KOLOMUDO VILLAGE, Thailand — The black-uniformed raiders roared into this Thai Muslim village, firing assault rifles and hurling grenades from a pickup truck at a group of teenagers relaxing near the mosque. When the attack was over, five of the youths lay dead.
As they have done in the past, authorities initially said the killers were Muslim insurgents terrorizing their own people in their separatist war against the Buddhist-dominated central government.
But then the official line on the village raid changed, with senior military commanders shifting suspicion to Buddhist vigilantes and heightening fears that the four-year-old conflict in Thailand’s southern Muslim provinces is entering an ominous new phase.
Mohammed Kadir, a local government leader in Kolomudo, told the Associated Press that he doubted the raiders were Muslim insurgents disguised in military garb — as authorities claimed in other cases. He instead thought they could have been Buddhist vigilantes in official-looking uniforms or security forces, which long have been accused of torturing and secretly killing insurgent suspects.
Three days before the May 31 raid, a bomb in a nearby market killed four Buddhists, including two children. No formal charges have been lodged. Mr. Kadir and police Capt. Somchai Chuaybamrung gave similar accounts of the Kolomudo assault.
Until recently, most of the violence that has killed more than 2,300 people since 2004 was the work of radical Muslim groups that penetrated many of the remote, jungle-fringed villages of the south and struck in the heart of its few urban areas. They used Iraq-style roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and beheadings against Buddhists as well as fellow Muslims deemed traitors to their cause.
But in several recent cases of violence against Muslims, suspicion has fallen on shadowy Buddhist vigilante groups.
One of them is Ruam Thai, or Thais United, established in late 2005 by police officials led by Maj. Gen. Phitak Iadkaew, then chief of investigation in Yala, one of the three Muslim-majority provinces. At the time, Buddhists clamored for protection and several government agencies responded by handing out shotguns and weapons training. One such program — not Thais United — was sponsored by Queen Sirikit.
The stated purpose was self-defense, but the result is a region awash with guns and mounting accusations that Thais United, virtually unknown to the Thai public and mentioned only vaguely in the local press, has become a death squad.
Maj. Gen. Samret Srirai, the military commander in charge of security operations in the south, said an initial inquiry suspects Thais United is behind the shootings in Kolomudo. He noted that about a month after the attack, the national police chief ordered Gen. Phitak, the Thais United leader, to be transferred out of the region.
But Gen. Phitak, 56, may be too strong and popular to be sidelined. Hundreds of Thais United members took to the streets to protest his transfer, and he stayed put, saying his mission is to protect the region’s Buddhist minority.
“We don’t shoot innocent Muslims. We only shoot insurgents,” he said. “They deserve to be killed.”
In his first interview with the press, Gen. Phitak told the AP that Thais United has enlisted about 6,200 members, mostly Buddhists but also a few Muslims, mainly those whose family members were killed by insurgents.
“We didn’t do it. It could be any vengeful Buddhists or Muslim insurgents,” he said of the Kolomudo incident.
Gen. Phitak has worked in the south for 30 years and is a veteran of the Border Patrol Police, which fought Thai communist rebels during the Cold War. But he said he has little control over or knowledge of everything the Thais United members do.
Recruits attend at least two days of training in basic self-defense, with special courses for children ages 10 to 15.
“Since they can train their kids, we can train ours,” Gen. Phitak told dozens of Buddhist men at a course, and showed photos of hooded Muslims in the Middle East training children to use guns. The AP was allowed to witness the training.
Gen. Phitak said trained members return to their villages to set up patrols and carry cards granting them semiofficial status, stating that they work as informants for his investigation unit.
A select group of about 400 men and women underwent “commando” training and are allowed to work alongside the police to guard violence-plagued villages and other areas.
They wear policelike uniforms and carry combat weapons such as assault rifles, rather than the shotguns that are standard issue for village self-defense forces, Gen. Phitak said.
Human rights groups warned that vigilantism, on top of reported torture and secret killings of insurgent suspects, only makes things worse. The government insisted the abuses were stopped, but there is criticism even from inside the army.
“Today, relationships between Muslims and Buddhists have been torn apart completely. Not only that, they are starting to kill one another,” said Col. Shinnawat Maendet, military commander of Yala province.
“Thais United is a problem because its activities have inflamed conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists,” he said, citing the killings of three Muslims — a father, mother and son in Yala’s Bannang Sata district in February — thought to be committed by the group.
Rumor often prevails over facts in the south’s close-knit, conservative communities, and Muslims are quick to blame every killing of a co-religionist on government agents. But southern Muslims have long experienced human rights violations, torture and abductions; discrimination and higher poverty rates than the Buddhist north; and a folk memory of a south that was an independent sultanate until a century ago.
Shinnawat, the military commander, said the government will play into the insurgents’ hands if it sponsors revenge killings.
“If a civil war breaks out, the military will have to use force to stop it and a lot of people will die,” he said. “The insurgents will say that the Thai government’s hands are full of blood and it has no right to govern the Muslims. Then, it will be justifiable to call for U.N. intervention.”