The shots rang out at night, the deadliest time in Thailand's lawless south. The victims were Muslim schoolboys, apparently sprayed with bullets by unseen assailants as they lay in their huts at a rural boarding school.
By morning, with two boys dead, an angry crowd gathered at the red-dirt road to the school. Tree trunks and oil drums blocked Thai soldiers from entering. A cellphone video, provided to the Monitor, showed soldiers firing warning shots to disperse the crowd that had swelled to about 500. But the soldiers faced a delicate challenge: Across the barricade stood scores of defiant Muslim women with young children behind them.
As the conflict deepens in the Muslim-dominated south, women are mobilizing to defend communities and bar government investigators from crime scenes. They are also staging frequent protests over detention of suspected insurgents. In response, Thailand has begun training some 200 female rangers and police to negotiate with women protesters. Thai forces are reluctant to wade into a crowd of Muslim women for fear of provoking a riot or being accused of abuses. Even if protests fizzle, they yield provocative media images of soldiers confronting veiled Muslim women.
But militants sometimes don burqas and direct women from behind the front lines, say officials, who believe that a female wing is now active in many insurgent-run villages. "It's a set-up, it's been planned. Most of the women are wives and relatives of the insurgents, not the victims," says Chidchanok Rahimmula, a professor of political science at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, who tracks the conflict in the south.
Countering this tactic isn't easy. Efforts to recruit more Muslim women have been thwarted in many cases by anonymous threats to their families, says Col. Pakorn Juntarachota, a ranger commander. Of 40 Muslim applicants, only half joined the first intake of 132 female rangers. "We wanted the majority to be Muslims, but it's hard. Their parents are wary," he says.
Intelligence officials say that the mobilization of women, while fueled by genuine anger over incidents such as the March 17 shootings in Pian, is being manipulated by militants, part of an ongoing psychological battle in this contested area.
In several cases, police released suspects to placate protesters, to the dismay of Buddhist villagers who are prime targets for insurgents.
Ethnic-Malay Muslims in southern Thailand have long griped at their treatment by Bangkok-appointed officials, and their alienation has fed past separatist rebellions. The current insurgency began in 2004 and has claimed more than 2,100 lives in four southern provinces, frustrating authorities who have sent in more than 20,000 soldiers without managing to stem the violence. In recent months, the conflict has intensified.
In Pian, female protesters dispute officials' claims, though none were prepared to be named for fear of reprisals.
They say the crowd grew spontaneously from the school and village, where rumors spread overnight that Thai troops were behind the killings. Protesters say they feared the Army would plant evidence at the school to prove it was an insurgent base, as officials had alleged, and close it. Troops had searched the school late last year, without arrests.
Nobody told them to assemble at the road, the women say, though it was clear that they would front the protest. "It's psychological," says an elderly villager. "With women standing there, the soldiers don't dare to come closer. If we use our men, the soldiers will turn violent."
School principal Haji Abdullah Chelah, who stayed at the school during the standoff, says the incident shocked the community, and nobody was willing to trust the security forces. A compromise was reached after three days to allow officials to examine the scene with Pornthip Rojanasunan – a prominent government forensics scientist who has campaigned against injustice in the south – as a mediator and witness.
"I don't know who would do this [shooting]. But I believe it's not carried out by Muslims. We help local people; we take care of their children," Mr. Chelah says. The traditional Islamic school, or pondok, has 150 male and female boarders and charges annual fees of under $10.
By the time police investigators reached the scene, a cluster of bamboo huts pockmarked with apparent bullet holes, the evidence had already been moved by locals to another site. The slain boys had been buried the next day, in accordance with Muslim custom, and no photos were taken of their wounds. That makes it more difficult to identify the weapons used and determine where the gunmen were standing, says Ms. Pornthip.
That, say observers, could be the point.
By keeping out authorities, militants tighten their grip on fearful communities and ensure that crimes go unsolved. This breeds more mistrust of authorities, who have successfully prosecuted only a handful of murder cases since the insurgency began.
In this psychological war against Bangkok's rule, female protesters play a vital role. "They force them to join and the women don't have a choice. We have to expose this and get the facts out," says a Thai intelligence officer.
Rupeeya Dumalee has made her choice. She is among the Muslim recruits to the new female rangers unit and has been trained to handle crowds, talk down angry protesters, and fire an automatic weapon. Until last year, she was a college secretary. Today she wears black fatigues, combat boots, a purple-and-black neck scarf, and earns $275 a month.
Earlier this month, Ms. Rupeeya's unit was sent to a Muslim village where women and children had blocked soldiers from searching for two suspects. At first, the women mocked her and asked why she didn't wear a head scarf (ranger uniforms may soon include them). Others refused to talk. But after a week, the women softened, and some invited Ms. Rupeeya to their homes. After two weeks, the wanted men were handed over to authorities, and the rangers headed back to their base.
Ms. Rupeeya, who says her family supports her, believes the female protesters are victims of brainwashing that can be reversed. "My job is to negotiate," she says. "I think they will listen to me because I'm a Muslim and we speak the same language."