PATTANI, Thailand — As with so many of the world’s Islamic insurgencies, jihadis here end up inflicting the most carnage on fellow Muslims.
Buddhists may make up 60 percent of the conflict’s 7,500-plus injuries, according to Deep South Watch figures. But Muslims make up 60 percent of the dead.
Abdunkorde Daman was nearly another death toll uptick. The 46-year-old Muslim rubber tapper was standing outside his village tea shop in May when he watched three men drop to the gravel from gunfire. Panicked, he dashed towards his toddler, who was wailing from the bed of his truck parked nearby.
In his last waking moments, he saw his attacker, eyes visible through a ski mask slit, firing an AK-47 from the back of a speeding pick-up. Then Abdunkorde dropped too. He was still crawling towards the sound of his child’s shrieks when he blacked out from blood loss.
As Abdunkorde fell unconscious, the attackers continued up a country road. They shot a female vegetable vendor. Then they fired on two elderly Muslim men squatting by the roadside. In total: four dead, 12 wounded.
“I don’t know how many bullets they pulled out of me in the hospital,” Abdunkorde said. “Nor do I know what we did wrong.”
The plump headman of Ga Sod village, 52-year-old Ya Mayae, has heard the gossip. Something about an insurgent’s brother getting shot here. Something about the mujahideen marking the village as insufficiently loyal.
But he says he doesn’t really know for sure. Nor does he know why, two years ago while driving, some gunman hidden in the roadside bramble shot him up as well. The shells tore into his forearm. Nerve damage deformed his hand into a crumpled claw.
“It’s tough to be a Muslim man in the deep south,” said Pratubjit Neelapaijit, 29, her doe eyes framed by a Dalmatian-spotted hijab. “They feel like they’re the biggest targets.”
Pratubjit would know. Her mother founded the Pattani-based Justice for Peace Foundation after a Muslim lawyer representing alleged separatists was kidnapped and never seen again. The man, presumed dead, was Pratubjit’s father. Their foundation continues his work: monitoring abuses against Muslims and Buddhists alike.
To be male, poor and Muslim in the southern borderlands, Pratubjit said, is to forever tread tightrope. They must insist to army interrogators that they know nothing of the insurgency. They must also promise neighborhood jihadis they’ll help resist the infidels.
“We can’t polarize them into two sides that are clearly black or white. A lot are grey,” Pratubjit said. “If you ask villagers [about the insurgency], they’ll say, ‘I have no idea.’ But you can’t trust that they don’t really know.”
Asked how many militants dwell within Ga Sod village, considered a full-blown insurgent hotbed by the army, headman Ya grows uncomfortable. He defers to his assistant, a village holy man named Ismael Kalatae. His answer is stiff and unequivocal.
“Please allow me to confirm for you, 100 percent,” he said, “that there are no insurgents living in this village.”
Insurgency aside, might life be better if the sultanate was restored?
The headman and holy man go silent for a moment, staring at cupcakes and orange Fanta the headman’s wife has set out for guests on the tabletop. As they mull their answer, a military ranger clomps by on the dirt road outside. He is clad in pitch black, from his boots to his handkerchief to the belt or grenades slung across his chest.
“I can’t answer your question,” Ismael said. “No one has ever asked us that before.”
Well, do the old timers at least swap tales of the lost sultanate passed down through elders? “Just talking about this, it could become misconstrued,” the holy man said. “Someone could get the wrong idea.”
They are tight-lipped for a reason. Even the most law-abiding Muslims worry that complaining, or even romanticizing the old days, will attract suspicion from authorities.
Privately, Pratubjit said, they have much to grumble about.
The Muslims have long bemoaned the indignity of visiting a government office where imported bureaucrats can’t speak their their native Jawi, a Malay tongue written in flowing Arabic script.
The elderly remember the shutdown of their Shariah-law courts beginning in the 1939, the first year of a campaign to bring all of Thailand’s remote hinterlands under strict central control. To this day, the region’s powerful positions are typically reserved for Thai Buddhists.
Villagers are equally weary of a never-ending “state of emergency” that allows soldiers to detain anyone, for any reason, for up to 30 days. Sometimes, Pratubjit said, young men driven into army camps do not walk out.
And it doesn’t help that, for years, the army and police used the south as a Siberia-style dumping ground for mischief-prone officers who’d pissed off superiors.
“As a consequence, most officers sent to the south were corrupted,” said Col. Werachon Sukondhapatipak, a Royal Thai Army spokesman. “They perhaps stay there, work there and abuse the locals ... and it resulted in that area becoming a dark zone.”
Network without a core
Most agree that the overwhelming majority of deep south Muslims just want to get to work without getting shot. But some are swept into an estimated 8,000-person guerilla force imbued with magic rituals.
The insurgents’ shadowy nature is its most defining attribute. “We’d like to invite the terrorists to tea,” said Lt. Gen. Pichet Wisaijorn, former commander of Thailand’s fourth army, which oversees the counterinsurgency. “But we don’t know who all of them are.”
Neither do the insurgents themselves.
A Thai policeman inspects the body of a suspected Muslim militant killed in a clash with Thai border police in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat, Jan. 25, 2009.(Madaree Tohlala/AFP/Getty Images)
The mujahideen appear to obey no single Osama bin Laden-style chieftain. Most don’t even know the identities of fellow guerillas just one province over. Instead, they operate as a “network without a core,” according to Duncan McCargo, a University of Leeds professor and insurgency researcher who was recently based in Pattani.
Entry-level supporters prove themselves by spraying revolutionary graffiti or torching government buildings. Trusted recruits progress to killings arranged by mid-tier commanders. But they are rarely exposed to the identities of fighters outside their village cell, according to McCargo.
“Before, we had uniforms,” Kasturi said. “Now we have no such thing. We’re among the people, working daily, and you cannot see who we are.”
The guerillas’ funding sources are murky. Thai authorities are forever associating them with extortion rackets, weapons smuggling and narcotics trafficking. A portion of their arms are obtained through brazen smash-and-grab army depot raids and robberies of quarries that stock explosives.
The jihadis are also emboldened by incantations and spells. According to army interrogations of captured militants, imams often order recruits to swallow paper marked with 24 Quranic vows. The promised effect? Bullet-proof skin.
In a bizarre 2004 attack documented by McCargo, young men under an imam’s guidance believed themselves invisible and suicidally rushed at military camps to snatch up as many guns as they could carry. Many were armed with only kitchen knives. Though more than 100 were shot dead, some made off with a precious cache of rifles.
Much has changed since then. The insurgency network is now directed by one core group, BRN-C, which is propped up by Kasturi’s old-guard PULO organization. Their skills today far exceed early attempts at bare-hands raids and alarm-clock bombs.
Formally titled the “National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate” in English, BRN-C is now “behind all the almost all of the insurgency violence,” said Anthony Davis, an analyst at Jane’s Intelligence Review. “That one organization has been pushing all the buttons.”
Outside of the occasional cryptic statement from Kasturi, however, rebels do not address the public. “There’s no real telephone number to call,” Davis said. “We can’t get quotes from ‘Mullah Whoever.’ And the guys letting off bombs and shooting people are not leaving behind calling cards.”
Instead, they scatter chilling pamphlets around victims’ corpses.
Some notes are directed towards Buddhists:
“Dogs. Pigs. Shit. Garbage. I’ll give you three days to leave my land. Otherwise, I will kill, burn, destroy all Buddhist Thai property. If you leave the house, travel or go to work, you will die violently.”
Some threaten fellow Muslims:
More From Buddhists In Arms
“Do not accept any help, things, money or gold from infidel officers because those are poisons ... Do not go see doctors in infidel hospitals. It is a big sin. ... Otherwise, you will be killed. If we kill you, we kill for Allah on high.”
And others attempt to justify their executions:
“They killed innocent Muslims, they raped our women and children, and they caused us pain and humiliation that is hard to erase ... They treated us like baby chicks in their fists. For all these reasons, do the soldiers deserve to live?”
Follow Patrick Winn on Twitter: