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<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

A ranger guards a temple.

Thai Car Bombs And Water Fights

In Thailand’s far south, a brutal and little-known conflict is killing hundreds of people every year. And it appears to be getting worse.

Jack Wansuwan's shop in Yala, in Thailand's far south, looks far too fluffy and saccharine to get bombed. Inside, and spilling out onto the pavement of Ruam Mit Street, the shop stocks a mix of giant stuffed animals, cartoon-covered pillows and bobble-headed figurines. Waist-high concrete blast barriers painted in candy stripes of white and pastel pink hem it all in.

On March 31, Jack was inside his shop when the first car bomb exploded. Peering out for a moment onto the smoke-filled street, he saw flames and the torn bodies of dead and wounded neighbours. While they screamed from the road, Jack ducked back inside and took shelter, waiting for what everyone here knows usually comes next.

“It’s still very much a clandestine movement ... Why, after eight years, are we still trying to figure out who the leaders of this insurgency are?”

"Normally the terrorists plant one bomb and then set another one to explode a few minutes later," Jack explains, more than a week after the attacks. By the time the second bomb went off, across the street and 100 metres away, 11 people were dead or dying on Ruam Mit Street, and more than 100 were injured. On the same day, nearly two hours north, in the city of Hat Yai, one Thai and two Malaysian touristswere killed by another bomb in the car park of a hotel.

Sitting surrounded by his plush merchandise, Jack puffs out in exasperation. On October 25, his street was hit in another deadly attack by insurgents who left more than 20 bombs hidden around town — including at a stationery shop, a fruit stall and a school. As a Buddhist on a mostly Buddhist street in an overwhelmingly Muslim town, Jack feels like a target.

"Nothing is safe," he says. "Life or property. It just keeps happening again and again."

Thailand's far south is home to a brutal conflict that has gone underreported in the country and in the world at large.

While most of the country is Buddhist and culturally Thai, the three southernmost provinces — of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — once were part of an independent sultanate, religiously Muslim and ethnically Malay, that was annexed by the Kingdom of Siam in the early 20th century.

Fighting has gone on for decades, but has escalated dramatically since 2004, killing more than 5,000 people. The insurgents don't make videos, release statements or make speeches. Instead they speak through violence, planting bombs and carrying out targeted killings on a near daily basis.

Thai police, soldiers and paramilitaries are often targets, but so too are civilians. Buddhist monks, schoolteachers and Muslim Malays who are seen as collaborators are frequently shot and sometimes beheaded. While the insurgents call their struggle a jihad, or holy war, they have no proven links with international jihadists such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda.

"The insurgents themselves are not Islamists, they are ethnonationalists," says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an independent analyst who accompanied The Global Mail around the deep south. Their fight, simply summarised, is to separate from Thailand and re-establish the independent Malay state of Pattani.

"It's still very much a clandestine movement," she says. "That's the kind of question people have: Why, after eight years, are we still trying to figure out who the leaders of this insurgency are?"

It's an insurgency that shows signs of becoming more deadly and more effective. There were 489 people killed in the insurgency in 2011, according to the Deep South Watch, which monitors the conflict.  In the first three months of this year, 128 people were killed. The recent bombing in Hat Yai generated a flurry of attention because it happened in a part of the country where insurgents rarely strike, and because foreigners were among the dead. The much deadlier bombs on the same day in Yala raised fewer eyebrows, but still impressed with its deadliness and sophistication.

WITH few words exchanged and little outside attention, the killing in Thailand's deep south is a conflict that — when the sporadic headlines fade — often feels like it may not be happening at all.

That's an impression the Thai authorities have been keen to cultivate. With an economy highly dependent on tourism and an image for smiling hospitality to maintain, Thailand, a key Western ally, has assiduously tried to convey a sense of normalcy. And hosting one of Asia's most brutal and intractable conflicts is hardly good for that.

Travelling through the insurgency zone is a surreal experience. Soldiers and checkpoints — with surprisingly lax screening — are scattered through a landscape that alternates between rustic Malay villages and ribbons of highway that evoke Western suburbia.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Colonel Nopporn Ruengchan.

With a long-running state of emergency in effect, the military is the most powerful political force here. Its propaganda efforts, however, would not look out of place in Jack Wansuwan's shop. At night, towns light up with multicoloured displays of love hearts and doves; at one checkpoint, two giant teddy bears sit behind barriers dressed in bulletproof vests.

In a demountable building at the headquarters of the army's Yala Taskforce — decorated with a cartoon of a soldier saluting, his face covered with an oversized helmet - the force's deputy commander, Colonel Nopporn Ruengchan, sums up the smiling approach taken by authorities.

The military, he says, is here to protect the people — and part of that involves taking a light-touch approach to checkpoints and searches. Yes, people are dying, but it's no reason to make this feel like a warzone.

"This is not a war," he says. "It's just insurgents launching attacks here and there. It's not a war with the people, we're supporting the people."

Ask the military, and it becomes very unclear why there is so much bloodshed in the deep south. While the insurgents are in part motivated by politics, much of the insurgency is criminal, Col. Nopporn says. He argues that a big part of the fighting is in fact competition over the smuggling of fuel and drugs over the border of Malaysia, in which gangs, government officials, police and even soldiers are also involved.

While there are some "bandits who claim they are fighting for independence and justice", they have little public support, he says. What little support that exists is gained through either intimidation or anger at government officials involved in crime. Most locals love Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej as much as anyone else. "People don't really feel like they're Malays. They feel like Thai Muslims," he says. "People here have portraits of the king up in their houses."

“They may be sympathetic to the insurgents, they don’t want to talk about insurgent hits. People are dying every day down there. Every day. People are scared.”

That's the official version of events. But few others down here buy it.

Ahmad Somboon Baluang is a prominent Muslim scholar, and he does not have a portrait of the king in his home. He has a much more straightforward explanation for the conflict.

People down here are not Thai, and they feel oppressed by a Kingdom that, while officially guaranteeing freedom of religion, is deeply inflected with Buddhism, Ahmad says. The fact that many bases are inside Buddhist temples and schools does little to fix this. But few in the government or military will acknowledge the problem, he says.

"The Kingdom of Thailand doesn't really get how to solve the real problems here, so the conflict keeps carrying on," he says.

"They know that here the people are Malays, they're Muslims, their culture is different, their language is different, their religion is different. But they don't accept it."

Insurgents kill monks and teachers because they are seen as symbols of occupiers that are "annihilating" local culture, he says. Some efforts have been made to recognize local culture, but too little to bring an end to the conflict.

At the same time, impunity reigns for members of the security forces implicated in the abduction, torture and killing of local people suspected of being insurgents, he says. In towns and villages, Malay Muslim men fear arrest on suspicion of being militants under the state of emergency. Likewise, memories remain raw of abuses including the army's brutal suppression of a protest in the town of Tak Bai in 2004, in which seven people were shot dead and hundreds arrested. Bound face-down with their shirts off, the demonstrators were stacked on top of each other in trucks, where 78 suffocated to death.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Soldiers on patrol in Yala.

Despite their efforts to project a cuddly image, Thai security forces are widely disliked. "They're down here smiling, chatting, but that's not all of them," Ahmad says. In many areas, particularly in the villages, fear and mistrust prevail.

OUT in the countryside, a culture of silence covers much of the conflict in obscurity.

It was just after evening prayers on Wednesday, April 11, when Yalee Tahe, 50, exited a mosque in Ban Na Phrao, a rundown seaside village in Pattani province, with five neighbours. He had taken a few steps outside when the first shots rang out and muzzle flashes, just metres away, lit up the darkness. Yalee turned to run, but was struck and killed. Behind him, another villager, Romli Haji Doleng, was killed near the entrance of the mosque; Romli's wife, Marioyoh Haji Doleng, fell wounded beside him.

The shooter, or shooters, managed to fire off 19 rounds before melting away into the surrounding stands of coconut palms.

By the time we arrive the next day, the bodies of Yalee and Romli already have been washed, shrouded and buried. Rusty splatters of dried blood remain crusted into the sandy ground where the three victims fell.

The shooting is recounted to us by three villagers who escaped the attack unscathed — two elderly men, Ma-ae Kaje and Yamae Pohma, and 31-year-old Ismail Wohdeng. Ismail, the only member of the group who appears to speak fluent Thai, is helpful in describing the attack, but baulks at questions of who may be responsible, or why it happened.

Had villagers made enemies with the insurgency? Or was the attack likely the result of the security forces? Every variation of the question "Who did it?" gets the same response: Ismail turns to the older men, and asks the same question in Malay, and they all reply, "I don't know."

“The people down here have a different culture, so I really only feel safe playing on this street. If no one plays Songkran here then no one would be playing anywhere.”

Are militants active in the area? "I don't know," Ismail says. "Nobody talks about it."

In Yalee's home, one relative is more talkative. Sidling over as guests eat lunch on the floor, he says he thinks the villagers were shot by the rangers, a paramilitary force under army command.

"Muslims wouldn't kill people where they're praying. A mosque is a place of God," he says. Just why Yalee was killed he cannot say, beyond saying the attack was an act of "prejudice". Tit-for-tat killings have been going on in the area since 2004, he says. The Thursday before, a 63-year-old Muslim man was shot dead and his son injured in a nearby village in what the military has labeled a personal dispute; on Saturday, a Buddhist man was shot riding his motorbike near the beach. Yalee's relative believes the attacks are connected.

At the village police station, where the bullet-riddled hulks of cars used by insurgents sit out front, local detective Lieutenant Khampanat Kaeyiwa says there's not enough evidence to say revenge killings are going on in the area.

The dead Buddhist, Aekkachai Thongyai, was shot, run off the road, and then finished off with a shot to the head at point-blank range, says Khampanat, who is covering the case. Khampanat says he thinks Aekkachai's killing is drug-related, but the insurgency is also a possibility. Violence has many causes here, he says. The rangers, poorly disciplined sometimes drunk, are disliked and often fight among themselves. But "normally people working as informants for the authority are prime targets for attack," he says.

Such a murky picture is no surprise in the rural areas of the deep south, says Anthony Davis, a security analyst for IHS-Jane's. The vast majority of targeted killings are insurgent attacks, and most of the victims are Muslims seen as collaborators, he says. But drug and crime attacks do happen regularly in smaller numbers, as do extrajudicial killings by the security forces.

"They're afraid of the military, they're afraid of the insurgents," Davis says of regular people in the deep south. "They may be sympathetic to the insurgents, they don't want to talk about insurgent hits. People are dying every day down there. Every day. People are scared."

What makes the situation worse is that no one — the military, police nor civilian government — seems to have an overall strategy to deal with the violence. After the major bombings on March 31, the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, speculated the attacks could have been triggered by insurgent groups left out of talks purportedly being held by the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra with insurgent leaders in Malaysia. The government, which is headed by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, has denied this.

"Clearly there is no real cohesion when it comes to putting together a national policy on how to tackle the southern crisis. It's a mess," Davis says.

IT is April 13, the first day of Songkran, the Thai new year, and the military's charm offensive is in full effect in Yala town.

Down the length of Ruam Mit Street, in front of the burnt-out shells of shops that have been bombed and building facades that have been spackled with shrapnel, local Buddhists are getting raucously — and increasingly drunkenly — into the mass waterfights with which Thais ring in the new year.

At one end, a live band belts out rock music, as local men, women and kathoey — ladyboys — drench each other with buckets and water pistols. At the edge, heavily armed soldiers and police enforce a series of checkpoints, setting up what they call a "safety zone" complete with signal jammers to foil remotely detonated bombs.

Across from one gutted shop, Sawangnapa Norasing plays with local children and her husband in front of her home. The car bomb two weeks before knocked her out and put her in the hospital for five days, but Sawangnapa is intent on celebrating. The security is heavy because this street, as one of the most heavily Buddhist in town, is also among the most likely to be bombed. "The people down here have a different culture, so I really only feel safe playing on this street. If no one plays Songkran here then no one would be playing anywhere," she says.

Outside the safety zone and its Thai Buddhist bubble, we travel through the rest of Yala town. Across the train tracks, we enter a side of town where few Buddhists live. Friday prayers have finished, and down the shuttered streets a few women in headscarves are walking, and men lounge in restaurants across from the town's main mosque.

Sitting sipping tea with his friends, Abdul Manas, a Malay Muslim, bemoans the increasing division between Thai Buddhists and Muslim Malays since the surge in violence in 2004. The big cause, he and his friends agree, is an aggressive military that has harassed neighbours and family. "We feel occupied," Abdul says.

As for the water fights up the road, the men are unimpressed by the military's Songkran hearts-and-minds efforts. Thai new year, while a national holiday, is a Buddhist thing, explains Abdul's friend, Mohammad Rosi. Few Muslims will take part.

"For a Muslim, joining in is a sin," he explains.

How serious a sin is it, I ask. Mohammad is emphatic. "It's a big sin."

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