Published: June 6, 2015 – 8:45AM
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Rarely reported religious wars in Thailand’s southern provinces have killed more than 6000 people. Video production and narration by Craig Skehan. Reporting by Lindsay Murdoch.
Buddhist Monks are guarded by Thai soldiers on their morning rounds collecting alms in Pattani. Photo: Jason South
On May 16 this year, a bomber walked unnoticed into a toy store in the main street of Yala, a town in southern Thailand only a few hours’ drive from the country’s main tourist beaches, and left a shopping bag packed with explosives.
Minutes later, a mobile telephone in the bag detonated the bomb that ripped through the store, one of three dozen blasts over three days in May that injured 22 people and terrified the town’s population of 65,000.
Thung Yang Daeng: Separatist forces have killed at least 171 teachers and torched or detonated bombs at more than 300 schools. Photo: Jason South
As soldiers, police and firemen rushed to the scene, three year-old Fadia sat trembling on the concrete floor of her family’s agriculture products shop 50 metres away.
“She cannot speak … she is afraid and always goes quiet when the bombs go off,” said her auntie Pensi Wangmetikul, 42. “We are all very afraid. What can we do?”
Beheadings, bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations, extra-judicial killings and vicious assaults have left more than 6300 people dead and at least 11,500 injured since 2004 in south-east Asia’s longest-running war in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces.
Armed and organised ethnic Malays – almost all of whom are Muslims – are pitted against the predominantly Buddhist Thai state in a cycle of violence that is rarely reported outside of Thailand.
Monks, teachers, schools, government officials – people seen as symbols of the Thai state – have been targets of insurgents operating in secret cells while Thai security forces, which operate with impunity, are accused by human rights groups of abuses including arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings that cause more reprisals.
Militants plant indiscriminate bombs in public places, often changing tactics to keep security forces off-guard. Hundreds of civilians – Buddhists and Muslims – have been killed or wounded while simply going about their daily activities.
And fears are growing that insurgents, who have shunned attempts to align themselves with Islamist terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, are looking to expand their sphere of influence and could be ripe for recruitment by transnational militant groups such as Islamic State.
About 15 men from the village have been killed in the decade long conflict. Photo: Jason South
Anusart Suwanmongkol, a member of Thailand’s military-installed national assembly and a businessman in Pattani, a town in the centre of the violence, says the conflict has entered a new and even more dangerous phase because of the increasing globalisation of Islam through Facebook and other social media.
“Nobody has time to filter the messages and propaganda to our youth,” Anusart says. “We are not there yet, but remote recruitment for causes like Islamic State is of great concern.”
“When things happen, untrue information is quickly spread through social media. We are in a new age,” he said.
Don Pathan, an independent security consultant based in southern Thailand, says the bombings were a humiliating episode for Thailand’s security apparatus still reeling from a car bomb that exploded in the underground car park of a shopping centre on the resort island of Samui on April 10, injuring 10 people.
Soldiers patrol a roadblock in southern Thailand looking for weapons or suspected insurgents. Photo: Jason South
Evidence links the Samui bomb to the southern violence, a seemingly important escalation of the conflict. Insurgents have in the past rarely ventured out of the Malay-dominated provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani and the four southern districts of Songkhla province.
Zachary Abuza, head of South-East Asian Analytics and author of multiple books on the conflict, says insurgents have tended to feel that out-of-area attacks are counter-productive, violate their sense of “defensive jihad” and would unleash Thai security forces on them, with broad public backing.
But striking at the heart of a tourist island appears to be an attempt to sabotage an area of economic significance, which is known to be one of the militants’ strategies.
No-one claims responsibility for attacks or articulates the insurgents’ aims and the identities of its leaders remain largely unknown, even to many of those in clandestine village and town cells.
Ethnic Malay militants have not accepted Thailand’s assimilation policies dating back to the country’s conquest of the sultanate of Patani in the early 20th century. Their immediate aim appears to make the region known as the “Deep South” ungovernable.
Each morning Buddhist monks wrap themselves in saffron-coloured robes and stroll silently collecting alms while a phalanx of troops armed with assault rifles walk alongside, protecting them from assassins.
Cambodia Photo: Jason South
At state-run schools, soldiers guard teachers and students in crisp white uniforms.
But Thai authorities suspect some of the region’s Islamic schools are used to indoctrinate and recruit insurgents.
In January, soldiers stormed the Yuwa Muslim school in Pattani province, killing three suspects holed up in a dormitory.
Muhayat Charoenchon was just eight and about to eat lunch with 100 other students at her school in Bacho district of Narathiwat province when four men walked up to her father, Chonlati Charoenchon, 51, a physical education teacher, who was directing students to their tables.
One pulled out a pistol and fired four shots into his head from point blank range.
Muhayat was dragged screaming from her father’s body and was the only witness prepared to come forward to identify the killer.
The Charoenchon family are Muslims and Muhayat’s mother Fansiah, 49, says she doesn’t know why her husband was assassinated.
“At first I wanted to take a gun and kill them. Now I just want peace,” she says.
Soldiers on alert at the burnt out bombed remains of a traditional timber shop. Photo: Jason South
Suspicion of collaborating with the government is enough for militants to list anyone, including Muslims, for execution.
The southern provinces are well developed, the government having poured billions of dollars into infrastructure and other services over decades, but they look like an occupied territory, with 60,000 heavily armed security personnel and militia deployed in fortified posts – the equivalent of one soldier or police officer for every seven households.
Travellers are asked to show their ID and have their vehicles inspected at checkpoints every few kilometres.
In Yala town, blast plinths line both sides of a main street to minimise the impact of car bombs.
Armoured vehicles patrol roads and military units go deep into the countryside and remote areas conducting “hearts and minds” campaigns – and to hunt insurgents.
The government has provided thousands of weapons to local militias and “village guards”, prompting concerns that more arms, especially in the hands of people not in any real chain of command, will exacerbate the problem.
Analysts say that while Malay-Muslim nationalism and identity lies at the heart of the insurgents’ cause, their struggle is often couched in religious language and practices.
The government does not allow Malay to be used as a main language of instruction and does not commonly allow it for official purposes.
The area is also home to a large population of ethnic Chinese Buddhists, whose comparative wealth makes them stand out sharply from Muslim farmers and fishermen. The Chinese are often targets of attacks.
Thanakorn Sae-Koh, 59, whose ancestors are Chinese, says he doesn’t know why insurgents have twice bombed his furniture stores in Yala town in six months, destroying both.
“I was born here and have no intention of living anywhere else – they won’t push us away,” he says.
Azman Jantravadi, 27, has been chained by one leg in a corner of his families barren wooden house in the village of Duka in Bacho, for more than two years. He is not himself. He is a crazy person says his mother Jemah Jehni, 55, a mother of six sons, adding he becomes violent when released. Azman’s elder brother Marosoh was killed while leading an insurgent raid on a military base in 2013. Photo: JasonSouth
Anusart says nothing is “black and white” in the provinces. “There are no simple answers to what is happening. This is not just a pure insurgency. There are many other factors,” he says.
Crime networks and rival local politicians add to the violence in a confusing mix of allegiances and loyalties.
Some analysts estimate the proportion of total killings resulting from private and political issues ranges from 20 to 50 per cent.
Also driving the conflict is the Thai state’s highly centralised political system, where Bangkok dispatches unelected life bureaucrats to run its far-flung provinces, while, according to critics, making few concessions to the distinct history and character of the region.
Figures behind the insurgency are believed to be both from an older guard of separatists and a new generation who are at the front line of the conflict. They lead ordinary lives as local residents while preparing terrorist attacks.
Don Pathan, the independent consultant who lives in Yala town and has been following the conflict for 20 years, says he has been told a council of about a dozen Muslim clerics presides over the insurgency.
The clandestine cell structure appears to be deliberately set up in such a way that members may not be personally acquainted with others under the overall command and operate on a need-to-know basis. The insurgents have no political wing, leaving them with no forum to publicly air their goals, unlike other underground movements like the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.
Militants have recruited children as young as 14, according to Child Soldiers International.
For years the insurgents outwitted Thai security forces, constantly changing strategies and targets, although an increasing number of insurgent arrests indicate the military has improved their intelligence-gathering techniques.
A cycle of revenge killings has wracked the provinces. When the 179th teacher was killed late last year, militants left a handwritten note near the body saying “if you detain indiscriminately we will kill indiscriminately”.
And when a 10-year-old Muslim girl was shot dead by a Thai marine when the vehicle she was travelling in failed to stop at a checkpoint, militants hit back a few days later, attacking a group of Buddhist men, killing three and wounding four.
“Sorry for the unintentional killings – just like when you shot at the Malay people,” a note left at the scene read.
Thailand’s military, which seized power in a coup in May 2014, seems intent on pursuing historic peace talks with six insurgent groups, including the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
Prakarn Cholayut, the Thai Army Region 4 commander, told Fairfax Media the security forces have the support of a majority of people in the region, including Muslims. “There is only a hardcore causing all the problems.” he said.
Don Pathan says it is not clear what the future holds for the peace talks, which began this year.
Eighty-three year-old Buddhist Klean Sangam-pai says for decades Buddhists and Muslims lived happily side by side in her village in Pattani. But in 2004 militants shot her son dead and three years later beheaded her husband and torched his body and their family house.
“I don’t hate Muslims,” she says. “People are being used for political purposes … the gap between Buddhists and Muslims is very wide now, but it will be sad if some time in the future we all cannot change our thinking and perhaps learn to laugh a little while crying at the same time.”
6 Jun 2015. Fairfax photographer Jason South travelled to Southern Thailand where Thai soldiers on alert. Beheadings, bombings, drive-by shootings, assassinations, extra judicial killings and vicious assaults have left more than 6379 people dead and at least 11,548 injured since 2004 in South-East Asia’s longest running war in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces.