BANGKOK — Buddhists are fleeing their homes in southern Thailand in the face of an increasingly militant Muslim insurgency that has begun calling for an independent and pure Islamist nation in the impoverished region bordering Malaysia.
What began as an indigenous protest against heavy-handed rule from the mainly Buddhist capital, Bangkok, has developed into a battle reflecting extremism in Iraq and Afghanistan, including beheadings and the burning of schools.
“This land must be separated between Muslims and the nonbelievers. This land must be liberated, and an Islamic system must be its foundation,” warned a leaflet recently distributed in the south that the Thai military showed to reporters.
“This is a land of war that is no different from Palestine and Afghanistan,” said the leaflet, signed by an obscure jihadist group known as the Islamic Warriors of Pattani State.
“This land is not the land of the Thais, but the land of Fathoni Darulsalam,” it said, using an old Arabic name for the mainly Muslim region of southern Thailand.
Other fliers instruct Muslims not to buy or benefit financially from lands abandoned by Buddhists, saying the properties will be distributed to needy Malays once the region is liberated from the “occupying Siamese,” according to a Bangkok newspaper, the Nation.
Authorities say 1,730 persons have died in three years of unrest, more than 1,000 of them Muslims, including many killed by confused and poorly disciplined government forces. Others were killed as a warning to other Muslims not to cooperate with the government.
The dead also include about 680 Buddhists who appear to have been slaughtered to disrupt their work and frighten other Buddhists into leaving, according to the respected Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.
The killers’ tactics have grown increasingly brutal, including the decapitation of 25 persons since 2004.
Insurgents also assassinate saffron-robed Buddhist monks who collect alms during barefoot walks through villages and towns, even when armed troops escort the clergymen.
Shocked by the sight of blood-splattered monks sprawled in the street and reports of nearby assaults, about 200 Buddhist villagers in Yala province have fled.
Carrying meager belongings, they clustered in Buddhist temples, grateful for sacks of supplies sent by Queen Sirikit, and hoping for financial compensation and resettlement.
Military efforts against the ethnic Malay insurgents have been ineffective, and negotiations have been hindered because the rebels refuse to identify their leaders. Bangkok is now worried that the shadowy force will hoist flags above a self-declared “Islamic Pattani Nation,” further demoralizing security forces and Thailand’s 64 million people.
“If the situation is left like this, in three years, we’ll see a new country in the deep south,” said Prasit Meksuwan, an adviser to the south’s Teachers Federation, which is encouraging Buddhist teachers not to flee.
Schools have become a favored target of the insurgents, who complain that the institutions tell lies about the three southern provinces — Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — which formed part of an independent Malay kingdom before Thailand annexed the rubber-rich region about 100 years ago.
The Malay-speaking Islamists also oppose the schools’ curriculum, which absorbs youngsters into a modern Thai-speaking society, obedient to a god-free Buddhist philosophy and Bangkok’s monarchy. They demand that the schools focus instead on lessons gleaned from the Koran.
The government has given guns and training to hundreds of teachers who are willing to stay in rebel-infiltrated zones, while soldiers transport teachers to and from well-guarded schools. But more than 1,000 isolated schools shut down at the beginning of a term last month.
During one of the assaults last month, a 48-year-old teacher was shot and burned to death at his school in Pattani province while colleagues and students watched in horror.