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Southern Thailand's Turmoil Grows

Southern Thailand's Turmoil Grows

Author: Thomas Fuller
Publication: The New York Times
Date: September 4, 2009

The soldiers patrolling this hamlet racked by insurgent violence measure their progress modestly: two years ago, when villagers saw them coming, they closed their shutters. Now, they say, most residents peer out of their wood-frame houses and offer strained smiles.

"The local people have started to open their hearts," said Capt. Niran Chaisalih, the leader of a government paramilitary force garrisoned at the village school.

Paka Lue Song, only a 15-minute drive from the provincial capital, Pattani, is a starting point for Thailand's influx of troops into the country's troubled southern provinces, where ethnic Malay Muslims are battling for autonomy from Thailand's Buddhist majority.

The number of people in security forces, including the army, the police and militias, in the region has doubled over the past two years to about 60,000, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a leading expert on the insurgency and the associate dean at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani.

The huge increase in security forces initially helped reduce the violence as well as the death toll, which fell by 40 percent last year. But the number of killings has risen in recent months. More than 330 people have been killed so far this year, compared with 285 in the same period last year. Among the dead are civilians - including many Malays - soldiers and insurgents.

There have been so many killings in the three southern provinces - about 3,500 since 2004 - that the government began distributing a glossy brochure last year guiding victims' families through the process of applying for government compensation.

Although the insurgency has been active for decades in the south, the current phase is considered particularly dangerous because the militants appear to have more of an Islamist agenda and because apparently sectarian attacks have strained the mutual tolerance between Buddhists and Muslims. It also comes at a time of deep political turmoil and social unease in Thailand that has hobbled several governments in the last three years and last year drove away many of the tourists who help sustain the country's economy.

The surge in troops is palpable across the three southern provinces, only a few hours' drive from Thailand's main tourist beaches. There is now the equivalent of one soldier or police officer for every seven households. Soldiers in Humvees patrol the main roads, and police and military checkpoints screen motorists every few miles.

Sa-nguan Indrarak, the president of a federation of schoolteachers in the south, questions whether the army's presence has been worth the $3.2 billion that the government has spent in the south over the past five years. (Teachers, obvious symbols of the Thai state, have been prime targets in the insurgency, with 95 killed since 2004.) Troops should leave and the government should train local security forces, who have a better understanding of the terrain, Mr. Sa-nguan argues.

Soldiers are resented in part because they behave inappropriately around both mosques and Buddhist temples, drinking, dancing and flirting, he said. But there have also been reports of human rights abuses; in January, Amnesty International published a report saying security forces "systemically engage in torture" - including using electric shocks - in their attempts to gather information and to force communities into withholding or withdrawing support for the rebels.

The insurgency has been distinct from other rebel movements in the region because the perpetrators remain shadowy, ill-defined groups that do not claim responsibility for the violence. Experts say they believe that the aims of the groups, among them the Pattani Islamic Mujahedeen Movement and the National Revolution Front-Coordinate, are to drive Buddhists from the area, discredit the government and put into place strict Islamic laws.

Although they say they believe that some financing for the groups comes from abroad, several counterterrorism experts in Thailand and elsewhere discount significant connections with other militant movements, like Al Qaeda and the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah. The movement here, they say, appears to involve a localized struggle over territory and control overlaid with historical resentment over the domination of the Thai state.

Malay Muslims make up about 80 percent of the 1.7 million people living in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala Provinces.

The ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup in 2006 raised hopes that the generals who took over, including several senior Muslim officials, would be more conciliatory than Mr. Thaksin, who had blamed bandits for the violence and oversaw a hard-line policy toward the area. But despite an unprecedented apology for Mr. Thaksin's iron-fisted policies by a military-installed prime minister, the insurgency has ground on.

In Paka Lue Song, a village considered dangerous enough that local journalists refuse to enter it, army medics are trying to win over villagers by giving them free medical treatment. As soldiers prepared to walk through the village on a recent day, one raised the antenna of a radio to hear a dispatcher issue a bulletin: a police officer had been ambushed in Yala Province.

The soldiers proceeded on their mission, handing out vitamin C to children.

Second Lt. Pongpayap Petwisai, a 27-year-old army doctor, walked through the village prescribing medication for eye infections, dispensing balms for aching muscles and monitoring blood pressure.

"What we are trying to do is get people on our side," said Dr. Pongpayap, who was partly inspired to become a doctor by the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan."

More recently, the government has also stepped up its program of providing weapons to local militias and "village guards," especially in Buddhist enclaves. These volunteers now number about 71,000, according to Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, who monitors the insurgency for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent deadly conflicts.

She said she feared that the program could backfire, leading to vigilante killings if the weapons fell into the wrong hands.

Those who cooperate with the military are already at risk of being attacked by insurgents.

In Paka Lue Song, Dr. Pongpayap examined the injured hand of Gade Yusoh, a 57-year-old rubber tapper who soldiers said had been helpful to them.

Gunmen suspected of being insurgents fired into Mr. Gade's house one evening three months ago while he was watching television. "I'm not afraid," he said. His nervous laugh suggested otherwise.

It remains unclear if the programs aimed at winning the hearts and minds of villagers - a standard counterinsurgency practice - are working. When this reporter toured a neighboring village without the army medical team, local officials heaped scorn on the government initiative.

"They just want a photo opportunity," said one local government official, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution by the army. Other criticism has been more public. Outside a village Dr. Pongpayap visited, graffiti appeared the day after.

"Don't come back here," it said. "If you shoot one of us, we will shoot two of you."

Nice Pojanamesbaanstit contributed reporting.

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