– Knight Ridder Newspapers

SUSO, Thailand – A deadly conflict between mysterious bands of Islamic militants and Thai authorities has engulfed the once sleepy southern provinces of this Buddhist-dominated kingdom.

The violence threatens Thailand’s reputation as an Asian center for tourism and business and raises questions about whether a new front is being opened by the forces of international Muslim extremists such as al-Qaida.

Almost every day there are news reports of attacks on police or military posts, of arrests and detentions or of killings, some under circumstances that look to human-rights activists like government-sanctioned assassinations.

Since Jan. 4 – when the first group of unknown assailants attacked an army depot, killing four and stealing a cache of arms – up to 300 people have died in incidents ascribed to an Islamic insurgency or to the government’s aggressive response.

Martial law is in effect, raising tensions as heavily armed police and military forces patrol market towns and operate checkpoints along roads that wind through the jungles and rubber groves of peninsular Thailand. With each violent incident, residents feel the cycle of conflict escalating: A policeman is shot, the authorities intensify their searches and Muslim resentment simmers anew.

The worst of it came April 28, a day of horrific violence in which coordinated gangs of young Muslim insurgents sprung attacks on a dozen security outposts. They were armed mainly with machetes, and they were slaughtered.

With police and the military apparently tipped off to the impending rampage, 107 marauders were gunned down. Five police officers died, and just a handful of insurgents survived.

In the city of Pattani, 32 men who attacked a checkpoint were killed after holing up in a mosque, where authorities fired on them with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The battle left behind bullet-pocked floors and a Koran stained with blood.

Also among the dead that day were the 14 members of a soccer team from the village of Suso who sneaked away from their homes the night before and rushed a checkpoint at a nearby village crossroads, residents say. Police easily fended off the charge; the soccer players lay dead in the streets and on the floor of an open-air restaurant.

The spate of violence is puzzling not because there is no history of animosity between Muslims and the authorities, but because there is so little understanding of who is organizing the insurgency, how many people might be involved and – most strikingly – how they have kept their cover.

Their motive for lashing out also is unclear. If they are out for more than vengeance and seek a breakaway state, they have not said so. No group, either inside or outside the country, has claimed responsibility for leading the terror campaign, though several incipient Thai groups have been implicated, mainly because of their responsibility for past incidents. No notable ringleaders have been arrested.

The attacks do not fit a recognizable pattern of international terrorism because there have been no bombings or attacks on civilian or foreign targets such as hotels that cater to Westerners. But Thailand is a known way station for religious extremists and international terrorists. An al-Qaida operative, Hambali, was arrested in Thailand last year.

“Right now there is hardly any movement that goes on without an international dimension to it,” said Saneh Chamarik, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.

Chidchanok Rahimmula, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University, said 2,000 to 3,000 men may be involved in the violence. She has evidence of locals getting military-style training from at least one person from Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiyah is linked to al-Qaida. And she said 23 Thai Muslims were known to have fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

If outside radicals are involved, it still is not clear whether they are instigators, organizers, consultants or cheerleaders. What seems certain is that the Thai attackers have drawn inspiration from the way they perceive Muslims to have been persecuted in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the group of 32 Thai militants attacked a police roadblock and fled to the Pattani mosque, they wore Arab-style headdresses and used the mosque loudspeaker to declare that they were waging a jihad, said Wae-Umar Waedolah, a village leader who witnessed the incident. He said they had a chance to escape but chose to make a stand.

“Somebody taught them this – that they should wage jihad, die for Islam and go to paradise,” he said.

A government consultant, retired Gen. Kitti Rattanachaya, has been quoted as confirming a link between the Thai militants and al-Qaida. But officials – afraid of scaring off tourists and investors-downplay that speculation. In an interview, Paisal Puechmongkol, an adviser on the situation to the Thai deputy prime minister, ruled out the involvement of known Islamic militant groups.

As for who might be involved, “I can’t guess; I don’t know,” he said, clarifying that he preferred to describe them as “criminals” rather than terrorists or extremists.

The lack of understanding of what is happening seems shocking, but the south of Thailand already was a place of violence. A sense of lawlessness pervades the region, with drug smuggling common and disaffected members of the military widely assumed to be contributing to the chaos. Some killings attributed to separatists could be unrelated, but Surasee Kosolnavin, a human-rights activist and former prosecutor, said some of the dead probably are victims of extrajudicial executions – police hits.

“Every community has its targets – blacklists,” he said. “They want to close the account by killing.”

The roots of the conflict are historical but are tied to persistent claims of prejudice, discrimination and a deepening mistrust among Muslims of Thai Buddhist authorities.

The Muslim population represents a majority in the south but only a tiny minority in Thailand overall. Until a century ago, Pattani and the rest of the south were part of an autonomous Islamic Malay state. Communist and Muslim separatists were active in the region through the 1980s.

Muslims say the region gets less investment and government funding for education, while Buddhists receive job preferences. There are other complaints, among them that the police, most of whom are Buddhist and do not speak the local dialect, are ignorant of Muslim culture and have become increasingly hostile, especially since being given expanded law-enforcement power over the region by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra soon after he came to office in 2001.

Ahmad Somboon Bualuang, a Muslim university outreach coordinator, said many people think Buddhist Thai authorities do not understand Islamic culture and are trying to “dominate” it. Now, with martial law, he said, Muslim rubber tappers are afraid to go to dawn prayers or to the fields. It is at those moments, he acknowledged, that he feels real hatred toward the government.

“We’re still proud to be Thai,” he said. “We’d like to stay, but with dignity.”

Analysts say there is an element of government mishandling of the violence that has exacerbated the mistrust and could be leading to the further radicalization of disaffected youths.

“If the Bangkok government was more aware of the situation and applied a more reconciliatory approach, it could have been able to avoid confrontation and violence of this scale,” said Sunai Phasuk, a member of the Thai Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs who is studying the violence. He said there may be other factors exacerbating the violence.

The government has begun to pay more attention to complaints out of the south and is promising more investment. It has floated a plan to give more political power to the southern provinces. And to soothe feelings and give young men an outlet, it created the new regional soccer league.

Among residents of Suso, where the entire soccer team was wiped out, there is dumbfounded shock at what happened April 28. They seem to have been caught by surprise.

The soccer coach, Pittaya Maeprommi, said nothing in the behavior of any player had tipped him off to their apparent suicide mission. His 20-year-old brother, Kamaruddin Maeprommi – whose wife was pregnant – left the village the day before the attack, explaining that he and other players were going on a three-day religious retreat. Others left and said nothing.

When the new league starts and the first game is played in Suso, the coach said there would be no moment of silence to acknowledge what happened. The Muslim mourning period is long over, and it would not be fitting to turn the game into a memorial service.

As for his own message to the new players, Maeprommi said: “They shouldn’t feel too sad about April 28. They should forget about it. And just concentrate on playing well.”

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-05-04 0625EDT

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