War In The Land of Smiles

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 6 October 2007

War In The Land of Smiles

First published in GOOD WEEKEND (Sydney Morning Herald)


Thailand may be a popular tourist destination, but in the nation’s south a brutal conflict between Muslims and Buddhists gets bloodier by the day.

By Andrew Marshall   Photos by Philip Blenkinsop/NOOR

THEY had shot a man called Prathep Srimai, 42, a Buddhist health official, and when we arrived blood was still dripping from the holes in his head and onto the road. It was easy to  tell which way his killers had gone: bloody footprints led away  from the corpse and disappeared into a rice field. Were they  still in the tree line beyond, watching, waiting for their moment? Maybe.  While my Australian colleague Philip Blenkinsop photographed the scene,  and I talked to police and emergency workers, neither of us suspected that  a bomb lay buried beneath the road, and it was about to go off.

Up close, you don’t hear explosions. You feel them. There was a flash, then  what felt like an invisible baseball bat, swung with full force, struck me around  the head. For a few moments, everything went utterly silent, but as I stumbled  from the scene some of my hearing returned. I thought I heard rain. It was  the sound of hundreds of bits of blood-smeared road returning to earth.

I had been standing five metres from the bomb. Philip had been standing  almost on top of it and was blown off his feet and into the rice field. The bomb  contained no shrapnel, but could easily have killed. It peppered Philip’s eyes,  face and upper body with agonising grit and damaged the hearing in one ear.  I emerged unscratched. The blast hurt 11 others, most of them Thai journalists and emergency workers, and taught us all a painful lesson about this brutal  but ill-reported war in southern Thailand. For the shadowy Muslim insurgents who wage it – and who have already killed or maimed children, women,  the elderly, teachers, street-sweepers, ice-cream vendors, Buddhist monks,  even their own Islamic leaders – there is no such thing as a non-combatant.

Thailand – or what tourist brochures call “The Land of Smiles” – is famed  as a Buddhist country of monks and temples. But about 95 per cent of  people in its three southernmost provinces – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat  – are Malay-speaking Muslims, who feel their culture and religion have  been oppressed by successive governments in faraway Bangkok. Rebellion  here is nothing new: it has simmered and boiled since Thailand, then  known as Siam, annexed the Islamic sultanate of Patani a century ago. But  the latest violence, which erupted in 2004, has claimed more than 2300  lives, and is driven by an unprecedented religious fervour.

And it is brutal. The body of health official Prathep Srimai had been  doused with gasoline and set alight – a deliberate blow to his grieving family. Burning corpses is now commonplace. So is mutilating and beheading  them. In August two Buddhists – one aged 71, the other 82 – were battered  to death and decapitated. Earlier this year, a kindergarten teacher died after  eight months in a coma; she had been dragged from her classroom and  beaten until her skull shattered.

Many southerners had hoped the violence might subside with last September’s military overthrow of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose iron-fisted policies – including abduction, torture  and assassination – culminated in the Tak Bai incident in 2004, in which 85 Muslim protesters were  shot or suffocated to death in army trucks near the  Thai-Malaysia border. But since the current junta  seized power, the average number of deaths in the  conflict has doubled to more than four a day. “The  junta leaders remain oblivious to the reality on the  ground and show precious little resolve in dealing  with the insurgency,” argues Zachary Abuza, an  American scholar and author of an upcoming  book on the south called Conspiracy of Silence.

The Thai military is stretched thin and taking a  pounding. There are about 20,000 troops deployed in a conflict zone half the size of Israel  and, like their beleaguered US counterparts in  Iraq, they are outmanoeuvred by a ruthless enemy  that shelters amid a largely hostile Muslim population. Patrolling troops remain easy prey to Iraqi-style roadside bombs. In May, two explosions alone killed a total of 22 soldiers; their welldrilled killers executed some of the survivors by shooting them in the head or strangling them. Yet junta chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who now leads a deeply unpopular military government, refuses to dispatch reinforcements of regular troops to the south. “Sonthi is more concerned about a counter-coup in Bangkok and wants the troops deployed there,” says Abuza.

No armed group has claimed responsibility for the violence, or stated any political goals. Yet the militants’ strategy seems clear enough: render the region too violent for the Thai state to govern, then seize control, village by village. Central to this strategy is terrorising minority Buddhists. In March nine Buddhists – three men, four women and two girls – were shot in the head at pointblank range during an attack on a minibus. Such violence is calculated to provoke the Thai security forces into heavy-handed reprisals that further alienate Muslim communities. It forces hundreds of Buddhists to flee their villages in what Abuza terms “de facto ethnic cleansing”. And it obscures a lesser-reported fact: the insurgents are killing almost as many Muslims, usually on suspicion of spying for the police or military. Village chiefs, who are state employees, are routinely murdered. Afterwards, their positions either remain vacant or are filled by militant sympathisers, forming what a local community worker (who requests anonymity) calls “a shadow government of insurgents”.

THE CHILDREN OF Ban Bukoh school in Pattani province know when their teachers are coming. First, the men with guns arrive – six of them in a pick-up truck, two more on a motorbike, all toting M-16 assault rifles. It is the job of these government militiamen to protect two cars and five motorbikes carrying a dozen teachers. Their convoy speeds into this sleepy village with the wellrehearsed urgency of a presidential motorcade.

The teachers coax the children into ragged lines in the schoolyard for a solemn morning assembly. A week before, an arson attack by Muslim insurgents had razed one of the school’s buildings. An older boy leads a short prayer in Arabic – all Ban Bukoh’s 200 pupils are Muslims – and the national anthem is played. “Thais love peace, but aren’t afraid to fight,” the children sing in Thai, as the national flag is raised between firescorched trees. “They will sacrifice every drop of blood for the nation.” The words can’t mean much: these children grow up speaking Malay and many have only just started learning Thai.

The torching of Ban Bukoh was one of more than 100 arson attacks on the region’s schools this year, already a threefold increase on 2006. The human cost is even greater: almost 80 teachers and school officials have been killed since 2004. In June two women teachers were shot dead in their school library by gunmen while 100 horrified children looked on.

“You don’t know when they’ll pull the trigger,” says Prapa Boonaeb, 57, one of Ban Bukoh’s two Buddhist teachers. “We try to keep a constant lookout, but it’s hard because our attention is usually on the children.” A week after the arson attack, a leaflet was found outside the gate. It explained that the school building was burned as a “symbol of the Siamese infidel occupier”, and warned people not to construct a new one. It was signed, “The Liberation Fighters of Pattani.” Teacher Prapa Boonaeb doesn’t know who the militants are, but feels they’re always watching. “We’re in the spotlight,” she says, “they’re in the dark.”

Hundreds of teachers have resigned or requested transfers from the region. A similar exodus is afflicting other key professions, particularly health. Southern hospitals are running short of doctors and nurses, even as the conflict grows bloodier. There is evidence that militants are instructing pregnant women to boycott state hospitals and give birth at home, a risky undertaking in a region where the maternal mortality rate is already almost three times the national average. The incidence of the debilitating disease elephantiasis is 11 times the national average, and poliomyelitis is common.

FOR THE INSURGENTS, terrorising state schools serves another purpose: it encourages parents to send their children to private Islamic schools, where hundreds of young militants have been recruited and even given military training by teachers. The Islam Burapha School in Narathiwat town was temporarily closed in July after police arrested seven suspected bomb-makers there. Thailand’s most wanted man is also a teacher. Sapae-ing Basoe, the former headmaster of an elite Islamic school in Yala, is currently on the run with a 10-million baht ($370,000) reward on his head.

Groomed by religious teachers, a new breed of militant sprang to life under Thaksin-era abuses such as the Tak Bai protest. They were also radicalised by the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war and other events rocking the wider Islamic world. Previously, the insurgency was driven by armed groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), set up in the 1960s. The new militants are more ruthless and, while their youthful ranks overlap with PULO and BRN, they refuse to publicly align themselves with any insurgent outfit. Their leaders are unknown. Their structure is cell-like, with each cell deciding when, where and who to attack. They have also proved capable of launching simultaneous attacks across the region. “This shows a degree of command and control,” says Zachary Abuza. “These are not just a bunch of ragtag, nihilistic teenagers.”

Ma-ae (not his real name) lives in a remote village hidden amid fruit trees and rubber plantations near Thailand’s border with Malaysia. It is controlled by a militant cell run by a former Islamic teacher in his 40s. “The moment you enter my village,” said Ma-ae, 16, “all eyes are upon you.” His father was a government official and, according to the men who murdered him, a military informer. Ma-ae knows the killers – they’re his neighbours – but dares not confront them. “If I did,” he says, “they’d kill me too.”

Ma-ae is not a militant – his father told him never to join the fighting – but his generation is fertile recruiting ground. The militants in his village hold initiation ceremonies at night, he says. Each recruit swears allegiance to his cell on a Koran, then eats a piece of paper bearing 24 vows written in Arabic script, washed down with “holy water” blessed by the village imam. “After you’ve drunk it you don’t feel fear,” says Ma-ae. “You can even withstand the pain of torture without confessing.”

There is no evidence that foreign terror groups such as al-Qaeda are funding the conflict, despite its Islamic fervour. They don’t need to. The militants in Ma-ae’s village are self-sufficient, financing most activities through membership fees. Joining them costs 240 baht ($9) a year, plus a daily contribution of one baht and a handful of rice. “So every time you cook rice, you take one fistful and set it aside for them,” explains Ma-ae.

A new recruit’s first task, Ma-ae continues, is scattering leaflets containing death threats or diatribes against the “Siamese infidel”. He quickly graduates to vandalism – for example, burning the Thai flags that villagers are ordered by the authorities to display outside their homes – and then to militant attacks, acting as a lookout or helping to block roads with felled trees or burning tyres. Later, he might plant a bomb in a teashop or other public place, which others will detonate remotely. Later still, he might detonate it remotely himself.

SOON AFTER PHILIP Blenkinsop was injured by that bomb in Yala, I received via a third party an apology from Hassan (not his real name). “I wish you’d told me you’d be in that area,” he said. “I know people there.” Hassan, an insurgent leader who commands 250 fighters across Yala, one of the bloodiest provinces, is usually much less solicitous about his victims. When we met last year, Hassan claimed there was at least one militant cell in 80 per cent of southern villages, and that some of his brothers-in-arms had vowed to murder 10 Buddhists for every Muslim death. He chose to meet in an open-air teashop in Yala city, a measure of how confident the insurgents have now become. (The teenager Ma-ae had spoken to me in a hotel room, out of public view, fearful of meeting the same fate as his father.)

“Our men in the city have to be smarter to avoid arrest,” said Hassan, a doleful-looking man with an ill-concealed revolver in his anorak. “But here it’s easier to track the movements of police and soldiers.” While most new militants are under 30 years of age, their commanders are often veterans like Hassan, who has fought with both BRN and PULO and is now in his 50s. Like other old-school insurgents, Hassan took a government amnesty in the 1990s, but rejoined the insurgency after Thaksin took power in 2001. The conflict is usually described as a separatist one, but Hassan insisted he was not fighting for an independent Pattani state.

“We can live within the Thai state,” he explained. But only a Thai state in which Muslims have a greater say: the police, military and bureaucracy are dominated by Buddhists from elsewhere in the country, which fuels the perception that the region is occupied by outsiders. Hassan told me he wanted the withdrawal of thousands of extra troops and armed police sent south by Thaksin. They committed atrocities and “disrespect our women”, claimed Hassan. “Their presence affects our culture, our religion, our whole way of life.”

If Hassan controls 250 fighters, who controls him? He would only say that his leaders were in Malaysia, and that once every two months he toured his area of command to meet cell leaders. But when asked who the new militants regarded as their spiritual leader, Hassan quickly replied, “Sapae-ing Basoe” – the fugitive headmaster from Yala’s top Islamic school. Hassan said Sapae-ing was the only man with the authority to stop the fighting. Not that Hassan wanted to talk peace. “Right now we’re winning,” he told me. “Why? Because the villagers support us.”

Separating the militants from the communities that harbour them is the declared goal of a Thai military whose officers talk optimistically of “separating the fish from the water”. (This classic – and in Vietnam, doomed – counterinsurgency strategy is derived from Mao’s famous direction to his guerillas to “move through the people like a fish moves through water”.) Police and soldiers have launched dozens of raids on militant hideouts in recent weeks and detained hundreds of suspects. It is too early to tell whether these raids will subdue the militants or, by further antagonising Muslim communities, only provide men like Hassan with more recruits.

Certainly, most communities – both Buddhist and Muslim – live in fear. “It’s scary around here after dark,” says a teacher at a remote Islamic school in Pattani. “That’s when the ninjas start creeping around.” He meant the rangers, a lowpaid and poorly trained paramilitary group who wear black uniforms and have a reputation for brutality. They are the suspected culprits in two shooting attacks on Islamic schools in March, which killed four students and injured eight.

Created by the Thai army in the 1970s, the rangers are now being sent south in their thousands – 1700 so far, another 30 companies by year’s end. Buddhists in remote communities have little faith in the military, instead relying on their own village defence militias. Their members tend to be armed, ill-trained and scared – a sometimes lethal combination. In April militiamen opened fire on a pick-up truck carrying Muslim mourners back from a funeral, killing four students, including a 12-year-old schoolboy. A military adviser to Thai PM Surayud Chulanont recently urged soldiers conducting counterinsurgency work to exercise “restraint”. But restraint is the very quality lacking in the two trigger-happy paramilitary groups – rangers and militias – upon which the junta increasingly depends.

“What is required are specialised troops trained in counterinsurgency,” says Joseph Liow of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “That, and vastly improved intelligence, is what will turn the tide, not more boots on the ground.” But the militants’ cell-like structure, coupled with rivalry between a slew of military and police agencies, continues to hamper intelligence-gathering. So does a tight-lipped Muslim population which, already terrorised by the militants in its midst, distrusts or despises the government authorities.

And for good reason. Human Rights Watch accuses Thai security forces of using abductions “as a matter of policy” to weaken militant networks and sow fear among Muslims. In 2004 a prominent human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, was abducted and almost certainly killed by police, whom he had accused of torturing Muslim suspects. Nobody has been prosecuted for his murder, nor for atrocities like Tak Bai. Indeed, soldiers and police remain immune from prosecution under a Thaksin-era emergency decree.

Then there are the Buddhist vigilantes. In May a bomb at a market killed four Buddhists, including two children. Days later, men with assault rifles opened fire and threw grenades at a nearby mosque, killing five teenagers. Tit-for-tat killings like this are now common, raising the prospect of a full-scale sectarian conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. The line between the Thai security forces – whose members are mostly Buddhists – and these vigilante groups is blurry. One group, Ruam Thai (Thais United), was co-founded by Major General Phitak Iadkaew, a policeman. “We don’t shoot innocent Muslims,” he recently told Associated Press. “We only shoot insurgents. They deserve to be killed.” Millions of Thais, sickened by anti-Buddhist atrocities, are demanding the same merciless military response.

BEFORE I LEFT Yala, I met a Buddhist called Chai Kaewsaituam, who was making a different sort of killing. Earlier this year he left his home town near Bangkok to set up a street stall in Yala. He sells what his brochure calls “a full line of concealable, tactical and soft body armour” – that is, bullet-proof jackets. They are made from material ordered from the US and cost about $600 each. Chai has sold more than 200 of them, mainly to police and soldiers, but also to bureaucrats, teachers and journalists. He has no plans to return home. “I’ll be here for a long time,” he says. “This is where the market is.”

Photos from southern Thailand by Philip Blenkinsop

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