Q. Sakamaki / Redux

By Brendan Brady / Southern Thailand

A few hours’ drive from the white-sand beaches of Phuket—one of the world’s top tourist destinations—a deadly insurgency is terrorizing Thailand’s south. The separatist movement, made up of mostly ethnic-Malay Muslims, roils the region with daily threats of sectarian violence and has prompted many Buddhist villagers, and even some monks, to take up arms in self-defense. A series of coordinated bombings across two provinces on March 31 alone left 14 dead and hundreds injured.

The conflict has been gaining steam over the past eight years, even as the international community pays little attention. Since 2004, drive-by shootings, IED bombings, and point-blank assassinations have claimed some 5,000 lives in the country’s three restive southernmost provinces that border Malaysia, making the insurgency one of the world’s deadliest.

The insurgent groups rally around the belief that the provinces—where ethnic Malay Muslims are the majority—should be independent of Thailand, where more than 90 percent of the rest of the population is Buddhist. The insurgents’ preferred targets are Buddhists, especially those in the security forces or government, though they also kill fellow Muslims accused of not aligning with the separatist cause. They claim to have cells in 90 percent of southern villages; the boast, say security experts, is legitimate.

Even as a force of some 60,000 soldiers and police patrol the area, the insurgents have succeeded in spreading their network across the disputed territory, cultivating an atmosphere of perpetual insecurity for Buddhist communities living there. “First Muslim people came to our village and asked to buy our land,” says Suphorn Nison, a soft-spoken Buddhist in his mid-40s. “But they became less diplomatic when Buddhist people declined to leave.” The following month, Nison says, two men entered a convenience store operated by Nison’s father and executed him with two shots to his head. Nison claims the gunmen were Muslim and intended to send a stern message. Most Buddhists in his village left, but those who stayed, including Nison, formed a neighborhood-security force.

That was in 2006. Today such community-defense units are ubiquitous in Thailand’s south. Nison carries a revolver with him at all times. Many other Buddhists have also armed themselves, including a demure 38-year-old teacher, an acquaintance of Nison’s, who prefers a light Glock .22. While village-defense forces, or Chor Ror Bor, also operate in Muslim communities, they are often given fewer and inferior weapons than their Buddhist counterparts, and don’t receive the same level of support from the Thai Army and police, says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that studies ways to prevent conflicts.

Other village-defense groups are explicitly restricted to Buddhists—chief among them, the Or Ror Bor, a system initiated by Thailand’s queen. During a trip south in 2005, two members of her security entourage were gunned down by separatists. She urged Buddhists in the region to remain on their lands and take weapons training. The queen also initiated land grants to encourage Buddhists from other parts of the country to move south.

Amid the violence, security measures have also transformed Buddhist temples. Many government troops in the deep south are based on the sprawling, walled-in temple grounds. Soldiers protect monks and worshippers from insurgent attacks, while benefiting from the monasteries’ existing infrastructure. Buddhist insecurity has even spawned soldier monks—new Army recruits who are pulled aside by superiors and offered a chance to become ordained monks so that they can eventually move to monasteries in the contested provinces and serve as hybrid servants of the state, according to U.S. academic Michael Jerryson. He has dedicated months of field research to the phenomenon, which he says was conceived by the queen.

Monks interviewed in the region today are uncomfortable discussing the soldier-monk practice, which they say has been discontinued. But many of the state’s security measures in the deep south are still channeled through Buddhists and Buddhist spaces, an approach that many analysts say has exacerbated sectarian divisions. “We’ve been saying it’s problematic. It’s like you’re arming people from one religion against another,” says the Crisis Group’s Chalermsripinyorat. Jerryson makes a bolder claim: official policies have generated a Buddhist militant movement in its own right. “International and Thai analysts largely overlook the Buddhists’ call to arms when they attempt to explain the spikes of violence in the war-torn region,” Jerryson writes in his book Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand, published last year. Groups such as Amnesty International have documented cases of soldiers bringing suspected insurgents to temple-housed bases to interrogate, torture, and even execute them. And Chor Ror Bor units have been suspected of engaging in vigilante justice.

Abdul Khodet Daman, a 46-year-old Malay Muslim rubber tapper in the southern province of Yala, believes he’s a victim of the sort of Buddhist militancy identified by Jerryson. He says that he was attacked by a man in an Army uniform, who shot him in the neck in a rampage last year. Four were killed in the attack and 16 were injured, including Daman. He believes the suspect—a 25-year-old soldier alleged to have been motivated by the murder of his brother—was abetted by a Chor Ror Bor unit in an adjacent village, which includes a number of new residents who immigrated as part of the queen’s land-grant program.

For others, such incidents obscure an equally harsh reality: the insurgency has put the region’s Buddhists on the defensive, with no end to the violence in sight. HuaHui, a long-bearded villager, exemplifies the kind of self-appointed power that the militia system offers Buddhists. At the entrance to his restaurant, he sits behind a makeshift bunker, holding an M-15 assault rifle. He keeps a cache of weapons on hand, along with special bullets designed to overcome “the voodoo of insurgents.” He’s been the target of drive-by shootings and bomb attacks more than a dozen times, he says. In the latest incident, “a month ago gunfire struck guests.” HuaHui sometimes patrols his district in a pickup truck, paying visits to friends—both Muslim and Buddhist—and making his presence felt to those he suspects of being on the “wrong side.” He visited a group of Chor Ror Bor in a nearby village who said the hordes of Army and police are not enough to secure the area. Later that evening, cars passing along the entry road to the village were struck by IEDs and gunfire.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the head of Deep South Watch, a Pattani-based group that tracks the area’s sectarian violence, says temple defenses and village militias serve a legitimate defensive purpose. But, he says, they also create backlash by helping insurgents convince Malay Muslim communities that Buddhists and the Thai state are fundamentally aligned against them.

His concern is catching on among some monks in the area. The abbot of one southern village recently asked soldiers stationed inside his temple to relocate. “It affected our image. Buddhism is a peaceful religion, and a temple must remain a peaceful place.” Analysts say the military commander in charge of operations in the deep south plans to shift troops out of temples and schools as part of a broader attempt to demilitarize the region’s public spaces. But, facing shadowy and omnipresent insurgents who are increasingly brazen in their methods, Buddhist communities may be less likely to move away from firepower. The consequences of their position, worries Jitpiromsri, might be only that they will be forced to double down on it. “Die-hard is their mentality.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

[Published on April 16, 2012 by Newsweek]