KOLOMUDO VILLAGE, Thailand – The black-uniformed raiders roared into this Thai Muslim village, firing assault rifles and hurling grenades from a pickup truck at a group of teenagers relaxing near the mosque. When the attack was over, five of the youths lay dead.
As they have done in the past, authorities initially said the killers were Muslim insurgents terrorizing their own people in their separatist war against the Buddhist-dominated central government.
But then the official line on the village raid changed, with senior military commanders shifting suspicion to Buddhist vigilantes and heightening fears that the four-year-old conflict in Thailand’s southern Muslim provinces is entering an ominous new phase.
Mohammed Kadir, a local government leader in Kolomudo, told The Associated Press he believed the raiders were not Muslim insurgents disguised in military garb – as has been claimed by authorities in other cases. He instead thought they could have been Buddhist vigilantes in official-looking uniforms or possibly security forces, which have long been accused of torturing and secretly killing suspected insurgents.
The May 31 attack came three days after a bomb in a nearby market killed four Buddhists, including two children. No formal charges have been lodged. Similar accounts of the Kolomudo assault were given by Kadir as well as by police Capt. Somchai Chuaybamrung.
Until recently, most of the violence that has killed more than 2,300 people since 2004 was the work of radical Muslim groups which have penetrated many of the remote, jungle-fringed villages of the south and struck into the heart of its few urban areas. They have used Iraq-style roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and beheadings against Buddhists as well as fellow Muslims deemed traitors to their cause.
But in several recent cases of violence against Muslims, suspicion has fallen on shadowy Buddhist vigilante groups.
One of them is Ruam Thai, or Thais United, established in late 2005 by police officials led by Maj. Gen. Phitak Iadkaew, then chief of investigation in Yala, one of the three Muslim-majority provinces. At the time, Buddhists were clamoring for protection and several government agencies responded by handing out shotguns and weapons training. One such program – not Thais United – was sponsored by Queen Sirikit.
The stated purpose was self-defense, but the result has been a region awash with guns and mounting allegations that Thais United, virtually unknown to the Thai public and mentioned only sketchily in local media, has become a death squad.
Maj. Gen. Samret Srirai, the military commander in charge of security operations in the south, said an initial inquiry suspects Thais United was behind the shootings in Kolomudo. He noted that about a month after the attack, the national police chief ordered Phitak, the Thais United leader, transferred out of the region.
But 56-year-old Phitak may be too strong and popular to be sidelined. Hundreds of Thais United members took to the streets to protest against his transfer, and he has stayed put, saying his mission remains to protect the region’s Buddhist minority.
“We don’t shoot innocent Muslims. We only shoot insurgents,” he said. “They deserve to be killed.”
In his first interview with the media, Phitak told AP that Thais United has enlisted about 6,200 members, mostly Buddhists but also a handful of Muslims, mainly those whose family members have been killed by insurgents.
“We didn’t do it. It could be any vengeful Buddhists or Muslim insurgents,” he said of the Kolomudo incident.
Phitak has worked in the south for 30 years and is a veteran of the Border Patrol Police which fought Thai communist rebels during the Cold War. But he says he has little control over or knowledge of everything the Thais United members do.
Recruits attend at least two days of training in basic self-defense, with special courses for children aged between 10 and 15.
“Since they can train their kids, we can train ours,” Phitak told dozens of Buddhist men at a course, and showed photos of hooded Muslims in the Middle East training children to use guns. The AP was allowed to witness the training.
Phitak said that trained members return to their villages to set up patrols, and carry a card granting them semiofficial status by stating that they are working as informants for his investigation unit.
A select group of some 400 men and women have undergone “commando” training and are allowed to work alongside the police to guard violence-plagued villages and other areas.
They wear police-like uniforms and carry combat weapons such as assault rifles, rather than the shotguns that are standard issue for village self-defense forces, Phitak said.
Human rights groups warn that vigilantism, on top of alleged torture and secret killings of suspected insurgents, is only making things worse. The government insists the abuses have been stopped, but there is criticism even from inside the army.
“Today, relationships between Muslims and Buddhists have been torn apart completely. Not only that, they are starting to kill one another,” said Col. Shinnawat Maendet, the military commander of Yala province.
“Thais United is a problem because its activities have inflamed conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists,” he said, citing the killing of three Muslims – a father, mother and son in Yala’s Bannang Sata district in February – believed to have been carried out by the group.
Rumor often prevails over facts in the south’s close-knit, conservative communities, and Muslims are quick to blame every killing of a co-religionist on government agents. But southern Muslims have long experience of human rights violations, torture and abductions; discrimination and higher poverty rates than the Buddhist north; and a folk memory of a south that was an independent sultanate until a century ago.
Shinnawat, the military commander, says the government will play into the insurgents’ hands if it sponsors revenge killings.
“If a civil war breaks out, the military will have to use force to stop it and a lot of people will die,” he said in an interview. “The insurgents will say that the Thai government’s hands are full of blood and it has no right to govern the Muslims. Then, it will be justifiable to call for U.N. intervention.”
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