We spoke to Noor Netusha Nusaybah, a Malaysian Patani historian, about how today’s insurgency is connected and shaped by its post-WWII roots, which are often shrouded in misunderstandings, conflicting or competing narratives and secrecy. 

Can you tell us a bit about the roots of the insurgency and the Patani nationalist movement?

It’s so messy. There are so many competing narratives about how the armed insurgency started… Historically Patani was a vassal state of Siam and it seems the modern inception of the nationalist movement was during the Second World War (WWII). Mostly centred around Tengku Mahmood Mahyideen, whose father was the last king of Patani. So he was in Kelantan, British Malaya, serving in the local British administration as a civil servant. He was also in the British army in the war effort, where he was transferred to India and he was appealing for British assistance to take back the Malay provinces in Thailand to become part of British Malaya after WWII and some initial plans were made… 

However, the Japanese occupation of Thailand, and Thailand’s cooperation with Japan really complicated matters. Local colonial officers wrote to London saying that due to the fallout from WWII it was a great opportunity to expand British Malaya to include Patani. This was a kind of “white man’s burden” to support expansionism, but no real policy from London came out of it. There was a White Paper (UK government report) by the end of the war but it wasn’t followed through with. Some of these papers have been declassified but no one has seen them. When I was researching them, it was quite obvious that these local colonial offices were very enthusiastic about expansion but in London they very clearly didn’t want to support it. 

Then there was a Foreign Minister who wrote these intelligence reports to the British government about when the insurgency started organising towards the end of WWII. The Patani nationalist insurgents were organising militarily because their peaceful protests were being ignored by Thailand and their leaders were clamped down on, this is around the time that Haji Sulong disappeared and Tengku Mahmood Mahyideen and other members of the royal house [of Patani] were put under house arrest in Thailand.

Haji Sulong – Patani’s Reformer, Martyr and Father

Can you be a bit more specific about what instances led to these communities taking up arms?

Land grabs and destruction of villages go back a long way in the region. It was chronic. So, near the end of the war, this was still a problem… In fact, there was something interesting in a police report from Kelantan… Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about the police force and biometric data, but even back in 1948 there were accounts that the Thai military would allegedly collect everyone’s fingerprints, documenting their names and return later to terrorise the community… So this concept of biometrics used for state violence can be argued to be used as early as 1948, and this is also evidence of the hyper-centralisation of the Thai state. There were also ordinary villagers who took up arms locally for self-defence against the Thai military. Some also crossed the border into Kelantan as refugees because they were being attacked. 

This is exactly what we mean by captured populations.

Exactly. I’ve been researching, trying to find this information, find the seeds of the insurgency, and finding these instances of overt discrimination, but a lot of this information is not easily granted public access. I’ve been advised that I can’t find this information in Bangkok. Even in the British National Archives, a lot of these important files remain classified and they’re closed for a reason because it shows that whatever was going on during this time was definitely contributing to the architecture of armed rebellion in Patani.

So rogue British officers were initially supporting the insurgency, but they couldn’t have created it out of thin air right…?

Of course, there was an appetite for insurgency in Patani and at that time, some members of the royal household were inclined to take up arms against Thailand – mostly out of frustration that nonviolent means continue to be dismissed. So you have some key members of the Patani royal household like Tengku Petra who, in 1948 founded GEMPAR (Gabungan Melayu Patani Raya (Greater Patani Malay Association)) which started out as an organisation to exert pressure on the Thai state to recognise their rights to self-determination. They were organising local people for community defense and as it is well known, this part of the region is well known for making weapons.

We can also see that through the covering up of paperwork on the ground, some British officers across the border in Malaya initially supported the organising of the armed insurgency. However, this was exposed in the colonial political intelligence reports sent to the Foreign and Colonial Office (FCO). The office was worried that this could jeopardise their diplomatic relationship with Thailand so they had to cut all support, be it explicitly or implicitly. Nonetheless, the British colonial government’s role in governing the frontiers of Malaya can help us see the seeds of insurgency in Patani.

Yeah, it makes sense because of the status of Thailand post-WWII as a strong anti-communist ally for the west. Despite their cooperation with the Japanese, the West, particularly the Americans, were keen to work with the collaborator government against communist agitation in the country, so maintaining good relations with them was very important, and not worth jeopardising by the British publicly supporting the nationalist movement in Patani.

So how does Gempar get founded?

It’s a real challenge to trace the origins of the insurgency and make a linear chronology, even the British intelligence reports are not accurately dated, so much of this depends on oral history, relying on the memory of those who lived it, so you often have these competing narratives…

But we can say that in 1949, there was a meeting between several officials from Bangkok and London. In the meeting, they concluded that they would need to suppress what they considered to be a “separatist movement” in Patani, since much of the movement’s organisation was taking place in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. 

To improve diplomatic relations between the Thais and the British after WWII, the British imposed house arrest on several key figures from the Patani royal house and also gave a very stern warning to Tengku Mahmood Mahyideen, one of the key leaders. They couldn’t put him in prison, as he was far too respected as a royal figure and also for his contribution to the military and civil service in Malaya. Even then, there was still a lot of sympathy towards the Patani cause among British officers in Kelantan, so they tried to convince Mahyideen to enjoy retirement. I would say that the main orchestrators were Mahyideen and the scholar Haji Sulong who was president of the Central Islamic Committee. They were the key instigators of the movement. Around this period, a lot happened simultaneously and GEMPAR only really lasted one year with an intense campaign that burnt out.

Following that was Haji Sulong’s disappearance at the hands of the Thai state, in 1954, which was a huge turning point for the movement. I think he was the main casualty of this era among the leadership. He was extremely important to the movement, even today his disappearance is etched into the memory of Patani society.

So, what happens between GEMPAR and BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, who are the main armed insurgent force today)?

This is a hard gap to plug, because you know one of the founders of BRN was Haji Sulong’s son. So after Mahyideen and Haji Sulong died, both in 1954, it wasn’t until 1964 that BRN was founded. The motivation for the founding of BRN is hard to uncover. It’s like the existing literature puts a stop between the two movements. But I do think it’s productive to see BRN as an outcome of GEMPAR, rather than treating them as two separate movements.

It seems like GEMPARs leadership was dismantled and a decade or so later BRN formed from what was left?

Yeah, something like that. But there were other factors, like the Malayan Emergency over the border, there are intelligence reports that allege Ahmad Boestamam (a notable Malaysian anticolonial revolutionary) was organising with Patani insurgent groups along the border to fight the British, though it’s not clear what exactly was going on… So various accusations have been thrown around and there’s still very little confirmed information about how this is linked to the origins of the insurgency on the Thai side of the border. There’s a lot that’s not been clarified or answered and because of that, this conflict is really coloured by misunderstanding.

It seems like the ideology of the early movement was similar to the postcolonial Pan-Islamism movement but with unique Patani characteristics, which has its own localised history of Islam. I understand a lot of that Pan-Islamism was brought in by Haji Sulong and his studies abroad. But over time it seems like the ideology kind of moves away from Pan-Islamism and becomes more localised, and simultaneously cuts ties with Malaysian “Malayness”. Is that accurate?

So at one point during WWII, GEMPAR was talking about Pan Malay’ism as well, and Mahyideen wanted Patani to be included in the conception of Malayu Raya (Greater Malaysia), which theoretically included what is today Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. Basically, they wanted this region to join together to become one independent state and it came from this idea of pan-Malay’ism. So obviously, it seems like Patani should be in the picture right? But, when Mahyideen went to Indonesia to meet President Sukarno to talk about joining this plan, it never materialised and they abandoned this project. 

There were also Kelantanese Islamic intellectuals who were very passionate about the Patani cause, they organised meetings and conferences, also for a while the Malayan left-wing groups were very interested in Patani being included in this pan-Malay entity as part of their anticolonial movement, but there was no political opportunity to push this forward because of conflicting political interests and the overwhelming power of regimes like the Thai state, the British, who were fighting the insurgent Malayan Communist Party, so things became very complicated. 

Moreover, there were some degrees of separation between the West Coast Malays (Johor-Riau) and East Coast Malays (Kelantan-Terengganu) when it came to political culture. So, these distinctions in Malay identity could be considered also as a factor for Patani being dropped from Melayu Raya, and eventually, it faded into the background… Imagine how different this part of the world would look if that political model was successful. This reimagination of the Malay(si)an world… This project was very anticolonial, very inspired by pan-Arabism, but there was never an opportunity big enough for it to happen. 

Skipping ahead to today, what are the grievances against the Thai government and how does it connect to the origins of the movement?

There are so many, of course, it varies on who you ask, from person to person but the key grievances are cultural, legal and governance related. There’s also a movement into rediscovering their own history, public history, and I think that helps to frame the current grievances. There’s not really a clear shared narrative of Patani history.

Of course, much of it traces back to Thai’fication, a lot of the younger generation are moving away from speaking the unique Patani-Malay language, they’re speaking Thai instead and this also brings up the grievances around education rights… A lot of people want to reform the education system, and have more autonomy. Some are approaching this from a more traditional Islamic education background, who want to reinvigorate the Pondok (Islamic schooling) system and ultimately destigmatize it from conceptions of Islamic extremism. Then there’s also the issue of access to education, because of the poverty rates in Patani, the vicious cycles of systemic violence from the Thai state, the military, in particular, racial profiling, unreasonable detainment of ordinary people… 

I think one of the interesting things I’ve heard was when I spoke to someone who’s a teacher in a Pondok school, about this constant intimidation, detention and violence is that it’s happening on the basis that local people are suspected of being members of the armed separatist groups, and because it’s such a small community people tend to know each other, whether they’re family friends or they work together, so it’s quite normal to know someone or be related to someone who joined one of the armed groups, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they support it directly. But the way the Thai state sees it, you must surely support the armed groups if you’re connected to them. 

That sounds similar to a lot of other insurgencies in occupied territories, whether it’s the IRA in Ireland or the PLO in Palestine, often almost everyone knows someone involved in the insurgency, and even if they don’t explicitly support the insurgent group, they will tacitly support the person they know who’s involved and hence the group too. 

Yeah exactly, these kinds of stereotypes about how insurgent groups equate to the local population are very pervasive and it perpetuates a lot of issues like intergenerational trauma, mental health problems, lack of social or economic mobility, it’s just terrible really. There’s this cyclical nature to the situation with the violence, which the Thai military blames on the armed separatist groups, but I think that history has so much to do with this as well. This erasure of how the conflict emerged. The wider public is so quick to ask who is to blame, who started it? Right now, the mainstream narrative is that the Patani Malay-Muslims picked up arms and went to war with the Thai state, but it’s not accurate, it’s not as simple as that. 

There is a growing thought movement arguing that the Thai government has this history of semi-colonial characteristics within its borders. There is even evidence showing that Chulalongkorn was observing how the British implemented the legal institutions in British Malaya and studied how to imitate their own version in Siam to protect their Siamese Buddhist ethos and the centrality of the king. Still today, we can see that the Thai government is replicating legal colonial structures in its own way and imposing it on Muslims in the region, as well as other groups elsewhere in the country. These are ideas that need to be mainstreamed more because decolonisation is a really big part of what’s going on in the movement and a decolonial approach to the peace process I think would be very beneficial.

It’s important to understand how communities in Patani have historically governed themselves. There are a lot of political models that are suppressed and there are definitely alternative models trying to survive within the Thai nation state, we see it across the country. That’s the big obstacle, the rejection of a diverse type of democracy within Thailand, by the Thai state institutions, who are consciously trying to suppress alternatives. 

So Thaification, the heavy-handed military presence and suppression of local governance. We often hear about the local legal system as well, assumingly that’s closely tied to self-governance?

Yes, for many Muslims Sharia law is very important, particularly in terms of dividing up inheritance, marriage, divorce, all of this comes under the purview of Islamic law. There’s a big desire for the recognition of these needs, that communities can act in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence being exercised. 

The impression from the outside is that sharia law in Patani was historically practised in a very localised manner, is that right?

Yes, by the local imams, teachers, etc. In a sense, it’s a desire for more hyper localised governance, more autonomy. Not necessarily further institutionalisation, like in Malaysia where the heavily institutionalised sharia legal system is always subjected to a lot of scrutiny and controversy. Also, there’s a need to have greater representation of Patani Muslims in the existing higher legal institutions within Thailand as it relates to the region, like judges etc. The word autonomy comes up a lot, rather than independence or hyper- locality. Although sometimes people do talk about independence, many are very careful with their language, with their tone, when it comes to these kinds of topics. 

That seems quite similar to a lot of other autonomous groups in the region, who use the word autonomy publicly, but privately will use the term independence… 

I know some people who privately push independence in discourse but they’re few and far between and not mainstream voices… It’s hard to trace where this concept of full independence even comes from. A lot of GEMPAR’s historical communications with outside groups, for example, the United Nations, various embassies, The Arab League, were mostly about ending human rights violations and they do mention the right to self-determination. However, the focus of the pamphlets and materials produced in Malay and English language was very much focused on ending human rights violations. 

How do the armed and non-armed groups see themselves in relation to other movements such as Palestine, Karen, West Papua, etc?

There’s an interesting book, Ghosts of The Past in Southern Thailand. Duncan McCargo wrote about leaflets distributed by BRN and PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation) (a more Islamist-focused armed group)). He looked through hundreds of these pamphlets, and if you look at some of them, there are references to aligning with wider Islamic struggles, but predominantly the movement is characterised by domestic interests. So maybe organisations like Pulo, are more interested in creating an Islamic alliance of the downtrodden or something like that. I saw one of these pamphlets talking about the CIA and referring to Patani as being “another Iraq”, which was from 1997. It reads “Who was behind the Krue Se Massacre (2004) where 100 lives were lost if not the Kafir (USA)” So it’s kind of similar to Muslim Brotherhood or even Baathist rhetoric.

Do you think they see the Thai state as a US puppet?

Yeah, it also accuses the Thai government of cooperating with the CIA in the Tak Bai massacre (2004).

So, they see themselves, at a push, as being part of a vaguely internationalist Islamic movement against western imperialism?

Well, there’s very little on it. Some observers try to align the Patani situation to other occupied territories, like Palestine, there are a lot of references to Islam and jihad, so through a more Islamic lens there are some crossovers, the usage of the term mujahadeen for instance, and considering their pursuit for an independent Patani as a Jihad… But to see themselves as part of a global collective against the West… Not so much. What we find in most of the literature is that it’s very focused on the Thai state and Buddhism, impeding the rights of Muslims, it’s actually most characterised by being very nationalist and isolationist. I think that’s because there’s a great pride in local history. The global Wahhabist alliance makes their enemy the west, but in Patani the traditional enemy will always be the Thai Buddhist state and its imperial conquests.

Having said that, Pulo actually has, or had, an HQ in Syria from 1982. I found this out from some allies of Pulo… There’s some evidence that it’s still there. It was definitely operating before the Syrian civil war. What they used to do was, if they had Patani Malay students who wanted to go study in Damascus, PULO would support them financially and the Syrian government let them establish an office there where they would carry out guerilla insurgent and ideological training. So, students would come on scholarships to study in Syria and then get this ideological and arms training simultaneously. In 2002, one of the PULO leaders died in exile in Damascus. That same year Syria and Libya were also sponsoring talks between PULO and the UN. 

Nowadays they don’t talk about that office. It’s probably not active anymore and they’re kind of trying to refashion their image because a lot of Patani Malays are quite terrified of PULO, they have a reputation for bullying their own people. Because of that, they realised that confidence and support are waning so they’re trying to make a less global jihad aesthetic, particularly since the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the latter of which they’ve had contact with in the past. This is not something that the local people ever endorsed. Most are very wary of the rise of Wahhabism, they’re Patani traditionalists who want to just protect Patani’isms, so that’s where this refashioning has come from for PULO, which includes distancing themselves from some past relationships.

It seems like there are a lot of overlapping liberation ideologies, sometimes similar to Baathism, Nasserism and Wahhabism, would you say that’s accurate, and are they in conflict?

Actually, I’d say there are not really any references to Nasserism or Baathism nowadays, that’s too Arab-focused. There are definitely modernist aspirations… In the past, Thailand historically did not have the state architecture to prevent people from making Hajj, so they brought back some influences from Mecca and Cairo, but the leading Patani scholars tightly hold on to their local traditional schools of thought. Today though, because of the nature of the conflict and how it’s developed, Patani politics and ideology really has its own unique and diverse range of characteristics.

How would you describe those characteristics?

There isn’t any serious interrogation of the political tradition in Patani Islam, it’s so important because a lot of studies have been subsumed into Islamic studies and the spiritual elements of Islam and jurisprudence, but in terms of scholarly writings on political actions and the conceptions of anti-colonialism there are materials, but it’s still challenging to really define what the characteristics are. 

From the outside, it looks like a kind of hyper-localised form of political Islam, centred around the Pondok schools, which teach to the local people and also act as governing institutions when it comes to both law and spiritual practices.

Yes, that’s accurate. Sometimes people are too quick to draw comparisons between other local political Islamic movements. Like for example the Taliban, I think people still don’t really understand the Taliban, over and over again the Taliban is seen as like ISIS, being part of this greater jihad, but in reality, it is a hyper localised movement with a very unique Islamic tradition, (Deobandi’ism), which is like a revivalist movement and you can in no way compare that to Patani, not in terms of practice but in terms of how we conceptualise it. 

We need to interrogate more micro-histories on Patani, by understanding more lived experiences of the local people. To really understand the movement, we need to see how emotions have been imprinted on the land, generationally on the people, to understand the many different groups defining what liberation means in Patani. Right now, the young generation is working on this, a kind of rethinking and reframing of the movement which shows that it’s not something static, and how we view the movement for the ending of human rights violations is going to be changing and evolving based on economic, social circumstances and needs. For all we know, religion won’t factor in all that much, the younger generation is not as religious, not all of them speak the Patani Malay dialect, many speak Thai, and that changes a lot of things…

Do you think the young generation is still as devoted to liberation as previous generations?

I think the assumption is that now they’re more modern, Thai’ified, socioeconomically maybe they’re better off, they’ve been to university, maybe speak English, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not as committed to solving the problems in Patani, they may just approach it differently… There’s still a lot of advocacy and policy work happening in these groups, and they’re more open to engagement with the Thai state… Some frown upon it, but I see it as a diversification of the political movement. Actually, academics really aren’t paying attention to how it’s developing, a lot of the new activism is taking place in the Thai language, maybe using less radical language in their messaging… But they’re still talking about issues like forced disappearances, talking about public sentiment, education, etc… Generally, though, there’s an increased perception locally that the armed groups aren’t getting as much support as they used to.

Do you think the reimagining of the Patani Liberation movement is at all related to the democracy movement in Thailand?

The Federation of Patani Students and Youth are working on showcasing the right to self-determination in the way that the United Nations defines it… And during the mass democracy protests, some members have brought banners and given speeches about the right to Patani self-determination… They’re not necessarily trying to pursue an independent state, but really, they’re trying to draw more inspiration from the 40s, talking about ending human rights abuses, more local autonomy, religious autonomy and democratisation, decentralisation… It’s interesting. In the past, the movement was quite wary of the outside, quite racialised, isolated… But the younger generation seems to be moving away from the racial binary which has characterised politics in the region historically. Things are changing in the way they identify the issues and their advocacy, and there also seems to be more public engagement between these civil society groups and BRN which is a new development.