PATTANI, Thailand — The monk suddenly realized he was running. What just happened? All around him, soldiers assigned to guard his morning alms run fired their M-16s through a cloud of smoke and airborne debris. Some rolled in the dirt. Screaming.
The monk screamed too. My arm, he thought, it’s blown off. But when Wacharapong Suttha looked down, there it was, intact but streaked with blood. He had not even dropped his silver alms bowl, held fast by fingers curled around its basin in a death grip.
Wacharapong would spend nine days in the hospital, where a doctor plucked metal chips from his rump. The stinging has since faded. But the January bombing blackened the 27-year-old’s psyche. It dominates his waking thoughts.
“I weep in my chambers,” said Wacharapong, perched under a wooden temple shelter, his bare feet studded with ruby-colored shrapnel welts. The stress finally compelled him to leave the monkhood, though he still lives on the temple grounds as an assistant.
“I have felt sick as if possessed by a demon,” he said. “I think of suicide.”
Wacharapong Suttha, a Thai Buddhist monk, lies on a hospital bed following a bomb attack in Thailand's restive southern province of Pattani on Jan. 28, 2011. (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty)
In the Thai Buddhist mind, almost nothing is so disturbing as harming a monk. That is exactly why insurgents shoot monks at close range, hide bombs on their alms routes and occasionally hack off their heads.
Monks were once the lowest-hanging fruit, unarmed targets attacked to inflict peak damage to Buddhist morale. The army has since decided to guard them at all hours. Troops have transformed Buddhist temples into military camps.
Wacharapong’s temple in Yala city is, for all practical purposes, a fortress with a tall golden spire in the middle. It is defended by G.I.s, their helmeted heads just visible above walls of black sandbags. Barracks trailers crowd the temple grounds.
“We have more than 100 soldiers here,” said the Lak Muang temple’s 62-year-old abbot, Tong. “And we have only seven monks.”
His monks can still perform alms runs. Each morning, two pre-pubescent novice monks in day-glo orange robes trod barefoot into town and collect food. But as merit-making Thais spoon rice and curry into their alms bowls, an entire platoon stands guard.
All those guns, all that concertina wire piled high as hay bales around holy grounds. Does it not undermine Buddha’s teachings?
“It is not a contradiction,” said Abbot Tong in a whispery monotone. “The soldiers try to act according to Buddha’s principles. But the other side does not.”
“We’re at a disadvantage,” the abbot said. “We don’t wage battle. If we catch them, we look after them with karma in mind. If they catch us, we are treated like animals.”
But while monks are defenseless, their flock is armed to the teeth.
State security forces in the deep south — a patchwork of troops, cops and civilian paramilitary groups — amount to roughly 100,000 people among a population of about 1.8 million. About 25,000 of them belong to the Village Protection Volunteers. It is essentially an all-Buddhist militia.
Locally known by the shorthand “Or Ror Bor,” the militia is government sponsored, army trained and often meets inside Buddhist temples. Any Buddhist 18 or older is encouraged to sign up, grab a gun and join patrols. Can’t afford a 12-gauge? The government will loan one out or offer a 60 percent rebate.
“We’re all Buddhist. No Muslims among us,” said Choedsak “Pig” Isaro, a Pattani city militia captain who runs a tin-roofed tea shop with his wife, Chicken.
“Used to be, they could just drive in and shoot us,” said Choedsak. “Not anymore. The terrorists have their network. Now we have ours.”
“Absolutely everyone here has to know how to shoot,” said Penporn, the matronly captain of her village’s 190-person defense unit. The 2,000-person settlement, Tung Ka, lies within a military-designated “red zone” under insurgents’ sway.
“I never feel safe. My sleep is restless,” Penporn said. “We never know when the attackers will come next.”
But while she dutifully trains with troops twice a year, the subject of firearms turns the grandmother melancholy. To be honest, Penporn said, she probably doesn’t have the guts to kill anyone.
“I wouldn’t shoot them in time,” she said. “How do you know, before they get you, if they’re bandits or good guys? You can’t just shoot them first. You’re out of luck.”
Reading, writing, revolvers
Even teachers, targeted as agents of Buddhist indoctrination, arrive to school with handguns tucked under their belts. At one school within a “red zone” district called Rueso in Narathiwat province, the administrator estimated that 30 percent of his staff is armed in the classroom.
“I don’t pressure the teachers to carry guns,” said Principal Karan Satthatipkul, who keeps a Glock 9 millimeter in his desk. “It’s their decision.”
Like the region’s temples, schools too have become de facto battlements. Troops were even ordered to teach four years ago when nearly 80 percent of the region’s 3,500 Buddhist teachers requested transfers or simply stopped showing up. The government briefly considered installing 500 satellite dishes so school staff could beam in lessons from afar.
“We have bad guys coming in, pretending to be parents and even hugging the kindergarten kids,” Karan said. “You never know who they really are.”
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Among the armed is Kongrapan Ngoipala, 35, the school music teacher. He grows embarrassed when asked about his own .22-caliber pistol, acquired after masked insurgents fired on his wife and kids at an outdoor aerobics class.
“Guns are not that important. This is,” said Kongrapan, tugging out a clump of Buddhist amulets hidden under his button-up shirt. “In this world, there is birth, pain, aging and then death. So if I die, I die.”
Kongrapan refuses to leave. Who would take his place? But he still recalls the last words of a policeman friend who, like Kongrapan, also hailed from Thailand’s poor northeast. Both came in search of work with extra danger pay.
They last met in a hospital room where the cop, hit by a roadside bomb, was slowly dying. “He told me, ‘Don’t stay, brother,’” Kongrapan said. “‘Just move away.’”