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Thailand Struggles to Contain Southern Violence


Since 2004 Thailand has seen an upswing in violence in its troubled south, where an insurgency has resulted in close to 4,000 deaths. The attacks seemed to be slowing down until June when a massacre at a mosque renewed tensions between ethnic Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims.

Soldiers in an armored vehicle are driving up to a military checkpoint on a road lined with barbed wire and sandbags.

They are all on guard, armed with M16 assault rifles and wearing body armor and helmets.

There are an estimated 60,000 security personnel in southern Thailand's Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces. They are struggling to put down daily violence from an insurgency.

Some political analysts say the ethnic Malay rebels are seeking some form of independence from the Thai kingdom. But Colonel Parinya Chaidilok, a spokesman for the Thai military's Internal Security Operations Command, says the insurgents and their objectives are still a mystery.

"What they want...there are many problems behind the violence - drugs, smuggling, influential people - the problem of unrest is another one," he said.

A century ago, this majority ethnic Malay Muslim region was an independent sultanate until Thailand seized it.

The insurgents active in southern Thailand have never said who they are and what they want. However, they usually kill people viewed as symbols of the Thai Buddhist state or their collaborators.

Buddhist farmers, teachers, and monks collecting their daily alms require constant security or they risk being shot and beheaded.

Phra Palat Manat, a Buddhist monk who has lived in Pattani his whole life, says the Buddhist and Muslim communities used to have friendly relations. But he says when the violence broke out they became suspicious of each other.

"In the past we depended on each other, helped each other. When Muslims had a wedding they would invite Buddhists to attend," he said. "But after the violence, the visits were few and far between. Sometimes we would attend, but there was always fear when we went out."

Incidents of violence declined early this year. Then in June masked gunmen stormed the Al-Furqan mosque in Narathiwat province during evening prayers, killing 12 people, including the imam.

Ayub Cheangoh was injured in the attack and says his wounds are still painful.

"After the incident we didn't trust the authorities," he said. "As Muslims, we don't trust the authorities. I recommend an independent organization investigate the Thai government."

One reason Thailand's Muslim Malays do not trust the government is because it has put the military in charge of security.

Rights groups say in its efforts to end the insurgency, security forces have committed extrajudicial killings and torture. Some victims of the military just disappear.

In 2004, Thai security forces were responsible for an attack on Pattani's 400-year-old Krue Se mosque, where a group of Muslim militants had sought refuge.

Analyst Ahmad Somboon Bualuang says Thai soldiers ignored orders from Bangkok to negotiate and instead bombarded the mosque, killing 32 insurgents.

A few months later, 78 anti-government demonstrators died of suffocation after they were arrested and packed into trucks.

Bualuang says the excessive use of force is still felt bitterly by Muslims.

"The situation is not at all resolved, and the incidents created more pain and made people angrier," he said.

Analysts and rights groups say the Thai government needs to punish those responsible for past abuses and eliminate emergency laws that allow the military to avoid prosecution.

They say if Thai authorities restore a sense of justice for ordinary Malays they will prevent more sympathizers from joining the insurgency.


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