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Thai Military Tries to Win Over Muslims in Rebellious South


The Thai military has been engaging more with Muslim communities and has turned to community development projects in attempt to win over the hearts and minds of locals. But rights groups say emergency laws allow security forces to abuse some basic rights of the Thai people, and that the injustices are encouraging the rebellion.

Thailand has an estimated 60,000 security personnel in the deep south - a region where separatist insurgents have been attacking Thai Buddhists whom they view as occupiers. The region was, until a century ago, an independent Malay sultanate.

But in their efforts to wipe out the rebels, rights groups say some Thai security forces have resorted to harassment, torture and even murder. Ismael Thahe got a taste of this one night last year when soldiers showed up at his meeting of student activists.

"They tried to force us to confess to many incidents that had taken place in the area. I refused and said I was just a student activist and helping people. They accused me of misleading and recruiting people to fight against them. Then they took a stick as big as this, wrapped fabric around it, and beat me until I was bruised," he said.

A group of Thai soldiers is driving through a hostile Muslim neighborhood in southern Pattani province, but they are not looking for the region's rebels and their supporters. Violence in the area has scared off government social workers, says Lieutenant Jadenipit Somboonwattana, so the military has stepped in to help, and to improve the negative image of Thai authorities. "We have an important duty to adjust villagers' attitudes, to build a good image of officials that will lead to more tasks and villagers helping us with information," he said.

Thai soldiers have been engaging with Muslim Malay communities and supporting numerous development projects like a tailor training center, where they provide 20 sewing machines to teach Muslim women how to make clothes.

Harafin Yusuf, a villager who works for the center, says the military's support will help the women earn money for their families. "This center creates jobs for the community, and trains those who have no skills to do the job. I hope to expand from this village to other villages so we can make more job opportunities throughout the community," Yusuf said.

Despite the Thai army's efforts to help some Malay villages, activists say harassment of Muslims is common, and emergency laws meant to help end the insurgency allow security forces who commit abuses to escape prosecution.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, who is with the Cross Cultural Foundation, an organization that helps try to find justice for victims of abuse by security forces, says they are receiving fewer complaints than past years, but that authorities are still not making efforts to reconcile past injustices. "The way that the government dealing with the past violation, for us, is still not satisfying. It's not satisfied by the people. It's not satisfied by human rights activists. Impunity is still at large," Pompen said.

Lieutenant Somboonwattana hopes that by engaging with the Muslim Malay community, the army will build trust and reduce the number of rebel sympathizers.

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