Terrorist attacks in the villages of southern Thailand have reached an all-time high, as schools become breeding grounds for young fighters in the conflict between Muslim insurgents and Buddhists, analysts say.
Muslim militants in provinces that border Malaysia are attacking Buddhist monks and temples, and fellow Muslims suspected of working with the Thai government.
Vigilante Buddhist groups or rogue factions of Thai security forces have also been accused of seeking revenge by targeting mosques and Muslim schools.
“The level of violence is up, the level sophistication is up, the level of religious fervor is up,” said Peter Chalk, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank.
Earlier this week, drive-by shootings blamed on Muslim separatists killed three civilians in a single day, according to the Associated Press. In another incident, a shopkeeper was killed when insurgents fired assault rifles into his store selling gold, the AP reported.
More than 3,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the insurgency began five years ago and the brutality is expected to escalate, analysts say.
Thailand’s ethnic Malay Muslims have been seeking independence for five decades, inspired by ethnic pride and a history of oppression by the Thai government, said Damrong Kraikruan, charge d’affaires at the Thai Embassy in Washington. Now, extremists are using religion to motivate violence, he said.
“Citizens didn’t use to go to Muslim schools, they just took up guns and killed the Thai security officers,” Mr. Kraikruan said. “Now it’s not just targeted at the military; now they teach to kill anyone. Teachers propagate the separatist movement.”
Islamic teachers advocate armed jihad, or holy war, in schools to recruit young Muslims to join extracurricular indoctrination programs in mosques or disguised as soccer training, according to a recent study by the International Crisis Group.
The Thai insurgency is largely indigenous, and analysts and Thai officials agree that it has few, if any, ties to worldwide movements such as al Qaeda.
Muslims in southern Thailand take pride in being more conservative and more traditional than other Muslims, said Tanee Sangrat, a counselor at the Thai Embassy.
“Thailand Muslims reject anything modern and forms of entertainment, including televisions, except to watch soccer matches,” Mr. Sangrat said.
The Thai government classifies one-third of the southern provinces as having a “high incident rate for violence,” Mr. Kraikruan said. Violence has caused the majority of Buddhists who lived in the south to move, and the region no longer attracts Muslim tourists, he said.
The beach resorts of southern Thailand have not been affected because the violence mainly takes place inland.
Of the 1.7 million people who live in the southern provinces, the government estimates 10,000 are “separatists” and 3,000 are violent militants, Mr. Kraikruan said.
Muslims claim southern provinces are underrepresented in the administration and do not receive the same funds and benefits as Buddhist provinces, he said.
“There’s a racist undertone in the country,” said Usman Khan, who grew up in Bangkok and now lives in Virginia. “But no one talks about the situation in the south.”
Catharin Dalpino, a visiting professor of Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the government policy is based on assimilation.
“You either assimilate or you’re excluded,” said Ms. Dalpino at a recent forum sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The government in Bangkok is not responding to claims of injustices in the south, Mr. Chalk said. The paramilitary forces are not held accountable for crimes they commit and the government is reluctant to allow private aid groups and journalists into these areas, creating a void of outside scrutiny, he said.
People rarely claim responsibility for the attacks, citizens do not gather evidence after crimes and the police do not investigate cases, said Zachary Abuza, a political science professor at Simmons College in Boston who specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security issues.
Nearly 90 percent of suspects are released after they are captured, leaving the security forces to commit extrajudicial killings, Mr. Abuza said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not a priority for the regime; it’s like, ‘Whatever happens in the south stays in the south,’ ” Mr. Abuza said.
But Mr. Kraikruan of the Thai Embassy said the government is changing its approach toward southern Thailand.
“The troops in the south are there more for development than carrying out battles,” he said. “We are working to make the particulars in government better and to avoid human rights abuses.”