Dispatches From Southern Thailand

At the Monastery
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 29 2005 3:24 AM

Dispatches From Southern Thailand

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One afternoon outside Yala, about 5 miles from the bombed-out noodle shop, I visited the monastery of Wat Na Tham. In a cave above the monastery, an 81-foot statue of Buddha has been reclining since A.D. 750. Below the cave, the temple looks like a fairground: a series of sparkling roofs glinting with gold-colored nagas, or sacred serpents, which are supposed to guard the temple and its monks.

On the temple's crumbling steps, a monk sat rolling a cigarette. He had just finished performing funeral rites for a man from the nearby village. The monk, who is 41, was named Pong Sang. He'd taken his vows 18 years ago. Pong Sang had no front teeth, and his face was ashy and looked depressed. There used to be 10 monks living at the temple, he said, but now there were only five. Last January, one of the temple's monks, 64-year-old Wichai, was murdered while out collecting alms.

Now, the Thai government has attempted to issue flak jackets to the Buddhist monks of the south, but at least one monk has protested, saying that giving such things to monks is a misuse of resources.

Pong Sang disagreed. He was happy with whatever the government could issue.

"I don't feel safe anymore," Pong Sang said, "I try not to go out unless it's really important." A member of the grieving family came over and slipped an envelope in the pocket of his saffron jacket. The monks aren't supposed to touch money, he explained. (The insurgency has devastated the local economy, so fewer devout Buddhists can afford to join the monastery, leaving their families without financial support, and the few monks in residence can't handle the volume of work on the grounds with so few hands.)

"Wichai was cut with a machete on the neck," Pong Sang said wearily. "It was the first time a monk had been killed. Somebody just wanted to make conflict between Muslims and Buddhists." The five monks at the temple still collect alms every morning, but with a jeepload of six soldiers behind them for protection. "We don't feel strange about collecting alms with soldiers behind us," Pong Sang said. "Everyone knows what's going on."

The bigger issue, he said, was that now no one wanted to join the monastery. "According to Buddhism, everyone should be a monk for a little while, but now, no one can afford it."

The mourners got into their cars and drove away. Pong Sang gathered his robes and walked to the temple parking lot, where a mother and daughter were selling cold coconuts from a cooler. The mother was in her 70s, the daughter in her 50s. The monk bought a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and sat down at a plywood table.

"I never imagined anyone would want to kill monks," the younger woman said, reaching deep into the cooler for a cold coconut.

"It's Muslims," the older woman said, sitting down at the table. The younger woman bit her lip and nodded. The mother looked at Pong Sang, but he made no comment. "The monks are afraid," she said. "They hardly talk about it with each other." What's more, she said, "It's really hard to make a living now," because the violence has scared away tourists.

The monk stopped chewing his gum and turned to me. "Tell more Americans to come to the temple," he said. "It's a great tourist attraction." Several months later, in a series of coordinated attacks, the insurgents plunged the city of Yala into a blackout. It was a frightening statement about their growing influence.

Ten years ago, before Prime Minister Thaksin came to power, people who lived along the Malay Peninsula were governed by a much more effective system: a coalition of the military, the police, and religious leaders, under whom close communication was effective in addressing many of the social problems that now contribute to the insurgency. But Thaksin dismantled this system without apparent forethought. Suddenly, a gap in language and culture divided the Malay Muslim people from the mostly Buddhist security forces who were sent to the south to monitor the population. The insurgency, which had virtually vanished by the end of the 1990s, suddenly resurfaced with a spate of killings, at first mostly of former government informants, and then a series of disappearances, which human rights advocates and security analysts say were at the hands of paramilitaries working with the government. As the insurgency intensified, Thaksin instituted martial law. As a result, the violence worsened, and the Buddhist security forces were suspected of increasingly serious human rights violations, including torture. The escalation of tit-for-tat attacks by insurgents and security forces culminated last year in the apparent murder of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a lawyer from Bangkok who had accused the police of torturing suspected insurgents and then disappeared while in the custody of Thai security forces.

When Somchai vanished, many of the Malay Muslims—professors, human-rights workers, community leaders—who had been hoping to work for political change within the system either dropped out of public life or joined the insurgents. Professors burned their books about Malay history fearing that if the volumes were discovered, the government would consider them criminals.

This summer, Prime Minister Thaksin issued an emergency decree, which granted him sweeping powers, extending even beyond martial law, to override freedom of the press. The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights has voiced concern about the new law. The most disturbing aspect is the growing rate of disappearances and extrajudicial killings believed to be perpetrated by government-linked death squads, despite vehement government denials.

"The insurgency is growing worse as a reaction to Thai missteps. It might not even exist if it weren't for government blunders," Sidney Jones, the South East Asia director of International Crisis Group said. "Thanks to Thaksin's policies, this sense of alienation among Muslims in the south is growing in quantum leaps." Zachary Abuza, a terrorism analyst at the United States Institute for Peace, said, "I don't think Thaksin understands how volatile the situation is. The single most important factor that makes people support suicide terrorism is the degree to which they feel Islam is under attack. Al-Qaida and other groups don't create civil wars—they use these conflicts to feed that myth. What Thaksin is doing is creating a poster child for jihad."

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