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In Thailand, a New Model for Militants?

Muslim separatists' relentless low-level attacks on civilians are taking a heavy toll, but the campaign is largely unnoticed by the West.

October 01, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

HAT YAI, Thailand — The bomb that exploded outside New Cherry Ancient Massage was among the most sinister kinds -- a lethal sucker punch timed to detonate moments after two other blasts had lured onlookers into the streets of this tourist town.

The homemade device, hidden in a motorcycle parked outside the busy parlor, killed five people, including a Canadian teacher and three masseuses.

All 30 surviving massage workers quit on the spot. Within days, the parents of the three dead women came to take their daughters' bodies home.

"One father asked, 'Why my child? She was a good girl,' " said New Cherry owner Boonchai Sangmankung. "And I couldn't answer him. I don't know myself. Why do the attacks continue? Why are more innocent people killed every day?"

Since 2004, militants in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south have waged a bloody separatist insurgency against the cultural elite of this largely Buddhist nation, targeting teachers, monks, community leaders and government officials. So far, 1,700 people have been killed, yet the campaign of almost-daily bombings, arson attacks, kidnappings and assassinations has gone largely unnoticed in a Western world fixated on higher-profile Islamic terrorism campaigns in Iraq and elsewhere.

"The violence in southern Thailand is quite significant compared to many other world conflicts today," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "The U.S. lost 3,000 soldiers in three years in Iraq. This death toll is not far behind."

International terrorism experts are keeping a close eye on southern Thailand's guerrilla war, believing that the attacks could become a blueprint for small insurgencies in the post9/11 world. The strategy of incessant low-level attacks against civilians could be imitated by other regional militants, they say.

Experts also fear that the insurgents could soon be joined by international terrorists slipping across Thailand's porous borders, bringing money, expertise and manpower.

"It's important that this regional war not escalate," said John Brandon, director of the Asia Foundation's international relations program. "The world cannot afford this war to become ripe for outside terror influences to take advantage of it."

A recent State Department report concluded that there was no evidence of any connection between the militants and global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah, based in Southeast Asia.

"There is concern, however, that these groups may attempt to capitalize on an increasingly violent situation for their own purposes," the report stated.

Under Thai rule since 1902, Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, the three Muslim-dominated provinces at the heart of the violence, are distinct from the rest of Thailand. The people speak a different language -- a Malay dialect -- and observe a strict Muslim lifestyle not far from the jet-set crowd sprawled on the sandy beaches of Phuket, a draw for U.S. and European tourists.

Many Muslim residents still chafe over what they consider a century of abusive rule. But experts differ over the roots of the insurgency. Some say it's a battle over religious freedom, others say it's a fight for territory and self-rule. Still others say it's both.

But the tensions have filled daily life in Thailand's south with newfound risks -- walking children to school, shopping in an outdoor market, driving at night.

In the first six months of 2006, two people died every day, on average: A Buddhist teacher was gunned down in front of his fourth-grade class by men dressed as students. A salesman was beheaded outside a crowded teashop. The owner of an elephant troupe was shot seven times by assailants who had lined up with children to buy tickets for a show.

In August, 22 small bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in banks throughout southern Yala province, killing one person and bringing commerce to a standstill. Two months earlier, 50 bombs went off in a single day at government offices and police stations.

Last year, 15 militants stormed a Buddhist temple and hacked two monks to death before setting fire to their bodies. Thai officials believe that 30,000 Buddhists have fled the south since the attack. Insurgents also have targeted fellow Muslims suspected of conspiring with a military known for its brutality in dealing with the Islamic militants.

For their part, Thai officials claim to be fighting a ghost insurgency: The killers don't issue claims of responsibility for their acts. Officials have little clue about the identity of the attackers. About 20,000 troops in the region have yet to arrest any insurgency leaders.

"The nation's best military intelligence concedes we are waging a war on ghosts," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University. "We don't have a clue as to who their leaders are or what they want."

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