The separatist battles that keep southern Thailand off the tourist trail
Thai soldiers on motorcycles in Pattani state. Carlos Nizam / Flickr.com
Southern Thailand isn’t the same Thai escape tourists envision, but the spectre of ethnic and religious unrest is one that far too many people readily understand.
Not far from Thailand’s tourist beaches, Muslims and Buddhists are locked in a struggle in which thousands have died.
The young father walked slowly down the road, his face expressionless, as a light rain fell. In his arms he held the lifeless body of his 11-month-old daughter, killed just hours before when the tea shop in his village was sprayed with automatic gunfire that left six people dead.
Fellow residents of the Muslim Damabuah Village in Thailand’s Narathiwat Province walked behind in silence, while men and women from the security forces lined the road clutching rifles.
A few minutes later, the infant was laid to rest in a shallow, muddy hole under a mangosteen tree in the village cemetery, beside the newly dug graves of two other victims of the tea shop shooting.
Infami Samoh’s death, a couple of hundred miles from the tourist playgrounds of Ko Samui and Phuket, was shocking only because of her age. The 11-month-old was one of the youngest of nearly 5,400 people who have been killed in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand in the past eight years.
More than 9,500 have been injured since 2004, when the long-festering grievances of the majority Muslim population in the region erupted into outright guerrilla war against the overwhelmingly Buddhist Thai state.
With more than 20 million visitors a year and tourism contributing an estimated six per cent of the country’s GDP, Thailand is fiercely protective of its reputation as the Land of Smiles. But the deep south is a different world, the beaches deserted, foreign visitors non-existent.
Instead, the area is under a form of emergency law that gives special powers to the 150,000 soldiers, police and local militias deployed in the region.
Military convoys rumble through the towns and villages, checkpoints dominate the roads, while mobile phones are frequently jammed to prevent the insurgents using them to set off bombs, 2,500 of which have been planted since 2004.
About 80 per cent of the 1.8 million people living in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala that border Malaysia in the south are ethnic Malay Muslims. They speak Malay as their first language and many want their own state, as the region once was hundreds of years ago.
“The land here was colonised by the Thais. In the past, we were a country, the Sultanate of Pattani. We want to take it back. We don’t want to be part of Thailand or Malaysia; we want to have our own country,” a senior representative of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), one of the two main insurgent groups, told The Daily Telegraph.
Now, appalling acts of violence such as the tea shop massacre have become commonplace in the region, as a relentless wave of revenge attacks by Buddhists and Muslims fuel the conflict.
Gruesome tit-for-tat killings occur daily, with victims gunned down or beheaded in the rubber plantations that dominate the local economy.
Buddhist monks are confined to their temples, able to leave only under armed guard lest they be attacked, while mosques are riddled with bullet holes after being targets.
A few hours after Infami Samoh died, five Muslim gunmen walked into a school canteen in Pattani Province and shot dead the Buddhist headmaster and a Buddhist teacher in front of their pupils.
More than 150 Buddhist teachers have been murdered since 2004, but the killings have increased recently, while hundreds of schools have been burnt down because they are regarded as symbols of the Thai state by the separatists.
Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, made a rare visit to the region last month to meet representatives of local teachers. Before her visit, separatists distributed leaflets saying “This war isn’t over. Don’t count the teachers’ corpses just yet”.
Ranged against the Thai security forces are an estimated 12,500 to 15,000 separatists. “We are normal people. We’re rubber tappers, rice farmers, small business owners, teachers. We are present in every village in the deep south,” said the PULO representative, a well-spoken middle-aged man who asked not to be named, or for the location of the interview to be revealed.
Along with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), the other main separatist group, PULO operates in the shadows, rarely issuing statements or demands. At the same time, Thai politicians and the media play down the insurgency, the most violent internal conflict in south-east Asia, according to the International Crisis Group think tank.
Last month, Chalerm Yabamrung, the deputy prime minister, refused to accept a new report by the Australian Institute for Economics and Peace that said five per cent of all global terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2009 occurred in Thailand. “Thailand is not yet the land of terrorism because we are a Buddhist country,” said Mr Chalerm.
Yet, it is the imposition of Buddhist and Thai culture on the deep south that is many claim is driving the insurgency.
“Our children are taught only Thai in school, but we all speak Malay. They have to learn about Buddhism as part of the Thai curriculum, but we are Muslims,” said one man in Pattani Town.
Above all, many Muslims complain of human rights abuses by the security forces, in particular the paramilitary rangers known as the black army because of their all-black uniforms.
In Damabuah Village, known as a hotbed of BRN-C activity, relations of the victims of the tea shop massacre had no doubt who was responsible – although their belief is contested by the Thais.
“There are black army checkpoints at each end of the village which the killers had to pass through,” said Shukri Nikmea, whose father died in the attack. “You draw your own conclusions on who did it.”