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In Thailand, a New Model for Militants?

Times Staff Writer

The bomb that exploded outside New Cherry Ancient Massage was among the most sinister kinds -- a lethal sucker punch timed to detonate moments after two other blasts had lured onlookers into the streets of this tourist town.

The homemade device, hidden in a motorcycle parked outside the busy parlor, killed five people, including a Canadian teacher and three masseuses.

All 30 surviving massage workers quit on the spot. Within days, the parents of the three dead women came to take their daughters’ bodies home.

“One father asked, ‘Why my child? She was a good girl,’ ” said New Cherry owner Boonchai Sangmankung. “And I couldn’t answer him. I don’t know myself. Why do the attacks continue? Why are more innocent people killed every day?”

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Since 2004, militants in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim south have waged a bloody separatist insurgency against the cultural elite of this largely Buddhist nation, targeting teachers, monks, community leaders and government officials. So far, 1,700 people have been killed, yet the campaign of almost-daily bombings, arson attacks, kidnappings and assassinations has gone largely unnoticed in a Western world fixated on higher-profile Islamic terrorism campaigns in Iraq and elsewhere.

“The violence in southern Thailand is quite significant compared to many other world conflicts today,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The U.S. lost 3,000 soldiers in three years in Iraq. This death toll is not far behind.”

International terrorism experts are keeping a close eye on southern Thailand’s guerrilla war, believing that the attacks could become a blueprint for small insurgencies in the post9/11 world. The strategy of incessant low-level attacks against civilians could be imitated by other regional militants, they say.

Experts also fear that the insurgents could soon be joined by international terrorists slipping across Thailand’s porous borders, bringing money, expertise and manpower.

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“It’s important that this regional war not escalate,” said John Brandon, director of the Asia Foundation’s international relations program. “The world cannot afford this war to become ripe for outside terror influences to take advantage of it.”

A recent State Department report concluded that there was no evidence of any connection between the militants and global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah, based in Southeast Asia.

“There is concern, however, that these groups may attempt to capitalize on an increasingly violent situation for their own purposes,” the report stated.

Under Thai rule since 1902, Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, the three Muslim-dominated provinces at the heart of the violence, are distinct from the rest of Thailand. The people speak a different language -- a Malay dialect -- and observe a strict Muslim lifestyle not far from the jet-set crowd sprawled on the sandy beaches of Phuket, a draw for U.S. and European tourists.

Many Muslim residents still chafe over what they consider a century of abusive rule. But experts differ over the roots of the insurgency. Some say it’s a battle over religious freedom, others say it’s a fight for territory and self-rule. Still others say it’s both.

But the tensions have filled daily life in Thailand’s south with newfound risks -- walking children to school, shopping in an outdoor market, driving at night.

In the first six months of 2006, two people died every day, on average: A Buddhist teacher was gunned down in front of his fourth-grade class by men dressed as students. A salesman was beheaded outside a crowded teashop. The owner of an elephant troupe was shot seven times by assailants who had lined up with children to buy tickets for a show.

In August, 22 small bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in banks throughout southern Yala province, killing one person and bringing commerce to a standstill. Two months earlier, 50 bombs went off in a single day at government offices and police stations.

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Last year, 15 militants stormed a Buddhist temple and hacked two monks to death before setting fire to their bodies. Thai officials believe that 30,000 Buddhists have fled the south since the attack. Insurgents also have targeted fellow Muslims suspected of conspiring with a military known for its brutality in dealing with the Islamic militants.

For their part, Thai officials claim to be fighting a ghost insurgency: The killers don’t issue claims of responsibility for their acts. Officials have little clue about the identity of the attackers. About 20,000 troops in the region have yet to arrest any insurgency leaders.

“The nation’s best military intelligence concedes we are waging a war on ghosts,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University. “We don’t have a clue as to who their leaders are or what they want.”

Terrorism experts believe that the insurgency is led by a coalition of regional groups, including the National Revolutionary Front Coordinate and the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, which are vying for control of the region.

The two groups have developed cells in most southern villages and have their pick of disenfranchised youths eager to take part in the violence. But neither claims to control all of the region’s militants, saying that religious splinter groups, warlords and business and political rivalries also play a role in the attacks.

“People on the street may know who is responsible, they may even know them, but everyone is too afraid to say anything aloud, or even speak in private about the attacks,” Srisompob said. “That, to me, is the mark of a successful insurgency.”

Mahkota Kasturi, a PULO foreign affairs spokesman in exile in Sweden, said Thai officials “know who we are and where we are, but they are reluctant to come to the table. Perhaps they do not feel they need to negotiate with so-called terrorists.”

Experts say the militants eventually want to create an autonomous Muslim state in southern Thailand, where residents have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens, enduring the erosion of their language and culture. None of the three southern provinces, where Muslims make up 80% of the 1.8 million residents, has ever had a Muslim governor, they point out.

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Mahkota said separatists seek to disrupt Thai society as a way to win freedom. “The killings and the violence will continue until we reach our goal -- and that is independence,” he said.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed last month in a coup, had recently struck hard against the insurgents, imposing martial law that brought allegations of torture and counter-assassinations.

In 2004, nearly 200 Muslims were killed by security forces. First, 32 militants died during the storming of a mosque in April. Six months later, a military crackdown on a demonstration against martial law at a regional police station killed scores. Seventy-eight men suffocated after being stacked five-deep into sweltering army trucks.

Thaksin has been replaced by Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, a Muslim who has pushed for a more conciliatory stance toward the insurgents. But within a week of the coup, attacks had killed four people and injured more than a dozen.

Experts doubt that the regime change will bring peace.

“If anything, they may step up attacks in an attempt to provoke a heavy-handed government response,” said Zachary Abuza, a terrorism expert who has written a soon-to-be published book on the Thai insurgency. “The secessionist agenda operates on a time frame that you and I don’t understand. For them, 30 years is not a long time.”

The scope of the violence has widened since 2004. At first targeting civil servants, soldiers and police officers, militants soon included restaurants and businesses serving the military. Then monks and teachers came under fire; the death toll now stands at 49 teachers and six monks. Many attacks have been staged by men using motorcycles for quick escape. Bombs are usually detonated by cellphone.

Insurgents have made teaching the most dangerous job in southern Thailand.

In July, while his fourth-graders looked on, Prasarn Martchu was shot in the back as he stood at his blackboard instructing a morning class at a rural school in Narathiwat province.

Principal Adul Jekyeng said Prasarn had taught for 25 years and was a leader in the local teachers union. He said four men rode up on motorcycles and passed several classrooms before they found Prasarn.

“He never saw his killers,” Adul said. “They shot an unarmed teacher in the back. He had no gun, no weapon, only a piece of chalk.”

Educators say teachers are seen by insurgents as authority figures and targeted because they are easy to find. Many, such as Phairat Saengthong, are fighting back.

The regional school director recently flew to Bangkok to buy a 9-millimeter pistol.

“This is the model the U.S. soldiers carry,” he said proudly, pointing the weapon around the room.

“Today, 90% of male teachers carry guns such as this, and even 30% of the women, which shows how fearful we have become. I may be a Buddhist, but now I too carry a gun. And I am not afraid to use it.”

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her home in a rural village in Pattani province, Chitra Ngen-Moon said she felt trapped in the crossfire between rebels and soldiers.

Her 29-year-old son, Anek, was killed last year. Friends found his beheaded body soon after he disappeared while on his rounds as the local tax collector. He is one of 10 men who have been killed in the village of 400 residents.

Holding a photo of her son, the 70-year-old woman vowed that one day she would know who was responsible.

“When all of this violence is over, I want to know who cut off the head of my son,” she said. “I want to see these barbaric people with my own eyes. But I am an old woman. Now I am too afraid to ask questions.”

Nearby, at the Krue Se mosque in Pattani, site of the deadly 2004 storming by the military, Haji Niseng Nilaeh said he did not approve of the violence being waged by either side.

“Every day, people die -- it makes me unhappy,” said the 77-year-old Muslim elder, dressed in a traditional tunic and sarong. “But the insurgents are not only killing Buddhists, they are killing fellow Muslims now as well. No one is safe.”

john.glionna@latimes.com


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