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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #035 – Pongpajon

By CEID Blogger, on 30 June 2020

COVID-19 in Conflict-Affected Southern Thailand: The Political Game to Win People’s Hearts and Minds

By Chawin Pongpajon

During the COVID‑19 pandemic, Thailand has enforced lockdown and social distancing measures across the country under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation. Although the situation seems to be gradually improving, receiving praise from several countries for its success in coping with the virus, there are still many challenging social issues. The violent conflict in the southern Thailand is one such challenge. This blog aims to report on the ongoing insurgency in what’s known as the “Deep South” during the COVID-19 pandemic by exploring how the Thai state and insurgent groups have operated during the emergency. I draw oninformation shared on Facebook from Thai military’s supporters (assumed to be part of an information operations team), insurgents and various news agencies.

The violent conflict in Southern Thailand has a long-standing history, dating back to 1909 when the Patani kingdom was divided between and annexed by Thailand (known as Siam at that time) and Malaysia after the Anglo-Siam treaty. Once annexed, Patani identities – ethnic, linguistic and religious – have been under pressure to assimilate with the dominant Thai Buddhist culture. A separatist movement, led by different insurgent groups over the years, has tried to solve the problems of redistribution, recognition and representation with the Thai state. Violent conflict waxed and waned and re-emerged in 2004 with heightened intensity. Several measures ranging from hard-line military interventions to peace negotiations characterise the government’s effort to deal with the conflict, but without much success. The latest wave of conflict has continued for sixteen years (see ICG, 2005; Jitpiromsri, Waitoolkiat & Chambers, 2019; McCargo, 2008).

Apart from doctors and public health officials helping sick patients, the Thai army has been a key agency responsible for helping people and supporting the government in dealing with the virus in Southern Thailand. It has offered places in military camps for quarantine measures and sent its soldiers to help people with other humanitarian needs. As a special area under martial law and emergency decree, the Deep South has security officials who are responsible to fight insurgents. National security and virus safety are, therefore, in the hands of the military. Several projects are currently being implemented and it seems that the military has gradually gained positive response from some local communities.

The project titled ‘Army Delivery’ through which soldiers deliver food to people under lockdown (The pictures from the Facebook page ‘ความจริงปัตตานีบ้านฉัน’)

 Insurgent groups have also responded to the virus. On March 26, 2020, the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) or National Revolutionary Front of Patani, a leading insurgent group, posted a video clip on YouTube to declare that they would cease all activities during the COVID-19 outbreak. The day after, BRN posted a Facebook status expanding on its declaration. This was followed by the Declaration of BRN’s Response to COVID-19with the official seal of BRN on April 3, 2020. To some extent, BRN seems to be trying to gain sympathy and win the hearts of people inside and outside the Deep South, even if these various declarations were not reported in the mainstream media.

By engaging in humanitarian actions during the pandemic, both the Thai military and insurgents want to garner public support in the Deep South. They have vilified each other for inhuman, violent operations in efforts to discredit each other and justify their own actions. While the BRN insurgents decided to halt their activities, the military continues searching and arresting insurgents, especially those who illegally returned to Thailand from Malaysia due to the pandemic.

One key event was a violent operation by military forces on April 30, 2020 in Pattani province, which led to the death of three BRN fighters. BRN publicly condemned this action and requested the Thai state to reciprocate and prioritise COVID-19 prevention over the conflict, posting a Press Statement condemning the actions of the Thai Military. Although BRN called for a ceasefire during the pandemic, the Thai state did not reciprocate, provoking a moral dilemma within the military. The military’s position seems to be that insurgents’ crimes should not be ignored even during the COVID-19 emergency. It is believed that BRN responded to this action by detonating explosives in front of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center in Yala province,injuring at least twenty-five people. It is difficult to find out how local communities perceive this operation by BRN due to the lack of research or media reports in the area. Does BRN still receive support from its sympathisers? Do people think the military actions are unfair? And does BRN’s declaration of a ceasefire still winpeople’s hearts after the bombing?

For the Thai state, the military’s information operations team has been hard at work. Their contents can be categorised into two main themes: (1) promoting Thai military’s work and (2) defaming insurgents. An interesting allegation against insurgents is that they have threatened violent activities if the state does not allow Muslims to practice in Mosques. Such an allegation was mentioned by an insurgent who posted an open letter on Facebook. BRN responded by arguing the letter was written by the Thai state to discredit BRN.

It is worth noting that during this crisis, Chularajmontri, the head of all Muslims in Thailand, has announced many measures regarding COVID-19 prevention for Muslims such as the cancellation of Friday prayer in mosquesand guidance for managing Muslim funerals. However, some southern Muslims resisted the measures. To some extent, it was assumed that insurgents would spread the misconception that missing Friday prayers in mosques more than three times is a sin. Chularajmontri responded to this issue by explaining the reasons about this measure in relation to Muslim teachings. Moreover, these measures have covered the holy month of Ramadan, which in Thailand began on April 24, 2020. This religious activity may be a factor heightening the request for opening mosques. Whether the open letter is real, two readings could be speculated: the insurgents did it themselves; or the military’s information operations team took advantage of both people’s misconceptions during the time of Ramadan to defame the insurgents.

The picture on the left means ‘insurgents as perpetrators’ and one on the right means ‘the officials as givers.’ (The picture from the Facebook Page ‘ความจริงปัตตานีบ้านฉัน’)

On May 3, 2020, Chularajmontri announced an ease to the measure about Friday prayer. While the announcement was enacted across Thailand, successful implementation in the Deep South with the military’s help was intentionally shared widely on the social media. The question is whether this policy was in place dueto the improved COVID-19 situation across the country or if the open letter affected Chularajmontri’s decision?

During the COVID-19 crisis in conflict-affected Southern Thailand, the war is not only between the people and virus, but also between the Thai state and insurgents. It is interesting that while COVID-19 creates a new normal for people’s daily lives, it does so for the long-standing conflict in the region as well. On the one hand,some signs of humanity and morality have been seen, which have been publicised from both conflicting parties. We can also see the process of dehumanisation by both parties, condemning violent and imputativeactions by the other on social media. Furthermore, the scope of humanity may need to be reconsidered during this time when the military rejected a ceasefire agreement initiated by the insurgents.

The new normal of Friday prayer in a mosque in the Deep South of Thailand (The pictures from theFacebook page ‘The Reporters’)

Not to oversimplify the situation, it seems COVID-19 has not created a new normal for the ongoing conflict, but has rather made certain opaque actions more obvious. This is because the cyber warfare between both sides is not a new issue and the temporary cessation of violent operations has happened many times in the past.However, there is a new factor involved this time and some nuanced features have emerged, which to some extent, could be seen as unprecedented. Within political brinkmanship, it will be interesting to see which side will win people’s hearts and minds as time passes.

Importantly, regarding the policy of allowing Friday prayer in mosques, it seems that while it has been sympathetic to the Muslims in the South, Thai citizens outside the region, especially those with other beliefs, have seen the policy as risky, unfair or even politically problematic. This shows a lack of multicultural understanding and alienates Muslims from mainstream Thai culture. I would argue that reporting news about or promoting the contributions of the Thai military in the Deep South needs to be more critically viewed. Whilst it could potentially buy the Thai state good will from the locals, the people outside the region and with different cultural and religious identities could see it problematically, likely fuelling existing political divisions.

As an author who is researching the role of education in peacebuilding in Southern Thailand, I am reflecting upon how these aforementioned issues could play out in facilitating educational change and, in turn, how peacebuilding education could mitigate the ongoing problems.

Chawin Pongpajon is a Doctoral student at UCL Institute of Education.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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