STEVE INSKEEP, host:
There's a low-level but deadly insurgency going on in southern Thailand. More than 900 people have been killed since January 2004. Muslim separatists are blamed for much of this violence and the government's efforts to end it have failed. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.
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MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:
The southern border town of Sungai Kolok is a party town, Thailand's Tijuana, a collection of bars, hotels and karaoke parlors where the liquor and the ladies are plentiful. Until recently, so were the customers, mostly Malaysian Muslims who popped across the border for pleasures forbidden back home. But the violence in the south has changed things. Fewer customers are now willing to cross says this Thai bar owner who calls herself Jane. `Things got worse,' she says, `when unknown assailants bombed the hotel two doors down the street.'
"JANE" (Bar Owner): (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: `Before the violence began, we could earn about 10,000 baht, or $250 a night,' the bar owner says. `Right now, we're lucky to make even half that. I used to have five girls working here, now I'm down to just two.'
About an hour north of the border, some in the world's noblest profession are also unhappy and alarmed.
(Soundbite of a bell ringing and children's voices)
SULLIVAN: This primary school is in an all-Muslim village called Tugal(ph). Students in blue and white uniforms pour out of their classrooms and stand at attention in the courtyard as the Thai flag is lowered for the day.
(Soundbite of children)
Unidentified Children: (Foreign language spoken in unison).
SULLIVAN: Two Thai soldiers in full combat gear--M-16s, body armor and helmets--sit under a tree waiting to escort the teachers home. Last month, the Buddhist principal here was assassinated by two men on motorbikes shortly after school ended. Yamila Salay(ph), one of the Muslim teachers, says she is angry at those responsible for her friend's death.
Ms. YAMILA SALAY (Teacher): (Through Translator) The principal, she worked here for 27 years. She was very well liked by everyone in the community and the children loved her.
SULLIVAN: When asked who is responsible, Yamila shakes her head. `I couldn't tell you,' she says, `even if I knew because I'm afraid of what might happen if I did.'
Before the feuding, six Buddhists and four Muslims taught here. Now all the Buddhists are either gone or waiting to be transferred and even the Muslim teachers who remain, like Sumaraya Jayuma(ph), are nervous.
Ms. SUMARAYA JAYUMA (Teacher): (Through Translator) I'm very worried because this is the government's school. I've never received any direct warning, but some people in the village say they've been told that anyone working for the government is in danger.
SULLIVAN: The Thai government blames Islamic separatists for most of the violence. Thailand annexed the mainly Muslim, Malay-speaking southern provinces more than a hundred years ago, planting the seeds of today's insurgency. The southern provinces are among the country's poorest and least developed. Many Muslims in the south say that's no accident. They accuse Bangkok of systematic neglect and discrimination.
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SULLIVAN: The recent violence is not limited to government targets. These days, almost any Buddhist institution will do. This temple complex is in Narathiwat town. A caretaker steps gingerly through debris littering the floor, careful to avoid several pools of blood. In many southern villages, the minority Buddhists ban together after dark to guard their neighborhoods and places of worship. Last night, a bomb exploded at this complex, killing one volunteer and wounding half a dozen more. Volunteer Phoun Kousi(ph).
Mr. PHOUN KOUSI (Volunteer): (Through Translator) We don't know when this is going to end. I don't think it's going to be any time soon. The situation just keeps getting worse and the security forces cannot protect us.
SULLIVAN: Since January last year, the government has sent thousands of troops to try to end the insurgency. Last month, after a high-profile series of bombings, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared the southern provinces emergency zones. His decree gives security forces unprecedented powers, including immunity from prosecution for any excesses that might occur under the new decree. Human rights groups warn the new powers are a license to kill and will only exacerbate tension between security forces and the local population.
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SULLIVAN: It's a population already familiar with heavy-handed tactics where arbitrary arrests and detention, locals say, are common. In the rural Muslim village of Salamai, 17-year-old Marina(ph) sits on her mother's porch, serenaded by songbirds. She says her husband recently left the village to look for work in Malaysia.
MARINA: (Through Translator) He told me that it's safer this way. He's worried that if he stays here, the authorities may come and take him away, like they take young men from other villages. If you work in Malaysia, he doesn't have to worry.
SULLIVAN: Marina's 26-year-old brother was one of hundreds detained by authorities after a demonstration last October. Nearly 90 of the men, including her brother, died in police custody on their way to a nearby prison. Marina says she's still angry at the security forces. `I wish they would just go away,' she says, `and leave us in peace.'
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SULLIVAN: A few miles from Marina's village, a soccer game is under way outside the local army headquarters, Thai soldiers and local Muslim youth sharing a game in a rare display of peaceful coexistence. The base commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chum Chai Amun(ph), says he, too, looks forward to the day he can leave.
Lieutenant Colonel CHUM CHAI AMUN (Thai Base Commander): (Through Translator) I think in the past, the government made some mistakes, treated the people badly and was guilty of some injustices. But I think we're doing things differently now. We're trying to show respect to people and want to work with them. And I think we're making progress.
SULLIVAN: Narathiwat Islamic council chairman Abd al-Rahman Abd al Samad says the government does appear to be trying harder, but he wonders if it's too little too late. The harsh treatment meted out by security forces in the past has alienated many, he says, creating more sympathizers, if not outright converts to the separatists' cause.
Mr. ABD AL-RAHMAN ABD AL SAMAD (Narathiwat Islamic Council Chairman): (Through Translator) It's not about Thai Muslims and Thai Buddhists living together. The trouble has many causes, many things mixed together, like when a cook puts many ingredients into a bowl. Mostly, it's about unhappiness with the authorities. The local people don't trust the authorities. And until this changes, the problem will continue.
SULLIVAN: Historical grievances, not Islamic ideology, fuel this insurgency for now. But the Islamic council chairman does not dismiss the notion that could change if foreign extremists, outsiders, make inroads in the south and use the anger of disaffected Muslim youth to pursue a jihadist agenda. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.
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