Aaron Goodman is a video journalist who specializes in reporting about international humanitarian issues. Goodman's previous story for FRONTLINE/World reported on those affected by the decade-long civil war in Nepal. He has also covered stories from Sri Lanka for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He currently lives in Bangkok where he is filming a series of documentaries about Asia.
The conflict in Southern Thailand may be one of the least known in the world. But news of shootings and bombings by Muslim insurgents fighting government forces makes the headlines virtually every day here. For the last three years, Muslim militants have been fighting to create a separate state in the region and more than 2,000 people have been killed.
At first, militants targeted police stations and army posts. But in more recent attacks, dozens of teachers have been killed and more than 100 schools burned. Insurgents have also killed Buddhist monks, and in some of the worst hit areas, the Thai government has been arming civilians for their own protection.
I recently traveled to the south to find out what's being done to stop the violence. Unlike many conflicts, virtually all relief organizations have stayed away because of the risks. The Thai government has been battling the insurgents militarily but has offered little humanitarian aid to civilians.
I met Soraya Jamjuree, a lecturer at Prince Songkhla University in the southern province of Pattani. She leads a team of Muslim university students, who travel to remote villages across the south to offer support to those caught up in the violence. Her group is called Friends of Victimized Families, and it receives support from the Canadian government. Many families she visits have lost husbands, brothers and sons to the violence, and it's the women and children left behind that Soraya's group tries to help.
While traveling with her to report this story, I witnessed the worst coordinated attack in the history of the conflict. One evening last February, militants set off close to 30 bombs in restaurants, karaoke bars and gas stations, killing six people and wounding more than 60.
When the attacks started, Soraya and her group had stopped to pray at Pattani's Central Mosque. I stood outside and watched two massive blasts light up the sky. Among the targets, militants had bombed the main power station, and the city was plunged into darkness. People fled the mosque in panic and began to race home.
The Roots of the Conflict
Thailand's deep south has the look and feel of a very different country. People here share closer ties with neighboring Malaysia -- everything from Malay food and architecture to clothing and, of course, religion. More than 80 percent of Thailand's three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are Muslim. Many who live here say they are discriminated against by the Buddhist central government in Bangkok.
For hundreds of years, the region had been an independent kingdom, but Thailand took direct control of the area in 1902. Since then, a separatist struggle has simmered. In the 1960s, insurgent violence soared, but within 10 years, amnesty deals ended the bloodshed. Bangkok promised to improve ties with the south. But many feel little has changed.
The local language -- a Malay dialect called Yawi -- is barred from government offices and banned from being taught in public schools, where many Muslim children have been forced to bow to statues of the Buddha. In addition, the economic boom that transformed Bangkok into a modern city has not spread to the south.
In 2004, Muslim militants from at least four known rebel groups reignited the separatist cause. While not all the groups share the same goals, they share a common agenda of independence from Thailand. To date, none has claimed responsibility for the attacks and the authorities admit they know little about how the militants operate. They also cannot claim much success in stopping the violence.
Earlier this year, Thailand's defense minister, General Boonrawd Somtas told the government that there are as many as 10,000 fighters ready to take up the militant cause. With 30,000 soldiers and police dispatched to the region, Somtas admitted: "We do not know them. As long as they mingle with ordinary people, it's difficult to tell them apart."
Many analysts believe the insurgency remains an internal conflict, but some claim that Muslim teachers trained in Pakistan and the Middle East have imported a radical form of Islam into Thailand.
The conflict may have already spread to Bangkok. Last December, nine bombs exploded across the city, killing three people and wounding nearly 30. Experts later claimed the bombs were the same type as those used by militants in the south, although officials have never pointed the finger directly at southern insurgents. Observers now warn that unless Bangkok finds a quick way to end the crisis peacefully, groups such as al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah will take hold in the country, as they have done in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Before I left the south, I asked Soraya how she thought her work with both Muslim and Buddhist victims of the violence could help change the situation in the region.
"When violence happens, maybe the victim's family wants to take revenge if they know who killed their husband or their son," she told me. "I think we can reduce their pain, reduce their sadness and stop them from taking revenge. If we have success in this way, maybe we can stop the violence. Not now, but in the future."
-- Aaron Goodman