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Thailand’s Simmering Buddhist-Muslim Tensions


We went to a funeral in a Buddhist temple.
The village chief had been killed that morning. Praying for murder victims is becoming a familiar
ritual in southern Thailand. All Buddhists are potential targetsIn the last five months
there’ve been six shootings just in this village, four of them fatal. The violence isn’t restricted
to this area. All across the south hundreds of people have been killed in the last twelve
months. The government blames Islamic separatists and has declared martial law in the south.
Trouble is, they’re not sure who they’re fighting. Thailand’s three southernmost provinces used
to belong to Malaysia till they were annexed a century ago. Though Thailand is a predominantly
Buddhist country, 90 per cent of the population here is Muslim. Southern Muslims have long
complained of being treated like second-class citizens. Now they feel like enemies in their
own country. We’re entering Tak Bai, which is normally a fairly sleepy city, but a few
weeks ago an event happened here that changed everything. In October, hundreds of Muslims
gathered outside this police station. The police had arrested a group of Muslim villagers
on charges of supplying militants with guns. Locals said the accusations were unfounded
and came to demonstrate. 1,300 people, men women and children came here to protest. Then
suddenly someone started to fire. Some of the protestors had thrown stones at the station.
The police responded with live ammunition. Six people were shot dead; the rest ran for
the river. The demonstrators were unarmed. As they ran here, the security forces rounded
them up, tied their hands behind their back and forced them to lie face down. Some of
the demonstrators drowned in the river. Others had their necks broken from beatings. In Thailand
showing this footage is illegal. It’s never been broadcast by the Thai media but bootlegged
copies are available in the markets and it’s been shown on Malaysian TV. 78 of these men
suffocated when they were piled into trucks and driven to an army base. Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra expressed regret — but stopped short of an apology. Mee-Noh was at
the market that morning. When she went to see what the demo was about, things turned
ugly. She was very scared. She started crawling towards the river. She
got into the water and tried to swim away from there. And then she could feel something
over her head. She looked up and a bullet going through her hair. So she swam back to
shore and hit behind a rock. What she remembers most are the dead people. She feels
pain. She feels sorrow for them. The seven people whose arrest sparked off this protest came from this village and six people
from here were killed that day. The villagers don’t like Prime Minister Thaksin’s government.
They believe it has taken power from local leaders and imposed western values on their
Muslim way of life. Masadee Yako’s brother Ade was shot dead at Tak Bai. Thai translationHe
said he got up that morning and did the same thing as every day. Then his mother said,
don’t you want to go to the protest? His brother had already gone. He went to Tak Bai. Then
he could head gunshots. He saw people fall to the ground and realised that these were
real bullets and people were being killed. Masadee, a father of five, is lucky to be
alive. Masadee was lying on the ground when the bullet entered his back here, went straight
through him and came out this side. He said he’s still in a lot of pain with this.He said
the Muslims were used to injustice but now things were worse than ever. He said the Thai
Muslims are treated differently to the Thai Buddhists in the rest of the country. He said
if you are a Buddhist you can get a good job and have a better way of life but if you are
a Muslim you can’t get a good job. And now resentment against state violence could help
insurgents win new recruits. Most of these people have lost relatives, husbands or fathers,
sons or brothers, and they’re staying together to give each other strength because afraid
if people are alone in their own houses they might commit suicide. Saleeha’s husband Makaseng
was shot in the head. At 27, she is bringing up four children alone. She said before they
married her husband served in the Thai army. Saleeha found out about her husband’s death
on the TV news and had to get the body herself. Now she is retreating into Islam for comfort. She said she thinks the south should split from Thailand and go under Malaysian rule.
Because if it belonged to Malaysia, it might be more peaceful. Prime Minister Thaksin decided
some response was needed to placate Muslim anger in the south. The kids are going nuts.100 million paper cranes were folded by Thais from all over the country
and airdropped on the south. A gesture of unity. Peace. Lots. Messages. Lots of people
seem to have sent messages. This is one that was send by a little girl from a kindergarten
in the centre of the country and she says: ‘I hope the peace comes back, we care about
your heart.’ Not everyone was impressed. Every night the insurgents are active. We’ve just heard that there’s
been an armed robbery and guns were stolen. We’re on our way to find out what’s happened. Masked assailants
had attacked civilian security guards at a fire station. It was a typical militant raid — speed in by motorbike, attack, then flee. Hundreds
of weapons have been stolen in the last 18 months from both army bases and civilians
who’ve been given rifles to protect their communities. The robbers came, put guns to
the security guards heads, handcuffed them, then stole the guns. At least that was their
story. But these days, the army doesn’t take anything at face value. The men are being
taken for further investigation. This is the kind of incident that sparked off Tak Bai.
Villager defence volunteers who had guns were accused of either selling them or giving them
to militants and were arrested. Their fellow villagers disagreed with this interpretation
and went to protest for their release and that’s when it all kicked off. We travelled
to Ai Ti Mung, a Buddhist village in the Sukhirin district. In November militants attacked the
village Deputy Chief and beheaded him. Sukhirin is surrounded by very dense jungle that makes
it very easy for assailants to creep in and out. The residents have set up a defence force
and the army has provided them with guns and training. Buddhists monasteries are now military
bases. Even monks have been killed in this conflict. The urn contained the ashes of the
Deputy Village Chief. A note beside his head said the killing was revenge for the Muslim
protesters killed at Tak Bai. If anyone witnessed the slaying, they’re not talking. We met the
Village Chief, Boonserm Petchuan. He said some people want separatism here. Some
people want to kill the Buddhists or make them leave this land so the three provinces
can be Muslim. He said it’s working in some places already because many people have left.He
believes Muslim neighbours are carrying out the attacks. He said the Islamic population
.. women can’t use birth control so they have a lot of children. Their families are big
and quite poor, there’s a lot of impoverishment and these young boys grow up and can’t get
a good job. So when these teenagers grow up and are offered money to do things they accept
it. And there are teenagers now who have been guided in this way for a long time. At least
three people have been beheaded since Tak Bai, apparently by Muslim insurgent groups.
Since the killers are still at large, everyone is under suspicion. Thai He said when we drove
in past the army checkpoint he was radioed and told that a strange vehicle was on the
way. They speak to each other by walkie talkie. That’s how paranoid everyone is here. The
Chief knows he could be next. He said the villagers need 24 hour security now and people
are even looking for permission to buy guns so they can protect themselves. Arrests are
rare. The security forces can’t detect any single organisation behind the killing. This
is a newly issued poster of the ‘most wanted’ suspects. According to this, ‘people who have
been making trouble in the south and are behind the killings. And some of these are specifically
linked to particular crimes like the killing of a judge or a student. They’re all Thai
citizens but the security forces think they may have already fled the country. Whether
the suspects are guilty or not, the attacks go on. We’ve just heard that a village chief
has been shot this morning. Apparently he was shot first and died a half an hour later.
Another assassination of a Buddhist official. A drive by shooting. The village chief was
shot over here. There’s a trail of blood as he started to crash on his motorbike. He came
as far as here and crashed into that area over there. As usual, the killers had escaped.
This is where he died. There was a pool of blood and there’s a tradition around here
for the relatives to burn the blood, that’s why it’s charred. Kliang Chankong was shot
a mile away from home. His wife said that even if their Muslim neighbours witnessed
the shooting they could say nothing for fear of being killed themselves.A few months earlier
the Buddhists in this village received leaflets warning them to get out. The Post M is being
carried out here outside the temple. And at the same time the body is being prepared for
the funeral. His wife and daughters are working along side army medics. Kliang’s father didn’t
expect justice for his son. And revenge wasn’t possible. He said if they wanted revenge they
wouldn’t know where to look for it because they don’t know who’s doing it. He said he
raised his son for 52 years for this. He said his tears are dry. The Buddhists feel abandoned
by the state. This is a daily occurrence now. Yesterday a teacher was shot, today the village
chief, and later we heard that an ice-cream seller was shot. State schools that teach
Buddhists and Muslims are targets. Dozens have been burned in arson attacks. half of
this school was burnt to the ground. Dozens of teachers, Muslim and Buddhist, have been
killed. Teachers and children travel under army escort. The 25,000 strong military presence
has not stopped the violence. We’ve just heard that a bomb has exploded in Rangae, a place
about half an hour from here. It’s too dangerous to drive there, it’s too late at night, we
don’t know what it might be like on the roads. Again, the perpetrators got away. We know
that a grenade or firebomb was thrown into an army patrol vehicle and at least three
or four soldiers have been hurt. None of the soldiers died — this time. It was the third
such attack in this particular district in two days. Neighbours were repairing shrapnel
damage.Because it’s rainy season, the soldiers were sheltering from a downburst. When it
eased off they came out here to patrol by a checkpoint, That’s where the bomb went off
and this is where the crater remains. Packed with nails and ball bearings for maximum damage,
the device was detonated by mobile phone. Off the record, security officials say the
militants may be linked to Jemaah Islamiah, the Indonesian group behind the Bali bombing.
Round here they are known as Asia’s wing of Al Qaeda. But there is no concrete evidence.
A mosque in Krue Se offered us a clue about Thailand’s shadowy militants. This is the
oldest mosque in the south. It’s a place of pilgrimage. In fact it’s seen as a little
Mecca. In April last year this was the scene of a bizarre martyrdom mission. A local cameraman
filmed the aftermath. Some thirty men from around the three provinces came here to pray.
They told locals they were going to wage holy war. Then, wearing headbands and wielding
knives, they attacked the police station. The police opened fire. The men ran back here,
took refuge in the mosque and a siege situation went on for a few hours. The Police didn’t
know who was behind the attack. When the men wouldn’t come out, the police fired on the
mosque and threw grenades on the mosque. 32 people died When the bodies were found, the
Police discovered that their attackers had been armed only with Holy Water and knives.
Hayeeniseng Nilae met the fighters during prayers in the mosque. He said he doesn’t
know why the men attacked the police station. They weren’t from here; nobody from here took
part in their raid. He doesn’t know if they had guns, he just saw them with knives. He
said they came back here again and the police surrounded the mosque and surround it for
hours, there are still scars on the mosque. He said he didn’t understand what the men
gave their lives for. He said he cannot say if they were martyrs or not, that depends
on their own beliefs. But he said they chose to die in this mosque. This wasn’t an isolated
incident. That same day, in Susho village an entire football team took part in a suicide
mission. Their method was identical to Krue Se. The footballers attacked this police station
wielding knives. They provoked the police who followed them down the road when the footballers
took refuge in this restaurant. They ran in here, crouched down in these alcoves. The
police opened fire and you can still see the bullet marks here. In all, 109 men died that
day. Martyrs’ graveyards are commonplace in Kashmir or Pakistan — in Thailand they are
something completely new. All these men were buried as shaheeds or martyrs. Whatever Godly
cause they died for, most of the men had abandoned earthly wives and families. We met the widow
of Ya Haskayae. Z is 23. She was only married for a year. She had the baby after her husband
died and she doesn’t want to talk about his death. She’s still not able to. This place
is full of sorrow. Lots of the families don’t understand what motivated their relatives
to go on a suicide mission. The baby’s name is Nur Shaheed – Light of the Martyr. Ya’s
father Salae doesn’t blame the police for shooting his son. He blames the people who
persuaded him to go on the mission — whoever they are. He said nobody’s explained to him
why Ya took part in these attacks. He’s spoken to his friends and they can’t explain either.
One thing all the men had in common is that they were very devout. ThaiHe said his son
was very religious and he also preached religion. He taught people at home. Like 70 per cent
of Southern Muslims, Ya had been educated at a strict private Islamic school. The government
is now connecting the insurgency to these schools. ‘We’ve just heard that the security
forces have tried to arrest a teacher who works at a private Islamic school. Apparently
he’s run away, but they’ve surrounded the school. The authorites arrested four Islamic
teachers that day. The Prime Minister said it was the beginning of a campaign to root
out the terrorist masterminds. The government believes that some teachers who studied in
other Muslim countries are importing Jihaddi ideas. Have you found anything here yet? Police:
Not yet, still looking. You’re still looking? For guns? So you think these guns, if there
are guns, may be connected to the violence? Yes. Schools are very much on the front line
here. Private Islamic secondary schools like this one are under increasing scrutiny because
the government believes that some teachers are preaching radical Islam and recruiting
militants. From this school alone one school has been arrested for shooting a soldier and
three more are on the run. For Bangkok, a crackdown on Islamic schools risks being interpreted
as an attack on Muslim identity. A backlash could drive thousands more into insurgency. Most of the evidence points towards the insurgents being local people organising
themselves spontaneously. Thank you Col Sam. The army is trying desperately to restore relations with the locals. They fear what’s
developing. So the soldiers have brought all these kids to
see us. Yeah.This is the way for the army to win hearts and minds and to secure the
trust of the people and to make them feel protected and as well as that they teach them
self-defence and how to use weapons.This is up to the law. Oh, it’s legal to possess it.Yes.
It’s easy to win over little kids by giving them sweets — unless they believe you’ve
killed their fathers. Col Sam expressed regret for the army’s massacre and mishandling of
demonstrators at Tak Bai. When do you think peace will be restored to the south? When?
Really hard to predict. But I can say that it’s better and better. The Col seems optimistic
but last year there were around 1000 violent incidents – ten times more than the year before.
Prime Minister Thaksin has ordered the army to be more aggressive.The Muslims are afraid
of the army. Everyone is in fear of the insurgents. In this age of globalised terrorism, it is
easy for the ghost warriors to manipulate the situation — whoever they are and wherever
they come from.

Jerry Heath

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