Insights and Analysis

Troubled Souths in Thailand and the Philippines

May 9, 2012

By Steven Rood

It seemed appropriate for the last class of my semester at SAIS teaching “Domestic Politics of Southeast Asia: Philippines and Thailand,” to focus on the “troubled souths.” The two countries garner international attention for any number of reasons, but one obvious similarity is that both have Muslim minorities largely situated in the south of the country – and in both there have been separatist agitation and armed insurgencies off-and-on for decades. My interest was in looking at Mindanao in the light of southern Thailand rather than to claim any special expertise in the ongoing situation in Thailand.

A starting point for comparison is the roughly contemporaneous incorporation of these regions into the current form of the nation-state: 1909 in Thailand when the southern provinces officially became part of Siam and 1903 in the Philippines with the establishment of the Moro province run by the Army, separate (along with the Mountain province) from the rest of the American colonial state.

From the beginning, we can see a difference in treatment of these Muslim minorities. In his recent book, Mapping National Anxieties: Thailand’s Southern Conflict, Duncan McCargo notes how the central state’s policy was always assimilationist, with few concessions to the cultural particularities of the areas majority Malay and Muslim population. He then traces how only recently (post 2005) has there been a tentative emergence of discussion about decentralization or autonomy as responses to the current unrest, from various analysts concerned with the conflict. Indeed, a recent survey undertaken by The Asia Foundation in conflict-affected areas of Thailand found that citizens in the south do feel that popular self-government is the most promising road to peace – short of separation.

The Philippines’ experience might give pause to such advocates, since variations on autonomy have been tried for decades. There was a time in the middle of the last century (roughly 1935 to 1965) where the focus was on Muslim participation (as members of bodies writing constitutions and of the subsequent national assemblies) and, beginning in the 1950s, even assimilation under the Commission on National Integration. A complex set of interactions – including the intrusion of the Manila-based state and the (mostly spontaneous) migration of Christians to the island of Mindanao resulted in an outbreak of separatist hostilities in the 1970s. Since then, beginning with a peace agreement signed between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front in 1976, over the course of six national administrations three different varieties of “autonomy” have been instituted in the south, with decidedly mixed results (I have a chapter in a forthcoming book on this topic). Most recently, the Aquino administration has declared the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) a “failure” and appointed officers-in-charge to reform and run the ARMM until the next elections in May 2013.

Not only have there been varieties of regional arrangements, but also Muslims in Mindanao have elected governors and mayors of provinces and municipalities – who are all Muslims. Even areas near the ARMM that have large Christian communities (Cotabato and Isabela Cities, and the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Sultan Kudarat) have elected Muslim officials to govern them. In short, while the decentralized nature of government in the Philippines means that individual Muslims are directly managing many local manifestations of the Philippine state, this has not eliminated the desire for more collective management of the affairs of the Bangsamoro (“Moro nation”).

One reason for the persistence of this desire is the cultural divide between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines. To the extent that mainstream Filipinos were Christianized and “hispanized,” this was in part (due to Spanish Catholicism) in direct confrontation with Muslims. The very term “Moro” for Muslims comes from the long struggle of Catholic Spain to expel the Moors from the Iberian peninsula. This divide is reflected in Filipinisms such as “moro-moro,” meaning something that is fake, untrustworthy, or just for show. Moros returned the sentiment, and actively raided the central Philippines for slaves until Spanish steam gunboats at the end of the 19th century finally established naval predominance.

There is some controversy about the current level of anti-Muslim prejudice, with one widely cited survey finding high levels of prejudice while others find that most Christians have a reasonable attitude towards Muslims. In any case, in recent years one rarely hears the assertion that the Philippines is the “only Christian country in Asia” and in fact there are now two Muslim national holidays (Eid’l Fitre and Eid’l Adha).

As noted, Thailand has generally had an explicitly assimilationist attitude and its central national identity shibboleth of “King, Nation, Religion” does have a powerful impetus toward negating separate culture or religious identities. McCargo repeatedly cites how “Thai Muslims” is a preferred rendering over “Malay Muslims” and how many Thais seem to genuinely believe that if all people merely had good will the country would be united. On the other hand, the Thai identity was not formed in combat with Malay Muslims – the relationship is more distant. And in Thailand, Eid’l Fitre is a holiday only in the southern provinces – not for the country as a whole.

A final difference between the two countries is how the separatist insurgencies are organized. One of the striking aspects of Southern Thailand is even though there has emerged some clarity among analysts and government officials as to the nature of the insurgency, its fragmented nature means that the Thai government or other potential mediators have no political wing with whom to negotiate.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, separatist organizations have, as they say, a postal address. Regular relations between the MILF and the international community, for instance, are chronicled on the website. Formal relations are maintained with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and while there are rival groupings of the Moro National Liberation Front, interlocutors know where to find them.

In the Philippines, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf is indeed shadowy as it continues to operate but always seems on the verge of falling apart. My co-teacher, Karl Jackson, who wrote about the Darul Islam rebellion in Indonesia, points out that insurgencies are undertaken by a very small percentage of the population and that they can be extremely long-lasting. Darul Islam, for instance, although “defeated” in 1965 has been the taproot of later militancy by Jemaah Islamiya. Even today the much touted Northern Ireland peace process can be rocked by a small number of dissidents

Thus, whatever one might think of particular negotiating positions of the government and the MILF, the Philippine government is doing well to relate systematically with the organized separatist movements, with the ARMM, and with local elected officials. Although the Thai government and various analysts currently have a much better understanding of how the insurgents in the country are organized, the government might benefit from greater understanding that the prerequisite to any peaceful resolution is an ability to productively engage in dialog with actors who can speak for insurgents – a difficult but necessary step.

This is the sixteenth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Philippines, Thailand
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions, Good Governance
Related topics: International Development


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223

The Latest Across Asia

2022 Impact Report

Thank you for powering The Asia Foundation’s mission to improve lives and expand opportunities.