Spain may be halfway around the world from Thailand, but that hasn’t stopped ethnic Malay political activists in the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim-majority southernmost region from tuning in to developments in Catalonia, where a vote for independence has been met with a swift and firm counter-response from Madrid.

Political activists here have observed the political crisis in Spain with curiosity, wondering how the Catalan population developed their political platform, strengthened their movement’s grass roots legitimacy and ultimately through democratic means challenged the Spanish government’s notion of undivided national sovereignty.

Such a platform is highly desirable for many Thai activists, as it would allow them a better understanding of how to not only gauge local resident sentiment, but also how to turn their grievances against centralized state power into a proper and powerful political agenda.

Upwards of 85% of the population in Thailand’s insurgency-prone southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani identify as ethnic Malay. Yet any talk of separatism has always been taboo. During recent state negotiations with Mara Patani, an umbrella group of long-standing separatist organizations, Bangkok made it clear from the start that independence would not be on the table.

While local activists such as The Federation of Patani Youth and Students (PerMAS) do not specifically call for independence, the fact that they promote the idea that “rights to self-determination” belong to local people is enough to irk Thai central authorities.

Thai officials see self-determination as a stepping stone towards the creation of a breakaway state and will not brook any such public debate. As a result, any discussion of matters related to Patani’s rights to self-determination is necessarily discreet.

Residents of Khoksator village in southern Thailand watch the police investigate a deadly shooting on March 2, 2017.An eight-year-old boy and three relatives were shot dead on their way to school in Thailand's insurgency-torn south on March 2, authorities said, casting a pall over recent peace talk gains. / AFP PHOTO / Madaree TOHLALA
Residents of Khoksator village in southern Thailand watch the police investigate a deadly shooting on March 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The political atmosphere under the current three-year-old military junta-led government has not been conducive to discussion of any politically sensitive matters, much less talks on autonomy for the Malays’ historical homeland they know as Patani.

This is not to say that local activists would fare any better under a democratically elected government when it comes to reimagining Thailand’s nation-state construct and the Malays place within it. Indeed, Thai society has been extremely unkind to those who challenge its nationhood.

In December 2012, PerMAS drew nearly 8,000 people to a rally at the Prince of Songkhla University’s Pattani campus where one of the group’s leaders, Arfan Wattana, carried out an informal survey asking participants if they thought the state should carry out a referendum to statistically gauge popular sentiment in the region.

Fearing possible official reprisals, Arfan made it clear that his survey was not asking the participants if they craved independence from Bangkok; rather, he said he was merely asking if those gathered thought a referendum could be one way to measure the region’s broad sentiment on unnamed issues.

Around 90% of the participants, a strong majority of them Malay Muslims, said that they would be in favor of a state referendum. Even with his extreme precaution, Arfan said he and other PerMAS leaders were later harassed by authorities for drifting into uncharted democratic territory.

“They even lobbied my faculty at my university, asking them to pressure me to stop my political activities,” Arfan said.

Separatist graffiti is seen on a road near Pattani June 6, 2014, one of three southernmost provinces of Thailand where government troops have fought Muslim insurgents since 2004. The war has killed more than 6,000 people. The Thai military closed Media Selatan and thousands of other radio stations when it seized power in a May 22 coup. Many journalists and activists in southern Thailand fear the military will use the coup to roll back on their hard-won freedoms. Graffiti reads "Hey Siamese - bring back our rights"  Picture taken June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall (THAILAND - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3UBRU
Separatist graffiti is seen on a road near Pattani that reads “Hey Siamese – bring back our rights” Picture taken June 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall 

Local activists won a big break less than three months later in February 2013 when then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra officially launched a formal dialogue process to pave the way for formal negotiations to resolve the long-standing conflict between Muslim Malay insurgents and the Thai state.

While the initiative did not generate any meaningful traction, political activists in the region took advantage of the eased political climate to push the envelope. As a result, “rights to self-determination” – or RSD – became a common slogan in the region.

Thai officials, however, still see the call as a veiled pretext to eventually push for a separate state. To counter those moves, Thai authorities have recently turned to social media to conduct so-called Information Operations, commonly known as ‘IO’ among political activists.

The IO campaign has driven an even deeper wedge of mistrust between local civil society organizations and security agencies. Prominent human rights defenders, including National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) commissioner Angkhana Neelaphaijit and local Human Rights Watch representative Sunai Phasuk, have been explicitly targeted in the propaganda offensive.

Angkhana, a former Muslim senator known for her outspokenness about the culture of impunity among security officials, is a member of the NHRC’s sub-committee for the Deep South. Sunai has long chronicled both security force and insurgent abuses in the region.

Although not officially sanctioned by the government, these IO’s – many in the form of poorly crafted cartoons – often involve the depiction of human rights defenders as greedy creatures seeking financial gains from the conflict.

Thai Marines move equipment from a sea vessel as units change shifts to patrol the coast in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, near the Malaysian border, early on September 29, 2017.The rangers change shifts for routine patrols along the coast as part of the military's counter-insurgency operation in the "Deep South" border provinces. / AFP PHOTO / Madaree TOHLALA
Thai Marines change shifts to patrol the coast in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat early on September 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala 

Angkhana has twice filed formal complaints with local police over social media harassment, though no perpetrators have been identified or sanctioned. “It’s in the realm of hate speech that could easily pave the way for a hate crime,” she said.

Nothing changed until United Nations agencies queried Thailand’s Ministry of Justice about the harassment of political and human rights activists in the country. Since the UN made its inquiries, some, though not all, of the postings have magically been taken down, Angkhana said.

Those anonymous critics overlooked the enormous 220-billion baht budget that the military-appointed parliament allocated to the Defense Ministry for fiscal 2018, representing an 8.8% year on year rise and 7.7% of total state spending in the year.

A line item breakdown of the new defense budget has not been publicly disclosed, but the higher budget will in part be funnelled towards operations in the Deep South to tackle the anti-state insurgency, now set to enter its 14th fateful year.

Nearly 7,000 people have died in insurgency-related violence, with no end – or referendum on self-determination – in sight.

Don Pathan is a consultant and security analyst based in Thailand. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.