Thailand: Buddhist minority declines the ‘deep south’ due to protracted armed conflict
Since 2004, there has been a resurgence of violence in Thailand’s southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where the government is facing the violent opposition of a number of Malay Muslim insurgency groups. Close to 5,000 people have been killed and nearly 8,000 injured. Buddhists, estimated to represent around 20 per cent of the total population of the three provinces in 2000, have been disproportionately affected by the violence; they account for nearly 40 per cent of all deaths and more than 60 per cent of all injured. Civilians from both communities are the main victims of the violence. As a result, many have since 2004 fled their homes and moved to safer areas.
There are no reliable figures on the number of people displaced since 2004, but available information suggests that at least 30 per cent of Buddhists and ten per cent of Malay Muslims may have left their homes. While some have fled in direct response to the violence, many have moved because of the adverse effects of the conflict on the economy, on the availability and quality of education or on the provision of social services. Many of the displacements are also intended to be only temporary, and have split families, the head of household staying and the wife and children moving to safer areas. Buddhist civilians targeted by the insurgents because of their real or perceived association with the Thai state have fled their homes in large numbers, either seeking refuge in nearby urban areas or leaving the three provinces altogether. They include government employees, teachers, doctors, nurses, monks but also peasants and rubber tappers. Malay Muslims have also left their homes, most of them moving to safer areas within the region or crossing into neighbouring Malaysia to seek employment there.
Some people who have been unable or unwilling to flee the violence have joined armed militias. The government, which has since 2004 increasingly relied on paramilitary groups to fight the insurgency, has strongly encouraged civilians to defend the “Thai homeland”. It has selectively provided training and arms to Buddhists and also given financial incentives to encourage government employees to stay. While probably stemming the exodus of Buddhists, this policy has resulted in an increased ethno-religious polarisation and has heightened risk of incidents and abuses between both communities.
While those who moved outside the affected provinces have at least managed to reach safe areas and achieve some form of durable solution, the majority of IDPs have moved to urban areas inside the conflict-affected provinces. There, like the rest of the population, they remain at risk of violence from both sides and face challenges in accessing basic social services. Though early in the conflict the government assisted some Buddhists fleeing violence, it has mostly limited its assistance to victims of violence caused by insurgent activities and their families.