Dispatches From Southern Thailand

Fighting With Ghosts
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 27 2005 6:40 AM

Dispatches From Southern Thailand

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The aftermath of a July 2005 bomb blast in Yala

One of the towns where the insurgency is at its worst is Yala. Since the insurgency began three years ago, more than 100 Buddhist officials, monks, and teachers have been assassinated there, mostly by young men on motorbikes. When I went there with a colleague earlier this year, tiny white lights still hung from the street lamps in honor of the Buddhist New Year, months before, even though the town is overwhelmingly Muslim. A Buddhist noodle shop served lunch under purple umbrellas.

We were trying to find a former insurgent, a member of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, a separatist group founded in 1960 that focused on reviving the Islamic school system. The BRN had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s, but now one of its splinter groups is believed to be coordinating much of the conflict. As Anthony Davis, a security analyst based in Thailand for Jane's Intelligence Review, explained to me, "The Thai environment is unprecedented in so far as it's an urban guerrilla strategy in a mainly rural context. The insurgent structure, based on cells of four or five men operating largely independently of each other, is clearly confounding the security forces. There are 20,000 military down there, plus another 10,000 police and paramilitary all dressed up with nowhere to go, and this is a problem."

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Leaving town, we passed a government checkpoint fortified with concertina wire, from which someone had strung a garland of origami birds from the peace bombing. Soon, the paved roads gave way to rougher track and a thicket of rubber trees. Each of the trees was hung with a bowl to catch rubber sap, much the same way that maples are sugared. After several hours, we reached a small village. It had grown late, so we slept on the floor of a villager's home. In the morning, the village turned out to be only a handful of wooden houses on stilts near a river. On the way to the insurgent's house, we passed half a dozen young women in headscarves climbing into a rubber boat. They were going white-water rafting.

Outside the former insurgent's house, bathmat-sized slabs of raw rubber hung from the tree branches. On his front porch, in a wire cage, a baby monkey was being poked at by a group of gleeful children. Inside, the former commander, who, we'd been told, specialized in bomb making and assassinations, was sitting on the floor. He was wearing a sarong, which most men here wear, and a nylon Nike shirt over his thick body; his hair was still wet from the bath. He nodded a bit nervously as we entered and quietly said something to his wife, who disappeared behind a thin divide in the one-room shack. She returned with warm bottles of orange soda. He looked at us closely. "It's a hard life here," he said. It seemed important to him that we understand this. He is 44 and works, when he can, as a rubber-tapper. As an insurgent, he had been based in Malaysia. He surrendered five years ago when a friend came over the border and told him it was time to come home. "But I don't really have anything to live off. In BRN, I got a small salary, everything was taken care of," he said. He kept glancing to the open door when the occasional truck went by. "How can I feel safe now?" he asked.

He pulled up his basketball shirt to reveal a shiny knuckle-shaped scar on his right shoulder. "I was shot three months ago," he said. "I don't know who would do this to me. I don't have any enemies around here." He gestured toward the door. Outside, just across the street, the jungle began. "If anybody, it would be the people in the movement. Basically, once you surrender, you lose their trust."

In the old days, the fight had been about independence, and that was still what was important. "We want our land back." he said. "We want to take our country back from Siam." But now the insurgents' goals were different. Religion had got mixed up in it. "Today, things have changed. Now the conflict has moved to the city. I think that it's going to get much worse." In 1995, a new group, the Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP), founded by Nasorae Saesang, a Thai who had fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and trained in Libya, joined the insurgency. "This new generation is going to Afghanistan and Pakistan not for studying but for combat military training," the former commander said. "There are cells, small units, who all eventually meet under one leader who is not in Thailand. A general order will come from the top—do this or do that—but the lower level carries it out when and how they want to."

GMIP, like the other insurgent groups, is involved in organized crime, but its agenda is more fiercely Islamist. It is very good at recruiting local out-of-work young men for assassinations. It tends "to go after guys who are already under suspicion by the authorities," he said. Once the security forces target a young man for questioning, and he realizes he's now at risk from the state, he's more vulnerable.

In the past, he said, the BRN received some training and financial support from Indonesia, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Palestinian groups, among others. "They were all helping us," he said, adding, "In our generation, we weren't linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, but I think this generation is linked. … In the past we couldn't have launched these attacks and we wouldn't have dared to do anything like it. They are pretty brave, this new generation. But they are being manipulated."

"The new generation of leadership uses religion as motivation. They turn to events around the world to show how America is treating Muslims, and they use this to motivate people." He said that, like everyone else, he had watched a shaky bootlegged digital recording of the demonstrations in Tak Bai. (The DVD is illegal, and the government has threatened imprisonment for anyone caught with a copy, but almost everyone has it.) In it, security forces beat men stretched out on the ground, their hands bound behind them. That scene was followed by footage of a mass funeral, the bodies wrapped in the green and white cloth of martyrdom.

"Watching that Tak Bai video made my Islamic-ness burn in my chest," he said. He passed his untouched bottle of orange soda to his wife. I asked if watching the tape made him want to rejoin the insurgency.

"I can't answer that," he said.

That afternoon as we returned to Yala, we passed a yellow government billboard at the edge of town: "The Muslim people should not be involved in any situation causing unrest, and all Muslims wish to see Thai Muslims live in peace."

As I was writing this in my notebook, we were stopped by a roadblock. A 10-pound bomb—which, in a scene reminiscent of the film The Battle of Algiers, had been carried in a bag by an undercover insurgent posing as a patron—had just exploded at the Buddhist noodle shop down the road. The shop served pork, and most of its customers were teachers from a girls' secondary school next door. At least 50 people were injured, and the owner—who had been peering into the bag when it was detonated, probably by mobile phone—was dead. The bomb had blown a hole in the roof. A purple umbrella lay in the street. The bombers were never caught.

"Three days ago, it was the supermarket and the flower shop," a squat shopkeeper standing nearby said. Although she'd lived in Yala for 50 years, like the other Buddhists she now wanted to leave. "We don't know where to go," she said. I asked her who she thought was launching these attacks. She glanced at the small group of stunned Buddhists around her. Then she said carefully, "Let's just say it's people not like us."

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