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Southern Thailand Residents Living in Fear Amid Rising Tensions

This is the first in a three part series on Sectarian Tensions in Southern Thailand

Thailand's prime minister flew to southern Thailand this month amid rising tensions between the government of the mostly Buddhist nation and leaders in the predominantly Muslim south. Local residents are living in fear with daily attacks that have killed more than 40 officials and community leaders and threats that have forced hundreds of temporary school closings.

Mohamed Awae, a quiet man in his 30's, sits on the doorstep of his family home - a wooden house on stilts in the forest of palm and rubber trees near the border with Malaysia. As visitors approach, the women tighten their headscarves and move deeper inside the house, but peek out to hear the conversation. The visitors have come to give condolences to Mohamed, who has just buried his older brother, Arming.

"Arming was returning the night before from evening prayers at the mosque down the road when unknown men on a motorcycle slashed his head with a machete and left him bleeding to death," he said. "My brother was a rubber tapper at a local plantation, and was a good man. Why would anyone kill him?"

Such attacks have occurred for decades in this region where smuggling is a major source of income and tensions simmer between the majority Muslim population and officials of the central government far away. In the past, the attacks averaged a couple per month, sometimes a couple per week. But they have intensified since January 4, when unknown gunmen raided a nearby Army base - an unprecedented type of attack - killing four Buddhist soldiers and taking more than four hundred guns.

Now they are occurring daily. More than 40 people have been killed, including policemen, civil servants, Muslim leaders and - in another first - Buddhist monks. Now, prominent Muslim leaders are being kidnapped by gangs wearing black clothes and boots.

The central government has declared martial law in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and has sent 3,000 Special Forces troops to find the assailants. They have detained several suspects, but to date have made no major breakthrough.

The president of the Narathiwat Muslim Council, Abdurahman Abdu Samad, says the killings are creating a climate of fear. "There are so many killings and detentions in so many places," he says. "Why cannot the government say who is responsible?"

The Thai government at first blamed the attacks on criminal groups, perhaps with support from local officials, engaged in drugs and gun running.

More recently senior Thai officials have suggested that Muslim separatists may have revived an old insurgency that had been inactive for the past 15 years. Local security officers say small cells, of about a dozen, rebels have emerged in many districts.

Authorities suspect, although there is no proof as yet, that some rebels may be receiving outside support. Terrorism experts say members of at least two Thai separatist groups received training in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Others reportedly have had contacts with Malaysian militants affiliated with the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network. JI seeks to create an Islamic state in Muslim parts of Southeast Asia.

The director of Islamic Studies at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Ibrahem Narongraksakhet, recalls that a separatist insurgency arose in the 1960s. It aimed to create a separate Muslim state in southern Thailand, which was an autonomous sultanate until it was annexed by the kingdom of Thailand in 1902.

However, he says the insurgency in southern Thailand is home-grown. "There are a lot of separatist movements, but these movements are domestic movements, not international movements," says Mr. Ibrahem.

The insurgency subsided in the mid-1980s, after the Bangkok government launched a pacification program that included amnesty for fighters, money for schools and infrastructure, and a regional authority to coordinate security and administrative complaints by local people.

A professor of political science at the Pattani University, Perayot Rahimulla, says in the past decade southerners also have been elected to the national assembly and been appointed cabinet ministers, giving them a voice in government. "Since 1993, '94, I think all separatist groups are inactive because of some political changes in Thailand itself."

Local leaders say motives for the recent attacks are not political, but rather are due to rivalries among businessmen, politicians, police and the military, vying for influence in the impoverished region. They say the attacks also may be the work of gangs, who seek to ennoble their crimes by giving them ideological or religious motives.

Others note that the attacks began to intensify after the regional authority charged with fighting corruption and hearing citizens' complaints was dissolved nearly two years ago. Nevertheless, analysts say some of these latest attacks, along with the threats against teachers and schools, appear to be aimed at sowing fear and aggravating sectarian tensions.

Professor Perayot says there have been virtually no convictions in the hundreds of cases - creating fear and uncertainty. "It is the responsibility of the government to try to find out who was behind (this), to answer which group, the separatist group or the other [another] group. We must have clear evidence about this.

Analysts say the lack of justice may be leading some people to take the law into their own hands, and the climate of impunity is hindering efforts to ensure security and the rule of law in the region.