In Thailand's Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, barely a week goes by without news of bomb attacks, drive-by shootings or ambushes
BANGKOK - They were murders that shocked a nation - three small boys gunned down in Southern Thailand as they returned from evening prayers at a local mosque.
The children's father, Jehmu Maman, 40, had no idea what was in store when he arrived at his house February 3 with his pregnant wife and sons - six, nine and 11 years old.
The family had spent the evening at Parukapaeroh mosque in Thailand's Narathiwat province, one of three Mulism-dominated provinces in the country's South, but just as they were about to enter their home gunmen hidden in nearby trees opened fire with automatic weapons.
“My wife shouted at me to run when she heard the gunshots," Maman told journalists days after the shootings.
He said he fled into the nearby forest, returning only when the firing had stopped to find his house "peppered with bullet holes."
"There I found my three sons and my wife lying in pools of blood.”
Nine days after the tragedy, the police investigation is still open and Thais remain puzzled as to who was responsible
Was it local separatists; or perhaps even Thai security forces, suspecting the father of involvement in an Islamic insurgency that has has so far claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people?
Thailand is a divided country. Fly into the capital Bangkok and you can't help but be enamored by the golden roofs of the Buddhist temples, the gigantic malls that rise from street corners, the elephants that occasionally weave through traffic-filled streets, and the giant billboards filled with the beaming faces of hi-society Thais, hawking enlightenment through consumerism and material gain.
Take the train to Thailand's southern-most provinces, however, and the high rises and fast cars become sleepy villages and farm machinery; public parks rocking to Asia-pop are replaced by mangrove swamps, heavily spiced seafood dishes change to Roti, curried chicken and spiced rice, jeans and American-sloganed T-shirts become hijabs, sarongs and kopih, and Buddhist Wats become Mosques.
Here, in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, barely a week goes by without news of bomb attacks, drive-by shootings or ambushes.
In Thailand's deep south - a Muslim enclave in a 95 percent Buddhist country - locals have lived under a state of emergency for almost ten years. Around 50,000 Thai troops watch their every move and 6,000 of them – Buddhists, Muslims, military, teachers, civil servants and civilians – have been killed in the last eight years alone, while another 10,700 have been wounded.
Although the latest disturbances date back to 2004, conflict in the south has actually been going on for over a century. Siam - the name of Thailand before 1939 - seized the area - which was then a Malay Sultanate - in 1907 following an Anglo-Siamese treaty, but after more than half a century of peace the area erupted into civil war in the 1960s when the Thai government tried to control education in the area's Islamic schools.
Back in 2004, the violence started when a rejuvenated insurgency movement launched a series of attacks which shook the Thai state.
“The situation is actually getting worse," Ibrahem Narongraksaket, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Pattani, told the Anadolu Agency. "The Thai government is spending all its time and resources on Bangkok Politics."
The insurgency is made up of several different groups, of which the most active is the National Revolutionary Front (BRN). Its political objectives have never been clearly stated, but it often condemns “Siamese colonization” and claims the creation of the “separate state of 'Patani'.” - the name of the former Sultanate.
An analyst based in Yala likened the situation to that faced by Palestinians living under Israeli control.
“80 percent of the bureaucrats in the south are Buddhists coming from elsewhere. Add to this the 50,000 troops. and you can understand why the locals feels like those living in the West Bank," Don Pathan told AA.
One year ago, the Thai government began dialogue with representatives of the insurgency, neighboring Malaysia acting as a facilitator. Although, the process has not been without hiccups, most analysts have praised the administration of Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for its endeavors.
“The dialogue itself was a big achievement. It was a big step for the Thai authorities to speak at a political level with a group which is using violence,” said Matthew Wheeler, Thailand analyst for the International Crisis group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank.
But a fourth round of talks, due to take place in December, were suspended due to the latest political crisis in Bangkok. And any brinkmanship between the government and the opposition Democrat party to resolve the crisis jeopardises national level discussion on the southern issue.
“The anti-government movement could easily politicize this (Southern Thai) issue and say, for instance, that it would affect the national integrity of the country,” said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an independent analyst who has studied the southern conflict for over ten years.
The opposition has a habit of whipping up nationalist fervour at anything it considers threatening to the Kingdom. In 2008, several people were killed in clashes between Cambodia and Thailand after protesters supportive of the opposition Democrat Party gathered to protest Cambodia's legal claim to an ancient Khmer temple that Thais say lies on a common border.
Moreover the military, still a state within the state in Thailand, seems reluctant to go along with a dialogue they did not initiate. For one thing, they fear such a process opens the door for an internationalization of a conflict they consider purely domestic.
“There are even some people in the south who believe that the dialogue is being sabotaged by vigilantes linked to the security apparatus,” said Wheeler. The southern conflict has been a boon for the Thai military: around 2 trillion baht (45 billion euros) has been spent by successive governments in the south since 2004, mostly for security operations.
Before December, the dialogue process was blocked by five preliminary conditions set up by insurgency representatives, including the release of detainees and the revocation of arrest warrants on security cases, as well as the involvement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference as observers.
But the government showed signs in November that it was prepared to discuss these conditions. Moreover, insurgency representatives submitted a written document in September which clearly shows that, for the first time, they are no longer asking for independence from the Thai state, but for a form of autonomy.
“It is a concession for the BRN side, even if it does not mean that the path ahead will be rosy,” said Chalermsripinyorat.
And then came the latest Bangkok disturbances, which led to the suspension of the talks.
“This affected us very much. The negotiation process had done good progress. Our Muslim society lost the chance to find peace," Worawit Baru, a Senator from southern Thailand, told AA.
Maman, meanwhile, has buried his sons. His wife and her pregnancy survived, and he now awaits the birth of a new child.
The BRN insurgency movement has denied involvement, but also says Maman is a supporter. It has accused Thai security forces of being behind the ambush, while the security forces have blamed the insurgents.
On Thursday morning, a Buddhist monk and three other people were gunned down by armed gunmen in Pattini - suspected to be a revenge attack by insurgents
Maman, himself, says he has no idea of the motive behind the attack on him, his wife and children.
“I don’t know if I have made anyone that angry with me to do such a thing. Every day, I leave home early to tap my rubber trees. Then, I teach children at the village Islamic school,” he said.
A day after the killing, 200 Muslim residents from the district staged a protest to call for an end to the violence.
They held a banner which read: “We, the villagers, have no need for violence. We are all Muslim brothers and sisters who love peace and harmony. We condemn groups who use violence against innocents.”
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