Unrest has come and gone in the southern Thai provinces since 1902, when Thailand annexed part of an independent Malay kingdom. Many south Muslim Thais, who feel discriminated against by Thai authorities, have defied rule from Bangkok. A bloody separatist movement ripped through the region in the 1960's, but by the early 1990's the situation calmed as the economy grew stronger and new local elections sent regional Muslim leaders to represent the south in Bangkok.
However, the relative calm was shattered last January, when unidentified attackers raided a Thai army camp, killing troops and stealing hundreds of assault rifles and machine guns. The violence escalated in April when police killed more than one hundred attackers across the region. Many were armed with machetes, including 32 insurgents who had taken refuge in the 16th century Kruesie Mosque in Pattani province.
Local Muslims still come to the bullet-ridden mosque to pray. This evening about 20 gather quietly, including Ahmad Somboon Bualuang, a retired lecturer at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. He is critical of the central government's policies and says that with thousands of Thai troops in the region, his town feels like a war zone.
"They think all the Muslims here are related to separatists," he says. "They use only power, army and weapons without seeking understanding among religious leaders."
Mr. Bualuang is a liaison between the central government and southern religious leaders. He does not believe local grievances of Thai Muslims are the only reason young men stand ready to confront the guns of security forces. He feels there is a wider sense of Muslims under siege around the world.
Panitan Wattanayagorn is a security consultant to Thailand's National Security Council and frequently travels to the south. He says many southern Thai Muslims view the thousands of newly stationed Thai troops in the region as part of a larger war: one they are told by extremists is not against terrorism, but Islam itself.
"They are using conditions like war on terrorism in the region, and of course, conflicts between the United States and U.S. allies and certain countries like Afghanistan and Iraq as factors," he asserts. "After September 11, support [for Islamic causes] seemed to be increasing, reflecting the intense networking in the Islamic extremist worlds."
Mr. Wattanayagorn believes such networks are now reaching into southern Thailand.
But Chakrit Worasutr, director of public relations for Pattani province, says the media is over dramatizing the violence and believes the situation is actually improving. Speaking through an interpreter, he says "the policy of the Thai government is to try to make local residents work together with the authority officers. So we are confident if local residents are able to work with authority officers, this will solve the problem in the near future."
Yet some leaders in the south say the central government has not asked for their genuine participation in restoring peace. Even government supporters admit that in the short run security forces have sometimes used excessive force to try to stabilize the situation.
A new representative of the central government has recently been appointed. Security analyst Wattanyagorn says he will try a fresh approach to negotiate with local leaders and centralize command of all Thai police and military forces in the south.
Although violence has declined, Mr. Wattanayagorn is concerned that militants are changing tactics, plotting, for example, to strike higher-value targets. "These are the classical, typical plans that they have been adopting from what we have seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq," he says. "So it is possible they are copying some of these tactics and re-applying them to the south."
Mr. Wattanayagorn believes Thailand still has a chance to avoid the fate of a prolonged separatist movement deteriorating into terrorism, as occurred in the Southern Philippines.
Thailand's highly esteemed royal family has been especially active in the troubled southern region, where they have focused their efforts on economic development and job training. But it remains to be seen if their spiritual and economic support will be enough to bring peace to a region wracked by nearly a year of violence.