Use of militias rising in southern Thailand

International Herald Tribune

Published: March 19, 2007

LAMPAYA, Thailand: There’s a police station a short
drive down the road from this village surrounded by rice paddies and
rubber trees. But the village headman, La-ong Laijian, says he feels
much safer with a shotgun at his side.

“In this kind of situation we better rely on ourselves,” La-ong said
Monday as he cleared brush at the village’s jungle-shrouded Buddhist
cemetery.

Three years ago a worker at a chicken farm was beheaded here,
apparently by the same insurgents who have terrorized southern Thailand
with increasing intensity since 2004, when a centuries-old conflict
between Buddhist Thais and Muslim Malays reignited. Soon after the
beheading, the residents of Lampaya, about 800 kilometers, or 500
miles, south of Bangkok, banded together, bought 150 rifles, received
weapons training from a program initiated by Thailand’s Queen Sirikit,
and began a 24-hour patrol system.

The result: While surrounding villages have had about 20 killings by
insurgents since the beginning of the year, the residents of Lampaya
proudly report that they have had none.

Over the last four decades, as conflicts have spilled over its
borders with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia, the Thai government
has often fallen back on village militias to help keep the peace. In
the country’s southernmost provinces teachers, rubber tappers and civil
servants have been trained to handle weapons.

But experts on southern Thailand are watching the trend with a wary
eye. Most of the village militias are Buddhist, reinforcing the
sectarian lines in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand, where
about 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

“My cousin in Narathiwat is arming himself to the teeth and drives
an armor-plated pickup truck,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, an associate
professor in international relations at Chulalongkorn University in
Bangkok, referring to his home province, which borders on Malaysia.
“It’s a reflection of how bad the situation is.”

The militias, analysts say, are spreading guns in a region that
already has too many. And there is no rigorous system to control who is
allowed to join the militias.

“If they just protect themselves it’s reasonable,” said Srisompob
Jitpiromsri, a political science professor and associate dean at Prince
of Songkla University in the southern city of Pattani. More militias
are being formed as the security situation deteriorates, Srisompob
said. “I’m very concerned that this will lead to more sectarian
tension,” he said.

There are about 18,000 troops in the three troubled provinces, about
one for every square kilometer of territory and one for every 100
residents. During a drive across two of the provinces Monday there were
soldiers stationed on every major road in intervals of several hundred
meters.

Yet six months after seizing power, Thailand’s military-appointed
government is coming under increasing pressure to toughen what has been
a relatively conciliatory approach toward Muslim insurgents.

There are some calls in Thailand to resume the hard-line approach
advocated by the prime minister the generals overthrew last September,
Thaksin Shinawatra. Newspaper editorials have urged the government to
disown its policy of negotiations with the insurgents. The newspaper
The Nation marked six months of military rule on Monday with the
headline, “Soft approach in South failing.”

The gruesome killings last week by insurgents of eight passengers in
a commuter van — including two teenage girls — and the steep spike in
deaths since the Sept. 19 coup have spurred protest marches in Bangkok
and Chiang Mai and a plea by the queen for more security for southern
civilians.

Napol Boonthap, a general who serves as an assistant to the royal
household, said in a speech Saturday that the queen was deeply
concerned about the safety of civilians in the south.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” Boonthap quoted the queen as
telling him, according to the newspaper Matichon. “We must help the
people there to survive. If they need to be trained, train them. If
they need weapons, give them weapons.”

The monthly death toll of the insurgency averaged 65 in the five
months after the coup, compared with an average of 50 in the five
months before. On Monday, three women were killed on their way to work
at one of the queen’s agricultural projects in Pattani.

Many southerners, especially Buddhists, are hoping for a stronger response from the government and the crown.

Immediately after the September coup the military-appointed
government said tackling the problems of the south would be a priority.
With several high-ranking Muslim members in the junta and government—
including the top general and the interior minister — analysts were
hopeful the violence would subside.

Last November, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont made an
extraordinary apology, taking responsibility on behalf of the Thai
state for decades of strife. Surayud banned the practice of
blacklisting people with suspected ties to the insurgency and dropped
charges against a group of Muslim protesters. The general who led the
September coup, Sondhi Boonyarataglin, said he was ready to talk to
representatives of the insurgents.

But the immediate response from the insurgents was far from
conciliatory. The day after Surayud issued his apology, 46 violent
incidents were recorded, compared with a daily average of 9 the
previous month, according to the International Crisis Group, a
Brussels-based organization that has been monitoring the situation in
southern Thailand closely.

What has stirred the most anger against the insurgents — and has
increased frustration toward the government — is the broadening of the
daily killings to include apparently randomly selected civilians,
everyone from monks to farmers and schoolchildren.

Villagers in Lampaya say they often contemplate retaliating for the killings.

“We really want revenge,” said Chain Tingkam, 41, a grocery store
owner. “Especially when someone I know is killed, I really want to
shoot and fight.”

This is precisely the fear of analysts who say the violence could
escalate if villages start warring with each other or if religious
lines become even sharper.

La-ong, the village headman, says he also has contemplated revenge
but says he feels restraint. “As humans we all want revenge,” La-ong
said. “But I ask myself, ‘If I do it, how will that help me?”

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