Indian traders first visited the Gulf of Thailand around 600 BC and introduced Hinduism, which rapidly became the principal faith in the area. By 230 BC, when Chinese traders showed up on southern shores, large parts of Thailand had been incorporated into the kingdom of Funan, the first state in Southeast Asia. At its peak the state included large parts of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and had active trade with agrarian communities along the Malay Peninsula, as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala. Funan peaked as a nation under Jayavarman I, who ruled from AD 478 to 514, and then went into rapid decline.
Following this decline a series of city-states developed in the upper southern gulf. Tambralinga, which had its capital at Ligor on the site of present-day Nakhon Si Thammarat, was one of the most notable. It became part of the Srivijaya kingdom, a confederation of maritime states that ruled southern Thailand and Malaysia from the 7th to 13th centuries. The Srivijaya became hugely wealthy from tolls extracted from traffic through the Strait of Melaka. Tambralinga and nearby states adopted Buddhism in the 13th century, while those further south fell under the influence of Islam, creating a religious boundary that persists to this day in southern Thailand.
Islam came to southern Thailand from Malaysia during the reign of Sultan Iskandar, reaching Pattani by 1387 and spreading as far north as Songkhla. The Malay dialect of Yawi became the main language of the Deep South and Islam replaced Buddhism through the region.
Songkhla, Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and the Andaman coast province of Satun were not officially a part of Thailand until 1902, when Rama V annexed them in an attempt to prevent Thai territory from being ceded to the British, who were then in control of Malaysia. Culturally quite different from the rest of the country, these provinces were comprehensively neglected by the central government over the next 50 years. Islamic traditions and the Yawi language were discouraged by the region’s non-Malay administrators and systematic abuses of power contributed to growing separatist sentiments.
In 1957 Muslim resentment against the ruling Buddhist government reached boiling point and separatists initiated a guerrilla war with the aim of creating a separate Muslim state in southern Thailand. The main armed faction was the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), which launched a campaign of bombings and armed attacks throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The movement began to decline in the 1990s, when Bangkok presented a peace deal consisting of greater cultural freedom and autonomy for the south and an amnesty for PULO members.
For a while the situation in the south subsided and it seemed the separatist movement had diffused, but after Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001 PULO resumed its activities.
Violence in this region increased markedly in the month leading up to the 19 September coup, when Thaksin and his government were peacefully ousted. It was hoped with the end of Thaksin’s regime and his hard-line approach with Muslim separatists, bloodshed would decrease. But at the end of 2006 the situation remained dire and the death toll had climbed above 1800. Most of the victims were innocent Thai bystanders, although a few foreigners were also killed. The increase in terrorist brutality in November 2006 led the government to close all schools in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat Provinces indefinitely.
On 22 November Wan Kadir Che Wan, leader of an umbrella organisation for southern separatist groups, told Arab TV network Al Jazeera that an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network was helping local insurgents stage the attacks. It is believed that much of the violence is linked to younger separatists, but as yet no specific group has been identified.