Violence tests soft strategy in Thailand's Muslim south

Six months after seizing power and pledging a new, conciliatory strategy to tackle violence in the Muslim-dominated south, Thailand's military rulers are struggling to stay the course.

A spike in brutal attacks on Buddhist and Muslim civilians has inflamed communal tensions and piled pressure on overstretched security forces to stem the killings, which authorities blame on separatist rebels. The death toll has risen sharply this year after a lull in the aftermath of the Sept. 19 coup. Last month was among the deadliest on record after 28 coordinated bombings struck Chinese New Year celebrations across four provinces.

The violence puts Thailand's military-installed government in a quandary: Wielding a heavy hand against an underground insurgency could further alienate Muslims whose support is crucial to rooting out rebels. But failing to stop brazen attacks on Buddhists undercuts the new regime's legitimacy and its promise of a peaceful solution to the conflict. About 95 percent of Thailand's 64 million people are Buddhist, but in the south, they are an embattled, dwindling minority.

The March 15 execution-style murders of nine Buddhist bus passengers – the Muslim driver was spared by the gunmen after he reportedly knelt to pray – sparked national outrage and rallies in several cities. Protesters held signs urging greater protection for Thais against "terrorists" in the south. In turn, Muslims were riled by apparent revenge attacks, including a bomb attack outside a mosque and a deadly tea-shop shooting, that occurred on the same day as the bus massacre.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired Army commander, has acknowledged that interfaith tensions are straining his conciliatory stance. He told reporters on a March 21 visit to the area that he was concerned by the rift between communities. "We will have to find the cause of these misunderstandings and fix them," he said.

Analysts say that he has little choice, if a political solution is to emerge from the violence. The insurgents are "trying to send a message. They don't accept a soft or peaceful approach from the government. Their message is that this policy is a failure," says Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.

Mr. Surayud has won praise for his willingness to admit and correct past mistakes – including a public apology for the deaths of 78 Muslim men in Army custody in 2004 and increased compensation paid to victims' families. He has also ordered the release of suspects on bail in high-profile cases and told security forces to use peaceful means in resolving disputes.

But despite the best efforts of the new Thai leadership, the fighting has led to the deaths of some 2,100 people since 2004. Of those, more than 400 have died since the September coup.

But parallel efforts to broker peace talks with insurgent groups, an initiative supported by neighboring Malaysia, have run aground. Analysts say the splintered insurgency is either incapable or unwilling to enter formal negotiations.

Behind the insurgency is a century of smoldering resentment against Thai rule. Once part of a Muslim sultanate, the area was formally annexed in 1909. Since then, successive rebellions have flared and fizzled, fed by claims of systematic discrimination against ethnic-Malay Muslims whose faith, language, and culture span both sides of the land border with Malaysia.

Given these longstanding grievances, analysts say it will take time for Surayud's conciliatory gestures to bear fruit. Security officers say they are beginning to build trust in some communities, a crucial step toward isolating hard-core insurgents said to number in the low thousands. More than 20,000 soldiers are deployed in the south, and military chiefs have promised to add more troops in the coming months.

Muslim community leaders say they welcome the new government's fresh approach, but have yet to see it translate into actions on the ground. They complain that security forces continue to indiscriminately harass and detain Muslims after attacks, adding to a sense of injustice and frustration. "Muslim people want to cooperate with the government. But their trust has been destroyed," says Ahmad Somboon Bualuang, a former member of a government peace panel.

Last year, after receiving death threats, Mr. Bualuang began locking his front door for the first time. Nowadays, he keeps his distance from Buddhist friends. "I tell them, 'We can still meet each other, but at night please don't come to my house,' " he says.

Even in the relative safety of Bualuang's urban neighborhood in Pattani, the bustling provincial capital, away from the rural "red zone" where insurgent attacks are common, the conflict has crept into everyday life.

Fear and paranoia are also more palpable. In nearby Yaha district, a blanket of silence descends over the daily killings, and digging into the truth is a risky proposition that most villagers shun.

Last week in Yaha, Mat Uma sat cradling his youngest son in his lap as relatives and friends gathered at his house to mourn the loss of his son-in-law. A week earlier, Mr. Uma had been working at his roadside tea shop, a short drive away, when a pickup truck pulled up outside. Witnesses say a group of masked men jumped from the truck and fired indiscriminately into a crowd of about 25 men inside the shop.

Among the dead was Uma's son-in-law, Ahmad Sukri, and two other local men. Ten other victims were taken to a hospital with gunshot wounds. Earlier in the evening, talk at the tea shop had turned to the day's news of the bus massacre.

Uma says he doesn't want to think about whether his family was a victim of a revenge attack or who might have been behind it. "Today we don't know who is who ... I think if the situation carries on like this, the government won't solve the problem. Good people will die, and the bad people will be sitting and laughing," he says.

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