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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2005, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
South Thailand: Behind the bombs
By Tony Cheng
BBC News, southern Thailand

Thailand's parliament has just passed tough new laws, which strengthen the government's hand in battling a 20-month insurgency in the mainly Muslim south.

Thai children show interest in the weapon of a soldier at a polling station set up in a school during local administration elections in Thailand's troubled southern Narathiwat province, 31 July 2005
Violence has become a daily reality in southern Thailand
The laws have already been put into action in the southern provinces, although the violence shows no sign of abating.

But perhaps that is no surprise, when the authorities still seem unsure about who exactly is behind the attacks, and what is motivating the bombers.

For the first time, the BBC has spoken to a man who claims to have been an insurgent fighting for Mujahadeen Islam Pattani, one of the older separatist groups that is now thought to have splintered into different factions.

As he walked along the street in one of the region's larger towns, in a colourful Hawaiian shirt and jeans, he looked more like a tourist than a former fighter.

He asked for his identity not to be revealed, because he still faces court proceedings in Thailand. He also said he would not talk about activities he had personally been involved in.

An unidentified woman dials her mobile phone following a bomb blast inside her restaurant in Thailand's troubled Yala province, 20 August 2005.
Hundreds of people have been killed in blasts since January 2004
But he mentioned insurgent training camps with knowledge that few outsiders would have, and was able to explain why the separatist groups found such a fertile recruiting ground in the south:

"In the past, people joined Mujahadeen Islam Pattani and Pulo (Pattani United Liberation Organisation) because when something [bad] happened, they helped," he said, suggesting that the separatist organisations used to play a more powerful role in the social structure.

And he also shed some light on who was behind the campaign.

"The ordinary southern Thais don't really want anything, but the people who've studied higher education in Malaysia want the land back. They want Pattani state back," he said, referring to the independent Islamic Sultanate of Pattani that was incorporated into Thailand around 100 years ago.

He says he was involved in training insurgents in guerrilla warfare, but fled to Malaysia a year ago.

"I couldn't stay in Thailand, because I didn't have any friends left - they'd all died, they were shot," he said.

New threat

The softly spoken man is now committed to the peace process, and has been involved in trying to convince suspected insurgents to surrender to the Thai authorities.

Perhaps strangely, he even welcomed the government's new emergency laws, saying he thought they would help to stabilise the region.

"It will be an opportunity for people who fled to come back and surrender," he said, referring to the section of the law that gives combatants immunity from prosecution in certain circumstances.

Thai paramilitary troopers patrol the streets in an armoured personnel carrier in Thailand's violence-torn Yala province, 26 August 2005.
Home to most of Thailand's 4% Muslim minority
Muslim rebels fought the government up to the mid-80s
Suspected militants have upped attacks since 2004, targeting Buddhists
Security forces' response criticised by rights groups

It had been assumed that that immunity referred only to the police and armed forces, but local reconciliation groups have been told that if insurgents voluntarily surrender they will receive varying degrees of leniency according to the new laws.

But while it is true that many insurgents have come forward to surrender to the Thai authorities, there are suggestions that the established groups, such as Mujahadeen Islam Pattani, are now being upstaged by more radical organisations.

Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch thinks that, for the newer radicalised insurgents, religion is far more important.

"Separatism used to be the priority, and religion followed after that, but with these new groups it's in reverse order - the new fighters seem to want to purify the area," he said.

And recent messages from the insurgents warning traders not to operate on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, have suggested a level of fundamentalism that has not been seen before.

The threats have proved very effective, and in the past month the sight of government trucks selling subsidised food - to take the place of traders who have decided not to work - has been common in southern markets.

"The situation is now disrupting even the basic things we do," said Nattini Wongpurak, who ran a small travel business in Narathiwat that she has now been forced to close.

"People like me are too scared even to go shopping," she said, adding that the people in the countryside will suffer even more.

"The people that this really hurts are the poor Muslims in the villages, who can't even sell their produce".

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