Buddhist “soldier monks” in Thailand’s southern Muslim provinces

Royal Thai Army Thailand at Wat Benchamabophit Dusitwanaram Ratchaworawihan (2006)

By Adam Tebbe

In Thailand’s southern provinces — some of the poorest areas in all of Thailand — a bloody insurgency, comprising separatist ethnic Malay Muslims, has been under way since early 2004. The violence has involved an almost daily occurrence of bombings and killings; on March 31 alone, coordinated bombings in two provinces claimed the lives of fourteen people and injured hundreds more.

Brendan Brady of Newsweek writes that “since 2004, drive-by shootings, IED bombings, and point-blank assassinations have claimed some 5,000 lives in the country’s three restive southernmost provinces that border Malaysia, making the insurgency one of the world’s deadliest.”

Armed insurgency in the region began in the late 1960s, with particularly violent outbursts occurring during the 1970s and early 1980s. Due to Thai political and economic reforms that weakened support for the separatists, by the mid-1990s the insurgency was believed to be all but dead. In 2004, however, several new insurgency groups surfaced, starting with the coordinated attack of January 4, 2004, in which a military arsenal was raided and schools and police stations were set afire; on the following day, there were multiple bombings.

Insecurity runs high in the predominantly Muslim provinces today, leading some Buddhists in the area to take up arms and form community defense groups. The Queen of Thailand has urged Buddhists in the area to remain on their land and to train in the use of weapons. She has also set up land grants designed to encourage Buddhists from other areas of Thailand to resettle in the south.

Buddhist temples and monasteries are also under the protection of the Thai military. According to Professor Michael Jerryson of Eckerd College in Florida, author of the 2011 book Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand, the violence has even led to the emergence of “soldier monks”– conceived of by the Queen. The soldier monks are new Army recruits who are selected by superiors and asked to ordain as Buddhist monks, allowing them to be relocated to monasteries in the southern provinces to “serve as hybrid servants of the state.”

The practice is controversial, and monks don’t care to discuss it much, stating that such practices have been discontinued. The Thai government’s response to the insurgency in the south, however, inevitably comes through Buddhist individuals or facilities — a cause for concern for organizations like the International Crisis Group. “We’ve been saying it’s problematic. It’s like you’re arming people from one religion against another,” a spokesperson for the group says. Amnesty International has documented instances of soldiers bringing suspected insurgents to temple military compounds “to interrogate, torture, and even execute them.”

(Photo by Teru via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA)