Tension grows between Thai security forces and Muslim locals

Conflict between troops and separatists in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south have killed at least 800 since 2004.

The evening sky was fading to darkness as the nearby mosque sounded the call to prayer. Inside his house, Abdullah knelt to pray. Minutes later, he heard a noise from outside.

"It was the sound of a hammer hitting a snake, many times," he recalls.

His ritual over, he walked outside to investigate. As he peered inside the open door of his neighbor's blue-roofed bungalow, Abdullah fainted.

Inside the house, three young Muslim men lay slumped on the concrete floor, their bodies riddled with bullets fired at close range - presumably using silencers - as they prayed.

The killings were the latest in an increasingly brutal conflict that has claimed over 800 lives in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south since January 2004.

But the murder of the three men, one of whom was being sought by police over alleged insurgent training, has aroused the suspicions of local Muslims and relatives of the deceased. They say gunmen equipped with silencers were behind the killings, most likely members of Thailand's security forces. Few are prepared to speak publicly, for fear of reprisals.

Thailand has deployed thousands of troops in the south, while promoting reconciliation and government aid for deprived areas. But with the violence starting to spread outside the three southernmost provinces, and a series of horrific beheadings of civilians, it faces pressure to hit back at Islamic separatists blamed for much of the violence.

Some observers suspect that hawks within the army are signaling to the rebels that the gloves are coming off.

"They've tried everything else over the past 18 months and it hasn't worked. They're trying to build an intelligence network and that takes time. They need quick results," says Paul Quaglia, head of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok that tracks the conflict.

A government spokesman, Gen. Chalermdej Chompunud, denied that security forces had executed suspects. "We want to work with the people and convince them to cooperate with the authorities," he says.

In recent years, a new generation of separatists has emerged to reignite the conflict, initially focusing on government officials and police. Now, the area's minority Buddhist population are increasingly in their sights, including being the target of a string of gruesome public beheadings.

"It's a new movement. The old separatists were in the jungle, and the fighting was there. It didn't affect the daily lives of Buddhists and Muslims," says Col. Songwit Noonpackdee, an Army commander in Narathiwat province who runs a village development program.

One controversial issue is the role of Islamic teachers, known as ustadz. Officials insist that the ustadz are a crucial link in recruiting, training, and arming insurgents - a claim disputed by Muslims.

Analysts warn that allegations of extrajudicial violence risks inflaming opinions, undermining the government's "hearts and minds" campaign to win over moderate Muslims. Many still recall the brutal suppression last October of an anti-police protest and the subsequent death of more than 80 Muslim men in military custody.

Allegations of extrajudicial killings aren't unknown in Thailand. An antidrug campaign in 2003 killed more than 2,000 suspected dealers, many gunned down in broad daylight. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ignored international criticism of the bloodshed, insisting that sympathies for the slain suspects were misplaced.

Last year, a spate of abductions of Muslims in the troubled south drew similar accusations. In one case, Somchai Neelaijaipit, an outspoken lawyer who accused police of torturing Muslims suspects, disappeared in Bangkok. Five police officers were later charged over his abduction, then released on bail. One was later promoted in rank.

"The issue of injustice obstructs everything in the south," says Sunai Pasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors abuses in southern Thailand. "No matter how hard the government tries, it's not going to win over the Muslim population ... with this culture of impunity."

Ruled as a Malay-speaking sultanate until Thai annexation in 1902, the three southernmost provinces have long complained of cultural and religious discrimination. An armed separatist rebellion festered for decades before fading in the early 1980s, but a culture of lawlessness persisted along the porous border with Malaysia.

Outside his family home, Arduenan Jaearsae sits on the porch of a wooden shack, one of a dozen huts that until recently housed 120 students.

Arduenan, soft- spoken with a creased brow, explains that the boarding school Jihad Wittaya was founded 40 years by his father. In May, it was closed down after a predawn raid by police and soldiers on what they say was a militant training camp. They claim they found Arabic training videos and guns.

During the raid, as Arduenan was being detained, his nephew Ridwan Waemanor, a young Islamic teacher, fled into a nearby field. One month later, Ridwan was one of the three men slain in the bungalow in Pattani.

Arduenan is convinced that the Thai military killed his nephew. "I feel afraid, but I don't know how I can protect myself. If the police and military come back here, I'll hide," he says.

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