This is a photo of Mahrosu Jantarawadee, 31, a Malay-Muslim insurgent who last month led a raid on a remote military base in Thailand’s war-torn southern provinces. The marines stationed there were waiting for him, and Mahrosu and 15 other militants died in a hail of bullets and shrapnel.
Peace talks begin in Malaysia today in a bid to end this brutal nine-year conflict that has now killed more than 5,300 people. In Bacho, the district where the abortive raid took place, Mahrosu is hailed as a shahid or martyr who died fighting a holy war to protect his religion and culture from a Thai Buddhist government.
The internet has projected his heroic status far beyond Bacho’s rice fields and rubber plantations. A Che Guevara-style print of his face has been posted and re-posted on Facebook. “Your good deeds were as fragrant as jasmine flowers,” runs a folk song written after his death and popularized on YouTube.
The Thai military’s response to the martyrdom of Mahrosu has been calibrated. It wants the world to know it has eliminated a militant whose “good deeds” include bomb and gun attacks that killed at least 25 people, one of them a Bacho schoolteacher who was shot dead in front of his seven-year-old daughter. But it doesn’t want to feed the Mahrosu myth. “We have never regarded Mahrosu’s side as the enemy,” a Bacho marine commander, who refused to crow about foiling the Bacho raid, told me. “We are all Thais.”
Thai soldiers should understand the mechanics of martyrdom by now. The oldest shahid in Bacho’s graveyards were buried there in 2004, after soldiers and police dispersed a protest at a town called Tak Bai. Eighty-five Muslim men and boys died, mostly by suffocation after they were piled four or five high in army trucks. Tak Bai helped radicalize a whole new generation of insurgents, who soon gave the Thai military more of its own dead to honor.