millenarian movements are merely a minor nuisance. The militants’ forces are limited to a quite restricted area, whereas the state has become much more powerful, both in organization and military technology. Society in a modern state is also much more complex. The peasantry’s interests may conflict with those of other interest groups who, though they may not be in the majority, are greater in number and have more political and social influence (i.e., the middle class or the upwardly mobile lower class). In terms of social space, then, millenarian movements are even more limited. Moreover, politics in the modern state has opened up opportunities for those who have the money, education, or organizational skills to enter into and negotiate with the existing order – and clearly these are not the “peasants.”

Even the Siamese absolutist state, which underwent transformation into a modern state in the late nineteenth century, was able to deal with numerous millenarian rebellions that took place throughout the country with little difficulty. It did so by employing its newly established standing army to decisively crush the rebels. Furthermore, it was able to maintain the policies that had caused so much dissatisfaction among the “peasants” even though it had to delay the enforcement of those policies in certain areas.

The lack of a sophisticated ideology which could incorporate the social practices of other groups led to the isolation of millenarian movements. In Thailand, the late nineteenth century peasant revolt in the northeast has been represented as a movement based on the personal interests of the leaders, the phi bun [“Holy Men”], while the peasants’ suffering was ignored and eventually forgotten by society.

Therefore, there has not been a single millenarian revolt in a modern state that has been able to destabilize the state or its government.

In the case of southern Thailand today, in the final analysis there is absolutely no way that the militants’ actions can affect the state’s territorial integration (despite the government’s poor handling of the situation and its resort to bloody killings). However, the possibility of a permanent, peaceful solution to the conflict in the south does not depend only on the activities of the militants. While the uprising itself is not difficult to crush, those “peasants” who are most severely affected by their exclusion from access to resources may join other forms of anti-government political action that are not millenarian movements, in the same way that many “peasants” in Thailand once joined forces with the Communist Part of Thailand. Or, the suffering of “peasants” could lead to other forms of unrest besides terrorism or attacks on government officials.

It should also be said that a modern state, especially in a developing country like Thailand, often resorts to violence and sometimes cruel and barbaric acts in dealing with millenarian revolts. It is difficult for developing states to understand the mentality of rebellious “peasants.” Often these people are different in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture, or language (such as the Moros in the Philippines, the Indians in Mexico, the indigenous people in Sarawak, the Melayu Muslims in southern Thailand, the Cham in Vietnam, the Rohingya in the Arakan region of Myanmar, etc). Even more significant is the difference in ideology. Millenarian rebellions usually fight to defend a traditional pattern of resource use. They oppose laws that open up natural resources for the use of people outside their community, laws that prohibit the villagers’ access to these resources, or policies that make the traditional use of natural resources by the villagers unprofitable or that redefine such use as a criminal act. Whereas the “peasants” require diversity in their use of natural resources, developing states need unity of usage (so as to determine priorities between, for example, fisheries and the construction of a dam or gas pipeline). “Peasants” prefer resources to be distributed to people according to their particular skills, while developing states require the centralization of resource use in order to “maximize” their utility to create income for the country. The demands of the “peasants” are thus in direct conflict with the “development” model. There is no way for a developing state to compromise with them without utterly destroying its legitimacy as a developing state.

These differences mean that modern states – especially developing states – do not look upon millenarian movements in a particularly humane way. It is not possible to explain that the rebellious peasants are backward people who are being drawn into the modern world (development) which is the basis of the state’s legitimacy, because “they” are rebels; they cannot be bought, they cannot be lured, and they are unwilling to accept compensation for their losses. So they must be wiped out, and the easiest way (but perhaps not the most successful) is to exterminate them. More than ten thousand Zapatista rebels (who used mostly sickles, knives, and hatchets, similar to the militants on 28 April) were killed by the Mexican government. The author feels that even the communists are accorded far more respect as “enemies” of the state than are the “peasant rebels.” 

What is the “Peaceful” Way Out?

Everyone agrees that we should resolve the problem through “peaceful means.” But this phrase means more than simply not killing people with weapons; it should include refraining from the use of violence of any form. From the point of view of the author, the lack of  “peace” in the South is a result of the state’s development policy that has allowed the penetration of capital to exclude the small people from access to natural resources, while the state has neither the ability nor the intent to control the situation and produce a just solution. At the same time, the state does not (in practice) provide opportunities to help the small people gradually adjust and develop skills that would enable them to compete in the capitalist market without being at a disadvantage with other groups.

All these factors are part of the violence and are a long way from the real meaning of “peace.”

The author fully agrees with other proposals (such as that of Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng) to try to overcome the state of mutual suspicion by ensuring that justice is applied through the strict application of the law, and to get rid of state agencies that are responsible for creating conditions of mutual hatred. But this is not enough, because the violence will not be eliminated until improvements are made to the development policy to make it truly equitable.

The author hopes that this essay will help the public see more clearly the complexity of the situation in the south and join together to push for changes to these unjust development policies. But the author has only a faint hope, since it is well known that this is a major issue affecting the interests of a large number of capitalists, all of whom currently enjoy political power. When one looks to the media or the middle class, who are in the best position to exert pressure on the government, they appear to be blindly following the leadership of the developing state. So peoples’ deaths have become a mere commodity that is exchanged between security officials and “peasant rebels,” like a figure recorded when a goal is scored in a football game.

Nidhi Aeusrivongse

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6: Elections and Statesmen. March 2005 

Editor’s Note: Nidhi Aeusrivongse has been the dominant figure in Thai historical scholarship for the past two decades. Long on the faculty of Chiang Mai University, he earned a doctorate in history at the University of Michigan in 1976 with a disseration on literature and nationalism in Indonesia. He subsequently published a series of books that revolutionized Thai social, cultural, and literary history. Among the most notable are Pak kai lae bai rua: wa duai kan suksa prawatisat – wannakam ratanakosin [Quill and sail: On the study of history and literature in the early Bangkok era] (1984); Kanmueang Thai Samai Phra Narai [Thai politics in the reign of King Narai] (1984); Kanmueang Thai Samai Phrachao Krung Thonburi [Thai politics in the reign of King Taksin] (1993); and, most recently, Krung Taek, Phra Chao Tak lae Prawatisat Thai: Wa Duai Prawatisat lae Prawatisatniphon [The fall of the capital, King Taksin, and Thai history: On history and historiography] (2002). During the boom years of the late 1980s and 1990s, Nidhi’s ideas reached a broader public through his regular columns in the Thai press, and he emerged as one of Thailand’s leading public intellectuals.

This essay was translated by the Regional Studies Program, Walailak University, from “Morng sathannakarn phaktai phan wæn ‘kabot chaona’,” Sinlapa Watthanatham 25, no.8 (June 2004): 110-124.


  1. By “peasant” (chao na) here I do not mean only the self-sufficient petty agriculturalist, but other small people in various occupations, i.e. miners, rubber-tappers, charcoal burners, etc. Nevertheless, Thai academics tend to refer to a social movement of this nature as a “peasant rebellion” to suit the Thai context. [Translator’s note: the Thai term, kabot chao na, may be translated either as a “millenarian revolt” or “peasant revolt.”]I would also like to warn the reader that the information that I have been able to access about the situation in southern Thailand is for the most part unreliable. The government has intentionally deceived the public or covered up the facts, or does not actually know the true situation, and the same is true of the opposing party. The mass media has also not done its homework thoroughly enough. Apart from the problem of unreliable information there is simply so little of it since most of the attention has focussed only on the details of the actual incident itself.
  2. PULO is the acronym of the Pattani United Liberation Organization; BRN, the Barisan Rakyat Nasional (People’s National Front); and, Bersatu, the United Front for the Independence of Pattani.
  3. A Swedish newspaper has featured an interview with Samsuddin Khan, a senior member of PULO currently living in exile in Sweden, who claimed that his organization was responsible for the attack on April 28 however, according to the Thai 4th Region Army Commander, this claim is unreliable (Bangkok Post, 13 May 2004).
  4. Translated from an account by villagers, cited in “Khrongkan sueksa kanplianplang thang sangkhom lae watthanatham koranisueksa bandato lae ban phumi amphor yaring changwat pattani” [A research project on social and cultural change, A case study of Bandato and Banphumi, Amphor Jering, Pattani], a villager-researcher training project coordinated by Srisakara Vallibhotama, p.32.
  5. Four men who participated in the 28 April operation and surrendered themselves to the governor of the Yala province confessed during interrogation by the 4th Army that before carrying out the operation, following evening prayers on 27 April, they were given a sacred water. After drinking this sacred water, they were told, they would be invisible to the police (Bangkok Post, 13 May 2004).
  6. A military report into the incident stated that the 28 April operation was led by a new separatist organization, namely the Pemuda Bersatu (Youth Unity). But it is not yet clear whether this new organ is part of a shadowy network composed of several other organizations or is a new group operating independently. The 4th Army Commander suspects that this new organization does not have any links to the older ones (Bangkok Post, 13 May 2004).
  7. See the report by Thanawat Chae-un, Matichon, 5 May 2004, which, while differing in certain details from research done by certain academics, is consistent with the main points.
  8. Srisakra’s speech,  “Kha ma, Kha hen, Kha khaochai: Pattani kab khwam lalang thang watthanatham thi yang thamrong khwam pen manut”  [I came, I saw, I understood: Pattani and cultural backwardness that retains a sense of humanity], p.5.
  9. “Khrongkan sueksa kanplianplang thang sangkhom lae watthanatham,” pp.5-6.