Thailand Attacks Raise Specter of Religious War

June 23, 2009 - 3:16 AM
The circumstances and brutality of attacks in Thailand this month have revived fears that a long-running insurgency in the country's south could be evolving into a sectarian conflict pitting Buddhists against Muslims.~~
Thai Muslim

A young Thai Muslim boy at a school near Pattani in southern Thailand. (AP Photo)

Bangkok (AP) – Ten Muslim villagers killed by gunmen firing assault rifles into a mosque during evening prayers. A 53-year-old Buddhist rubber tapper shot, decapitated and limbs cut from his torso, his head impaled on a stick.

The circumstances and brutality of those attacks this month have revived fears that a long-running insurgency in Thailand's south could be evolving into a sectarian conflict pitting Buddhists against Muslims.

Islamic separatists ignited the insurgency in January 2004, sparking a cycle of army repression and rebellion that has left more than 3,500 people dead. Frustrated by their inability to curb the violence, Thai security forces have increasingly been arming civilian self-defense forces – almost all Buddhist – to protect villagers.

The proliferation of guns, many put in the poorly trained hands of parties with scores to settle, makes the situation extremely volatile.

The June 8 attack on the Al Furqan mosque in Narathiwat province's Joh-I-Rong district and its aftermath suggest such initiatives may have backfired.

With cold deliberation, five or six masked gunmen dressed in black poured fire into the mosque, which serves a community that had avoided the deadly tumult of recent years.

"Communities can no longer distinguish between security officers, insurgents and criminals," says a report completed just before the recent attacks by Nonviolence International, a U.S.-based pacifist group. "Each new act of violence not only incites acts of revenge but also brings to the fore sentiments of nationalist extremism and ethno-religious divisions."

Many local Muslims believe the mosque massacre was revenge for the killing of a young Buddhist rubber plantation worker in a nearby district earlier that day.

Most appear loath to believe that Islamist insurgents would attack a mosque, even though a majority of those they have killed in the past 5 1/2 years have been Muslims. Militants target those seen as collaborators with the government, or those whose efforts promoting moderation or reconciliation threaten to undercut their struggle.

"I don't believe Muslims would do such a thing. We were taught since a very young age that a mosque is the house of Allah," said Vanasae Kuwaekama, whose father was the local imam and one of the victims. "I hope the authorities find out who carried out the attack so the speculation giving Muslims a bad name ends."

When the dismembered remains of rubber tapper Kimsiang Sae-tang were discovered a week after the attack in neighboring Yala province, a note found near his body claimed the killing was revenge for the mosque assault, according to police.

"We believe the insurgents want to fuel sectarian violence between the two groups. Right now, the people of the two communities who previously interacted normally are closing doors on one another. There is complete silence," said Lt. Col. Chalermchai Sutinuan, the army's field commander in Narathiwat.

Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist nation, annexed the Muslim-majority south in the early 20th century. The Muslims, who are ethnically distinct from Thais, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens, with inadequate educational and job opportunities.

Now the insurgents' offensive has generated insecurity and panic among Buddhists in the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

"This insecurity is feeding a sense of nationalism among the Buddhist population in the area," says Nonviolence International's report. "They feel obliged to protect their 'motherland.' Firearms and civilian forces are consequently requested and welcomed."

The group says more responsibility for security has been handed over to poorly trained and screened paramilitary and defense volunteer forces who have little regard for law and human rights but may pursue their own agendas.

Arming civilians, the group says, "breaks down social ties and intensifies ethnic polarization."

The government and the military "may not be aware of many cases of abuse but they cannot speak for every volunteer they train," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist from Prince of Songkhla University who chronicles the conflict on a Web site, Deep South Watch.

"It remains unclear how many of the raids and attacks have been carried out for revenge or when it's been done professionally or when it has been an overreaction," he told The Associated Press.

The insurgents, the army, and Buddhist vigilantes are all plausible perpetrators of the mosque attack, said Zachary Abuza, author of "Conspiracy of Silence," a newly published book on the southern conflict.

"All have motives, and my guess is we will never know the answer," he said in an e-mail interview. "And at the end of the day, it does not matter: all the locals believe it was the government ... Further mistrust is sown."

A member of parliament from Narathiwat, Najmuddin Umar, is one of several lawmakers calling on the government to set up an independent committee to investigate the incident.

"The government cannot simply say the authorities were not involved. People want more than that," he said. "They need to know the authorities are taking this seriously. Their inability to do anything confirms peoples' fear that they have to take matter into their own hands in both communities."

(Associated Press writer Sumeth Panpetch contributed to this report from Narathiwat, Thailand.)