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Thailand Grapples With Deadly Tensions Between Muslims, Buddhists

February 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
At least 5,000 people have been killed since 2004 in Thailand's three southern provinces amid ongoing mistrust between minority Muslims and majority Buddhists. Kira Kaye reports on efforts to resolve tensions as part of the new Fault Lines of Faith series, produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, next, we turn to Thailand.

Three suspected insurgents were shot dead today in a firefight with security forces in the southern part of the country. It was the latest example of the simmering religious violence there that’s killed more than 5,000 people since 2004.

NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay recently traveled to Thailand’s troubled south, and filed this report.

KIRA KAY: Early in our visit to Thailand’s southern provinces, we are taken by military escort to the village of Khok Krabue, where a surreal scene unfolds.

Smiling residents are celebrating National Children’s Day with a dance performance, under heavily armed guard. Despite attempts at a normal existence, Khok Krabue is living under siege, protected by volunteer militiamen and paramilitary rangers. The village chief, Supot Prompetch, himself mans a checkpoint.

SUPOT PROMPETCH, chief, Khok Krabue Village (through translator): It started when a villager went to market on a Sunday. On her way back, she and her child were attacked and killed. About two months later, there was another incident. Insurgents drove into the village and shot and killed five people who were standing in front of the temple.

KIRA KAY: Khok Krabue is a Buddhist village, which Colonel Niti Tinsulanonda says makes it a target for a long-simmering Muslim insurgency that has reemerged in recent years.

COL. NITI TINSULANONDA, commander, Ranger Forces (through translator): They stoke anxiety and fear on a daily basis by ambush shooting or bombing. They restrict what people do and make people’s daily lives difficult. They want to scare the villagers so they will leave the area.

KIRA KAY: One of America’s biggest allies in Southeast Asia, Thailand has seen its share of turmoil in recent years, bloody political protests, a coup and collapsing governments, devastating floods.

But the conflict in the country’s southern provinces has proven the most deadly and protracted — 5,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed here since 2004, with seemingly no end to the violence in sight.

Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, but its three southern provinces are overwhelmingly Muslim and ethnically Malay. The region was for centuries an independent Islamic sultanate, with its own culture and language, but, in the early 1900s, Thailand took over.

WAEDURAMAE MAMINGJI, Pattani Islamic Committee (through translator): The Thai kingdom came here, fought a war and turned the area into a province of the Thai state. And there’s been a movement since then.

KIRA KAY: Local Islamic leader Waeduramae Mamingji says that is only part of the problem.

WAEDURAMAE MAMINGJI (through translator): In the last 20 or 30 years, the population in this area didn’t get justice in administration, politics or economy, which made people in the three southern provinces think of themselves as second-class citizens.

KIRA KAY: Separatist groups waged a guerrilla campaign here from the 1960s through the 1980s, but then faltered. Then, in 2004, a new generation took up the fight. Now car bombs, roadside IEDs, or point-blank shootings occur almost daily.

Abdullah claims he is a former insurgent. We met him at an army re-education program he was made to join after being arrested, following six years as a wanted man.

MAN (through translator): When I grew up, I was told that were Malays. This land was ours. It was the Pattani state. All Muslims had to fight to get the Pattani state back. I decided to join the movement because they said, it is a sin if you don’t fight.

KIRA KAY: How does the recruitment process work?

MAN (through translator): They recruited me from my village. Back then, they divided into two groups. One went to villages and one went to religious schools. They used different tactics to recruit in each place.

DON PATHAN, reporter: They’re all over. I would say, like, 90 percent of all the villages has a cell.

KIRA KAY: Journalist Don Pathan has spent years covering the insurgency.

DON PATHAN: People in the local area know them. People in the villages know them, because when they bury their bombs, the IEDs that takes out the government’s Humvee or jeeps or whatever, they do it in front of a lot of people.

But people won’t talk, you know? What does that say about the people here, the Malay Muslims here, the villagers here, is that they share the same sentiment. They might not agree with the brutality, but I can assure you they have the same sentiment, the same historical mistrust of the Thai state.

KIRA KAY: That mistrust was fueled by the Thai government’s early heavy-handedness. In 2004, police and army turned on angry demonstrators in the town of Tak Bai, stripping, beating and tying them up, then loading them into overcrowded trucks, where 78 suffocated.

Videos like this one became a rallying call. While the Thai military and police are insurgency targets, the great majority of those killed have been civilians, both ethnic Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims, who are seen as sympathetic to the Thai state.

PATIMOH POH-ETAE-DAO, insurgency victim (through translator): My family has lost five members from this violent situation. I saw how it affected my mother, my sisters, my nephews and my nieces. In my family, we have 15 orphans from brothers and sisters that passed away because of this situation.

KIRA KAY: Patimoh Poh-Etae-Dao saw her brother shot to death on their doorstep, she says because her Malay Muslim family was seen as cooperating with local authorities. Then the gunmen came for her.

PATIMOH POH-ETAE-DAO (through translator): I noticed a motorbike parked with two men on it. When I passed them, they started their engine and followed me. The one sitting on the back picked up his gun and pointed it at me. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t allow this bike to get in front of my car, because, if they could stop me, they would shoot me for sure.

KIRA KAY: Patimoh was lucky and made it to the police station nearby. Her attackers fled.

But other civilians have not escaped — 155 teachers have been killed here because they are state employees and teach in the Thai language. And nothing is more emblematic of this conflict than the sight of monks collecting their alms under army protection. Dozens of monks have been killed or injured because Buddhism is intrinsically linked with the royal Thai government.

Today, the army has 30,000 troops and rangers here. Checkpoints are everywhere. Bases have been set up in temples. Dogs sniff for bombs on city streets.

MAJ. GEN. ACRA TIPAROJ, Royal Thai 4th Army (through translator): They want the Muslims worldwide to think that the Thai authorities are weak and not legitimate to govern the people in this area.

KIRA KAY: Maj. Gen. Acra Tiparoj says the stakes are high.

MAJ. GEN. ACRA TIPAROJ (through translator): They attack people who practice other religions and attack monks, so that Buddhists will get angry with the Muslims, and that will lead to a religious war. If that happens, they will have successfully upgraded their battle to the international level.

KIRA KAY: And so, the government is pursuing a two-pronged approach, according to longtime regional governor Grisada Boonrach.

GRISADA BOONRACH, governor, Songkhla Province (through translator): We use military action to control the area to prevent the violence. Meanwhile, we use civil action.

For example, we use personnel to communicate with youth and community leaders, religious leaders, to get the right understanding about history and the right principles of religion to prevent these people from joining the movement.

I want to separate the fish from the water. This means separate the real insurgency from the village and leave behind only normal people, so we can develop and help with what they really want.

KIRA KAY: But it’s a difficult balancing act, one the Thai authorities are still struggling with on the ground.

The military’s presence here is guided by special emergency laws which human rights groups allege have led to overzealous arrests and indefinite detentions, further marginalizing an already sensitive population.

Seventy-year-old Mayo Kuta saw her son taken away by the military three years ago. She insists her son was never an insurgent and says she was never told the charges.

Patimoh Poh-Etae-Dao, whose own family suffered so much, has become an activist. She is working with Mayo to find a lawyer to help unravel her son’s legal problems.

PATIMOH POH-ETAE-DAO (through translator): People in the area have been suffering for seven or eight years now, but there is still no strategy or policy to make the local residents feel like they can trust what the government is trying to do.

KIRA KAY: The army says it is aware of its poor reputation and that it is making a concerted effort to improve its performance.

But Maj. Gen. Acra says the emergency laws need to stay.

MAJ. GEN. ACRA TIPAROJ (through translator): The special laws help us to get to the suspects, allow us to interrogate them, and allow them to prove their innocence immediately.

The special laws also impose an appropriate time limit to prevent an abuse of human rights. Ordinary people who do honest work, who take care of kids and husbands, go to school, live a normal life don’t feel disturbed by the special laws. Only those who are involved with the violent groups are disgruntled by the laws.

KIRA KAY: Don Pathan believes a solution will require expanding dialogue, not just with the insurgents, but with all of Malay Muslim society.

DON PATHAN: The Malays in Southern Thailand are willing to be part of the Thai state, but it has to be on their own terms. I think the general attitude of the Thai state is that these are ungrateful people, they are Thai citizens, and they should act and behave that way.

And the Malays say, well, your citizenship shouldn’t come at the expense of my identity. I think that the challenge is to find that comfort level between the Thai state and the Malay, how to make the Malay a Thai citizen without forcing them to give up their identity.

KIRA KAY: But, for now, the brutal attacks on society here continue.

In the week I was here in southern Thailand reporting this story, two civilians were injured by a car bomb, an education official was shot on his way home from work, three soldiers were wounded by an IED while on patrol, and not far from here, a policeman and his teenage son were shot and killed while waiting for the school bus.

International groups have been trying to broker peace here, but the efforts are complicated by the fact that there is no clear insurgency leadership to talk to. And the Thai government, with a newly-elected prime minister, has yet to prioritize the southern conflict, despite campaign promises to do so. And so villages like Khok Krabue live on, under armed protection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kira’s story is part of a new series, “Fault Lines of Faith,” produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

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