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Thailand's Underground War
Photographs and text by Ryan Anson
Six months after 78 men suffocated to death in the back of government army trucks, traces of normalcy are cautiously returning to the small village of Tak Bai in southern Thailand. Martial law still covers the entire restive border region, yet the Malay Muslims and tiny Buddhist minority living here go about their business as usual.
Women mix iced coffee in restaurants where old men dressed in Arab-styled gowns congregate to talk about the latest news in the Islamic world. On the shores of a nearby river that separates their town from Malaysia, teenagers scramble after soccer balls while crews of fishermen steer long-tail boats to shore without much of a catch. The bites are better late at night, they say.
As the sun dips below the forested mountains west of the city, a muezzin turns on a microphone after a busy day and restores a sense of ritual with the traditional call to prayer. Aside from a well-fortified police checkpoint on the outskirts of town where the occasional body frisk still takes place, there are few signs that a war is underway.
A daring raid on a weapons depot earlier last year triggered the latest round of violence in the country's deep south, an area where poverty and separatist activity have been the norm for decades. Unlike in previous years, however, no organization has claimed responsibility for the daily attacks on government employees, policemen, soldiers, Buddhist monks, and Muslims seen collaborating with the state. More than 650 people have died so far, and it appears that in spite of the government's recent peace overtures, the conflict shows no sign of abating.
Of equal concern is the potential for this local insurrection to acquire an international dimension. Thailand's national intelligence community suspects that some of the estimated 1,000 insurgents are graduates of Islamic institutions where it is believed that foreign-trained teachers are grafting a jihadist ideology onto pre-existing separatist aspirations and a deep sense of religious and economic persecution. And last year's bloody massacres in Tak Bai and at the historic Krue Se mosque–incidents that human rights groups recently concluded were avoidable and characterized by excessive force on the part of Thai security personnel–have generated anti-government resentment among even moderate Muslims who would not typically criticize the state, much less take part in jihad. Whether or not groups like al-Qaeda or its regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyya, have made [End Page 141] lasting inroads into the minds of discontented youth remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that scores of young people have been caught up in the violence as both combatants and victims.
Mahamanso Timasa was at home eating breakfast when the insurgency abruptly surfaced in Tak Bai on Oct. 25, 2004. A friend knocked on his door to let him know that a large group of demonstrators had gone to the local police precinct to protest the arrest of four men accused of funneling guns to insurgents. Curiosity got the best of him, and pretty soon Timasa found himself on the edge of an increasingly agitated crowd.
Independent fact-finding teams and security officials from the region argue over what happened next. All Timasa remembers is that he and hundreds of men dispersed when they heard gunfire but then found themselves surrounded by policemen and soldiers, handcuffed, and forced at gun-point to crawl half-naked on their stomachs to a holding cell located 100 meters away.
They were eventually heaved onto flatbed trucks that shuttled them north to the city of Pattani. Five hours later, soldiers at a military camp unloaded 15 corpses from Timasa's vehicle. In all, 78 men died of asphyxiation that afternoon. Timasa, who had been placed on the bottom of a pile of men stacked six high, lost all circulation in his left forearm and sustained serious liver damage. And like most of the other men, he had been observing the annual Ramadan...