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Fear Looms Over Rural Southern Thailand
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Fear Looms Over Rural Southern Thailand

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Fear Looms Over Rural Southern Thailand

Fear Looms Over Rural Southern Thailand
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Thailand Checkpoint

This military checkpoint in Thailand separates a Muslim village from a Buddhist village. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR

In Thailand, tensions between the growing separatist Muslim population and the Buddhists are intensifying. The separatist insurgency is worsening in the south. Two longtime friends, one Buddhist and the other Muslim, are being torn apart by the conflict.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Thailand is experiencing a worsening insurgency in its southern provinces that are mostly Muslim. The insurgency began four years ago. And now, more than 2,500 people have been killed. That's created a climate of fear, where there was once tolerance and even friendship.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Pensi Jundang(ph) is sitting on the porch of her modest home in the Buddhist village of Sa Kaeo, talking about how much she misses her friend, Yana(ph).

Ms. PENSI JUNDANG (Resident, Sa Kaeo, Thailand): (Thai Spoken)

SULLIVAN: We've known each other a long time, Jundang says. We used to invite each other over, have dinner together, shop together, even go to weddings together, she says. But we don't do any of that anymore.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SULLIVAN: A little more than a mile away, her friend Yana walks through a field not far from her home in the Muslim village of Charo(ph), explaining how close the two women once were.

YANA (Resident, Charo, Thailand): (Thai spoken)

SULLIVAN: This is my field on the left, she says, and that's her field right next to it. At harvest time, I'd help her with her crop and she'd do the same for me, Yana says. But she doesn't come here anymore. She's afraid she's going to get shot, the Muslim woman says, like the other Buddhists who've been killed since the trouble started.

(Soundbite of croaking frogs)

The two towns are next to each other, but the road that links them is now a virtual no-man's land, especially at night - a Thai army check point in between surrounded by thin bags and bristling with automatic weapons.

In the Buddhist village Sai Kaeo, the village chief, Yun Chan(ph), says nobody leaves the village at night anymore unless it's an emergency.

Mr. YUN CHAN (Village Chairman, Sai Kaeo, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We used to go out all the time, he says, to parties or see friends. But now nobody leaves after eight o'clock. We've had four people killed and several more injured, he says, since the trouble begin - attacks he believed were orchestrated by the chief of the Muslim village next door, a man he once considered a friend.

Mr. CHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We went to school together. We laughed together. We drank whiskey together, he says. Then the insurgency started, and our people started getting shot at when they past the Muslim village. After that, he says, we stopped being friends. And that, the Buddhist chief admits, may have been a mistake, because the chief of the Muslim village was killed not long ago and nothing changed.

Mr. CHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I thought he ordered the attacks, the Buddhist chief says, but they didn't stop after he was killed, so maybe it wasn't him. On the other hand, he may have not have ordered them, but he definitely knew who did, he says, and he never warned me. So maybe he got what he deserved.

This is rural southern Thailand 2007, where anger, resentment and a feeling of helplessness are slowly eating away at whatever goodwill might have existed between the Muslim majority and Buddhist minority here.

(Soundbite of rain)

SULLIVAN: To hear the Muslim villagers in Charo tell it, things started turning bad on October 2004, not long after the insurgency started, when more than 80 young Muslim men died, suffocated when packed into trucks for a ride to a nearby army based, detained after a demonstration that turned violent in the southern town of Tak Bai. Muya Sow's(ph) 19-year-old son was among the dead.

Ms. MUYA SOW (Resident, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't know if he was part of the insurgency, she says, but that day, some men had came to the village and told him he had to go with them to Tak Bai, and that's the last time we saw him alive.

The military said the men's deaths were an accident, but no one, Muya says, ever said they were sorry. She says she didn't think much about the insurgency before, but supports it now. We need just justice, she says, and the same rights as the others, reflecting the long held-view of many Muslims here that they are treated as second-class citizens by the Buddhist-dominated government in Bangkok.

(Soundbite of barking dog)

SULLIVAN: Back in the Buddhist village, Sai Kaeo, Pensi Jundang says she hopes all this craziness will end soon and that she and her friend, Yena, can renew their friendship. And she gives me a message to bring to her Muslim friend.

Ms. JUNDANG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Tell her I miss her and that I want to see her, she says softly. I'd go to see her right now, she says, if I weren't so afraid.

An hour or so later, I deliver the message to Yena who says this.

Ms. YENA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Tell her, in my house, in my village, she's got nothing to fear, Yena says. But outside my village, well, she might be right to be worried.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

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