Civil Unrest in Southern Thailand Has Local Roots

Associated Press Writer

Displaying the hallmarks of a sophisticated military assault, the raiders cut off local communications, torched 21 schools almost simultaneously, attacked an army camp and made off with weapons, then left booby traps on their escape routes to avoid capture.

The Jan. 4 attack sparked fears that international terrorism had finally struck in this Muslim-dominated region of southern Thailand. This year , 55 people have died in violence that the government blames on separatists. And just last weekend, a bomb on a motorcycle exploded outside a bar, injuring about 30 people.Thai officials are warning of links between southern Muslims and offshoots of Al Qaeda. And they are checking backgrounds of southern Thais who may have received training -- and ideology -- in places like Afghanistan.

But violence in the south springs from local roots that predate the advent of organizations like Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Deep distrust of the government, relative poverty, connections to underworld crime and Muslims’ desire for their own island in a sea of Buddhists appear to be among the tangle of motives behind growing unrest.

Stark differences between the Muslim and Buddhist worlds can be seen in places like Boh Tong, a village in Pattani province where the main road divides a ramshackle Islamic community from a comfortable Buddhist neighborhood.


Boh Tong’s Muslim children study at the local school and live in corrugated metal shanties built on stilts and haphazardly stacked against each other. Their poor parents own small shops and work odd jobs.

Most of the Buddhist children, who live in neat homes with gated yards, travel to better schools in the provincial capital of Pattani. Their parents are civil servants with steady income and social status.

Although Muslims make up 85% of the region’s population, only 15% to 30% have jobs in government or the police.

“They’ve been treated as second-class citizens for a long time,” said schoolteacher Wachirapan Pupong, a Buddhist.

As elsewhere in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces bordering Islamic Malaysia, the Muslims of Boh Tong generally speak the Malay dialect of Yawi with one another, using heavily accented Thai only when the need arises. Thai Buddhists rarely know the local language.

Despite such differences, southern Thailand has been spared the religious and communal violence that racks countries like India. The Muslims form a largely peaceful, conservative community, and Thailand is a generally tolerant society.

However, the south is on the religious dividing line between Buddhist mainland Southeast Asia to the north and Islamic Malaysia and Indonesia to the south. The four southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Satun have Malay ties going back centuries and were only incorporated into Thailand in the 1800s.

Separatist longings and feelings that Muslims are not part of mainstream Thailand run deep.

Although more open attitudes have surfaced over the last decade -- such as the lifting of a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves -- memories persist of ham-fisted government policies and the “dirty war” waged on an Islamic separatist movement that ended when most of the 20,000 rebels gave up arms after a 1987 amnesty.

Even senior government officials express fears that harsh methods used by security forces to track down the latest rebels could backfire, widening their now-limited popular support and increasing chances that their tenuous links with international terrorist networks will broaden.

Perayot Rahimulla, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University in the south, says many of the so-called Muslim terrorists are just part of the south’s vast, lucrative criminal world, which includes arms smuggling, prostitution, gambling, illegal oil sales and drug trafficking -- and also involves police and other officials.

“They do not have the ideology of international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda,” he said, although a handful have fought alongside Muslim militants in Afghanistan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Many southern Muslims look to the Islamic world in general rather than northward to the Thai heartland, either because they are handicapped within the education system and job market, or because they feel more comfortable culturally in other Muslim societies.

Thousands have left to study in the Middle East, where some acquire the ethos if not ideology and hardware of Islamic militancy, and further distance themselves from their Buddhist neighbors on return.

Among some, the divide starts earlier in life.

On the steps leading to the women’s prayer room of Pattani’s central mosque, three young girls sat weaving a jump rope. They chatted in their mother tongue.

When a reporter approached, a 5-year-old asked in Thai, “Are you Thai or Muslim?” Asked the same question in return, the girls said they were Muslim.

“But you speak Thai. Aren’t you also Thai?”

No, no, no, they replied, giggling at the absurdity of the question and reminding the visitor that “Thais” -- meaning Buddhists -- aren’t allowed to pray in the mosque.