Thai rebel tactic: divide the faiths

As Muslim separatists target Buddhists, Thailand's prime minister declared martial law last Friday.

Somjit Sangsanan remembers when a good night out in her village meant piling into a friend's pickup truck and going to town for a movie or a concert.

Not any more. Now everyone in her rural community of Buddhist farmers and government workers turns in by 8 p.m. and nobody ventures out at night, especially not alone.

Caught in the crossfire of a separatist insurgency that sees civilians as soft targets, Buddhist villagers in this Muslim-dominated area of Thailand are retreating from those they once greeted as friends and neighbors. "Before I was in touch with Muslims. I had friends in the Muslim villages and we worked together on royal community projects. Now I'm afraid to visit them," says Somjit.

The fraying of interfaith ties in southern Thailand is a byproduct of an escalating conflict that has claimed over 800 lives since last January. While political violence and guerrilla revolts have plagued this area for generations, the militants behind the latest attacks appear determined to rattle the confidence of the non-Muslim minorities.

After a series of new attacks, last Friday the Thai government declared martial law in the region, giving the prime minister sweeping powers to tap phones, ban meetings, give direct orders to security forces, and order curfews.

Analysts say the separatists are deliberately trying to divide the local population along ethnic and faith lines. "The strategy is working. For the first time in decades, they are splitting the communities. The Buddhists are starting to arm themselves with guns," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and scion of a southern Buddhist family.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra has described the insurgents as separatists with criminal motives and says the violence shouldn't be construed as a religious conflict. Analysts say Thaksin's view is broadly correct, but overlooks the emerging interfaith divide and the overt use of Islamic ideology in separatist indoctrination.

Recent attacks on Buddhist civilians have included public beheadings in restaurants. Militants left notes at the scene vowing revenge for the deaths of innocent Muslims. Monks are now escorted by the military during alms collection in town centers and have stopped collecting in smaller rural communities.

Some Buddhists have fled. Between January and June 2005, more than 34,500 residents - mostly Buddhists - moved out of the three southernmost provinces, the Associated Press reported, citing household registration figures. Of the 1.8 million people living there, around 360,000 are Buddhists. The majority - about 1.3 million - are ethnic-Malay Muslims who once lived under an Islamic sultanate annexed by Thailand in 1902.

The Buddhist exodus hampers peace efforts, say Thai officials. "If they make the three provinces 100 percent Muslim, then the separatist job will be easier. We can't allow that," says Col. Songwit Noonpackdee in Narathiwat province.

Somjit, a mother of three married to an engineer, says she doesn't want to abandon her village, though she has sent her son away to live with relatives. Recently she signed up for a two-week self-defense training class run by the Thai Army at a nearby temple.

"We used to live together, Buddhist and Muslim, it was no problem," she recalls, a sad smile on her freckled face. "But now I'm afraid.... I will carry my gun everywhere I go and if something happens to me I'm ready to shoot."

Not all of southern Thailand is divided along faith lines; in some villages generations of Muslims and Buddhists have grown up together, their temples and mosques nestling side-by-side. Buddhists dominate the private economy and local government, though, and Muslims complain that their voices are ignored by state bureaucrats. To redress this imbalance, the Thai government has launched a job-creation program for around 20,000 Muslims and tasked the Thai Army with starting hundreds of village development projects. Prime Minister Thaksin has repeatedly promised to send more aid to the region.

Muslim community leaders point out that Buddhists aren't the only ones fearing for their lives. Muslim villagers who work for the government or are tagged as informants are often slain by suspected militants. And passing on information doesn't always produce results. "I know who the troublemakers are around here. I told the government but they don't act on it," says Abdulkarim Doloh, a Muslim village chief in Narathiwat province.

Abdulrahman Abdulsamad, chairman of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat, says many in his community are still fearful of Thai security forces. "It's hard ... to understand exactly what the government is doing here," he says.

He points to the Thai soldiers standing behind sandbags across the street. In the nine months since they took up their post, he says, no one has come to his home, despite his profile as a community elder and Islamic school principal. "If they act like that for 10 years or 100 years, they will never make progress," he predicts.

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