Bloodshed in Paradise: Muslims Battle Buddhists in Thailand's Troubled South

By Jürgen Kremb

Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand want to secede from the Buddhist north and have targeted monks and other representatives of the state. But they also claim to have been victims of government atrocities.

A Thai soldier provides security to participants during a Buddhist festival in Thailand's restive Pattani province in this April 2007 file photo.
AFP

A Thai soldier provides security to participants during a Buddhist festival in Thailand's restive Pattani province in this April 2007 file photo.

Udom Dhamakhani, 67, lifts himself laboriously from his wooden cot, on which he has just recited his Buddhist sutras. He straightens his saffron-colored robe and peers out through his oversized reading glasses.

Unusually for a monk's cell, the room contains a monitor showing images from four surveillance cameras: the veranda, the door of his cell, the main temple -- and a bunker. The shelter is occupied by soldiers who have turned Wat Lakmnang monastery on the outskirts of the southern Thai city of Pattani into a fortress. "It's all because of the trouble out there," the monk grumbles.

More than 2,400 have already died "out there," in Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces, in an insurgency started by Muslim rebels. They want the region in southern Thailand, which is home to 1.9 million Malay-speaking Muslims, to secede from the rest of the predominantly Buddhist country.

Dhamakhani is not just the abbot of Wat Lakmnang, but also the head of all Buddhist temples in Pattani province. Because his fellow monks have reported on the radio about the atrocities being committed by the rebels, Dhamakhani is also in danger. He has already survived three rebel attacks. He would have been dead long ago without the protection of the two dozen soldiers stationed at his monastery.

It is seven in the morning, and reports of night attacks are already crackling from the walkie-talkie on his night table. Twelve schools were burned to the ground, but this time there were no casualties. For the rebels, Buddhist temples, military barracks, public buildings and minor officials, such as local mayors and teachers, are all hated symbols of the government in Bangkok.

At 10:15 a.m., an informant reports an explosion on National Route 409 near the village of Yarang, a 15-minute drive from the monastery. Dhamakhani immediately dispatches one of his reporters.

The police have sealed off the road. An armored vehicle has arrived with a soldier wearing a bulletproof vest and steel helmet in the turret, his machine gun in position. He nervously surveys the area. The rebels often place explosives in the underbrush, designed to explode when the troops arrive. There is a gaping hole in the asphalt. The explosion hurled a Toyota van with seven soldiers inside into the ditch. One soldier was beheaded and the others were injured.

A Volatile History

Southern Thailand has always been a volatile region. In 1902 the king of Siam annexed the majority Muslim region, which had been ruled until then by the Sultan of Pattani. Drug barons, smugglers and clan leaders soon took control of the remote border region.

The government in faraway Bangkok has always neglected the south, where unemployment is higher than in the north. Until recently, all governors of the southern provinces were Buddhists from the north. Now local residents' aversion to the incomers has turned into hate.

Thailand's south has a Muslim majority.
DER SPIEGEL

Thailand's south has a Muslim majority.

Marc Askew has been coming to southern Thailand for years. A professor of political science in the Australian city of Melbourne, Askew blames one man for the slaughter: Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, the former prime minister, was overthrown in a military coup amid allegations of corruption. A military junta has ruled the country ever since. Thaksin, a graduate of the Thai police academy, managed to build a media empire before becoming prime minister. A vastly wealthy man, he now lives in exile in London and has just acquired the English football club Manchester City as his latest toy.

In 2002, Thaksin prematurely declared the south pacified and sent in police to keep order in the region. This was the catalyst that triggered the violence, says Askew. By sending in the police, Thaksin lifted the cease-fire that had been in place between Muslim groups like the Pattani United Liberation Organization and the government in Bangkok.

In the night of Jan. 4, 2004, the Islamists stormed a military camp in Narathiwat province and made off with large numbers of weapons. Thaksin ordered a brutal military crackdown. "Since then the rule of law has been suspended here in the south," says Askew.

A victim is taken to hospital after a bomb explosion in Yala province in January 2005.
REUTERS

A victim is taken to hospital after a bomb explosion in Yala province in January 2005.

When Thaksin's successor General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the head of the military junta and a Muslim himself, apologized to his fellow Muslims in the south for the mistakes of the Thaksin administration after the September 2006 coup, the insurgents doubled their attacks. They saw Boonyaratglin's accommodation as a weakness.

"We no longer have any illusions over the fact that we are embroiled in a guerilla war," says Lieutenant Aera Tiproch, 43. But he isn't quite sure who his enemies are. In fact, no one knows the leaders of the rebels. They are believed to have studied in Pakistan or acquired their knowledge about explosives in Indonesian jungle camps.

The 25,000 government troops face up to 3,000 guerilla fighters today. The rebels attack schools, restaurants and, more recently, even trains bringing the soldiers to the south.

Murder in the Red Zone

Tuwnedaniya Tuwaemaengae, 24, insists that he has nothing to do with the rebels. Although he is a chemistry student in Bangkok, he says that the Islamic revolution is currently more important to him than his studies. He organized a demonstration a few weeks ago which brought the provincial capital Pattani to a standstill. Now he is taking journalists on a tour of a village where soldiers allegedly committed atrocities against Muslims.

The villagers line up along the road to greet their visitors. The region in Narathiwat province is part of the "red zone" where the rebels collect taxes from the villagers to fund their insurgency. In the house of the local imam, villagers tell the story of an army raid and the murder of two young Muslim men. They point to two fresh grave mounds as evidence. But there is not a single bullet hole in the mosque, which villagers claim came under Thai army fire for several minutes.

Kritsada Pornwiriyaongkol, 67, sits drinking a beer in front of the empty office of Pattani's chamber of commerce. The rebels' influence in the province has robbed of all hope of ever being able to return to his land.

He operated a crab farm for 16 years. According to Kritsada, young men from nearby villages began loitering around his farm two years ago. Whenever he walked by, they would laugh and draw their index fingers across their throats.

Kritsada, intimidated, shut down his farm, but he doesn't want to leave the south. "Where should I go?" he asks. "This is my home. I will stay here, even if it's just to die."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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