Police on 22 November claimed for the first time that there may be links between Islamic State (IS) and the Deep South after Australian police handed over information alleging financial support to the group. The dossier also claimed to have found 100,000 Facebook users in the South had visited IS-related online communities over the past year. The Government said authorities were identifying suspects and would arrest anyone involved with IS, and that the Police Special Branch and Immigration had been ordered to be on alert for suspects.
The Sheikh ul-Islam (SIO), or office of the Chularajmontri, the official head of Thailand’s Muslim community, and other Islamic groups in the South, have sought to dismiss the allegations. A senior SIO official said all funds sent to Syria and surrounding countries were exclusively to help war refugees. The organisation also downplayed online viewing of IS material as the actions of Muslims disillusioned by the Western portrayal of Islam, saying it did not amount to proof of a connection to IS. It is likely that IS influence – particularly through online media – is growing in the South. However actual IS contacts with militants remain extremely limited, meaning any related increase in violence is likely to be gradual and limited.
Nonetheless, the claims of IS links come at a delicate time amid heightened violence (see our 18 November Report) which continued during this period with the killing of a security guard in Songkhla on 24 November. This was followed the next day by rangers shooting dead two wanted militants in Yala, and on 26 November, two suspected militants shot dead a pregnant Buddhist woman, and injured another. The authorities’ determination to hunt down and arrest suspects with alleged links to IS could lead to increased targeting of Muslims thereby raising religious tensions. Moreover, the authorities may target Muslims not only in the South but also in Bangkok and this risks provoking a strong and violent reaction from southern militants.
With one month of the year remaining, official reports state that total deaths as a result of violence in the South in 2016 have reached 227, 19 less than for the whole of last year, and the fifth year in a row in which killings have dropped. However, with peace talks stalled, violence rising since October and the possibility of further arrests, violence may increase in the early months of 2017 unless the junta can convince militants to disarm and return to dialogue.