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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 July 2005, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
Thai insurgency takes toll on locals
By Simon Montlake
In Narathiwat, southern Thailand

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has imposed emergency rule on the country's south, as violence in the Muslim-majority area shows no sign of abating.

The current unrest first began in January 2004, when suspected militants raided an army camp.

Soldier guarding monk collecting alms in Narathiwat morning market
Buddhists feel particularly vulnerable
Some residents played down the violence then, saying criminal and political elements were probably behind it. Others tried to rationalise it, pointing to a long history of insurgencies in the south.

But after 18 months of unchecked fighting that has increasingly targeted civilians, few are so sanguine.

In particular, the minority Buddhist population living in Thailand's three southernmost provinces feels less welcome there.

A string of public beheadings of Buddhists has signalled a gruesome twist in a conflict that has claimed more than 800 lives and injured about 1,500.

Some of the Buddhist population in the south, which numbers around 360,000 out of roughly 1.3 million Thais living in the area, are voting with their feet and leaving.

Before the violence, I used to go out until 1am or 2am, it was safe for me - now everybody is afraid to go out at night
Somjit Sangsanan, Tak Bai

Between January and June, more than 34,500 residents, mostly Buddhists, left the area, according to the Associated Press.

Others are adjusting to the violence by sticking to urban areas and avoiding travelling after dark.

"Our way of life has changed completely. We're scared and we don't know what will happen next," said Virawat Wattanyakorn, a prominent Buddhist businessman in the southern province of Narathiwat.

Muslim community leaders point out that it is not only Buddhists who fear they will become victims.

In fact, most of those killed in the conflict are Muslims, including civilians and militants who have died at the hands of Thai security forces.

Moreover, Muslims who are seen to co-operate with the authorities run the risk of reprisal attacks by the shadowy separatists.

"It's not only the Thai Buddhists who are afraid. Muslims are also afraid. Many Muslims have died here," said Abdulrahman Abdulsamad, chairman of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat.

Gun training

Meanwhile, beleaguered Buddhists are turning to the government for help in defending their communities.

Inside the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Tak Bai district, dozens of villagers have been learning how to fire a rifle.

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

Army officers bark orders at rows of men and women, who respond by dropping to the ground and aiming their unloaded guns.

Co-ordinator Daeng Punthep said the current batch of 136 volunteers would spend two weeks learning how to use their weapons, including trips to the army base for live-fire exercises.

One of the volunteers, 38-year-old Somjit Sangsanan, said she was ready to fire her gun if she ran into trouble.

Until now, her village has remained calm, but killings in nearby areas have put everyone on alert, she said.

"Before the violence, I used to go out until 1am or 2am, it was safe for me - now everybody is afraid to go out at night," she said.

However, Daeng sounded a note of caution about the spread of weapons in the Buddhist community.

As chief of his village, he warned that the guns could create more problems.

"I'm worried that if there's a fight [in the village], the people might use their guns to resolve the dispute," he said.

The economic impact of the southern conflict has been dramatic.

Officer teaching Buddhist villager how to fire a rifle
The army is teaching locals how to defend themselves
Despite frequent promises of increased government aid, Narathiwat is suffering.

The tourist trade, which once thrived on cross-border visits by Malaysians as well as domestic travellers, is down by some 80%.

While that is not surprising, what is starting to worry some residents is the slowdown in agricultural trade, the south's main source of income.

Ethnic Chinese traders, who dominate the private economy here as in much of Thailand, are afraid to travel in the violence-prone countryside.

Without buyers, seasonal fruit crops are going unpicked or being sold locally at knock-down prices.

Longans that normally fetch 30 baht a kilo are being offered for as little as five or 10 baht a kilo.

"The farmers are crying because they can't afford to pay the labour to cut the fruit at these low prices," said Virawat.

Rubber plantations are also struggling as tappers are afraid to go to work.

Rubber trees must be tapped before dawn to extract the most sap. But travelling during night time is considered too risky now.

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