- - Thursday, September 8, 2011

BANGKOK — Each morning Buddhist monks in saffron robes silently stroll through Thailand’s three southern provinces, collecting alms for the poor - as troops with assault rifles walk alongside.

However, the armed guards are sometimes not enough to protect Thailand’s most visible symbols of the dominant Buddhist religion from Islamist terrorists determined to bomb their way to an independent nation.

A roadside bomb exploded Aug. 23 in Pattani province, injuring one monk, nine soldiers and three civilians, as the monks were returning to their temple from their morning mission.

Fifteen soldiers were guarding the monks when a bomber detonated the remote-controlled explosives hidden in an 11-pound cooking-gas cylinder in an untended pushcart that had been used to sell fried chicken.

The same day, in neighboring Yala province, a bomb at a bridge killed two soldiers on a motorcycle. Scattered ambushes the next day added five more to the death toll.

They are among the latest casualties in a seven-year long escalation of a Muslim separatist war that has claimed 4,700 lives since 2004. Another 9,000 have been injured.

The violence is mostly confined to the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat where ethnic Malay Muslims comprise a 95 percent majority of the region’s 1.7 million population along the border with Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation.

Thai political and military leaders denounce the Islamist guerrillas as greedy and corrupt Muslims who want to seize property and create anarchy so they can smuggle drugs, weapons and other black market items.

They accuse the rebels of terrorizing Buddhists and even other Muslims who opposed the separatist war.

“Those who subscribe to a true separatist ideology make up only 20 percent of the insurgents. The rest are drug traffickers and smugglers who stage insurgent violence,” said Lt. Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, the army chief in charge of the Thai military response in the south.

“Every time they deliver drugs, they will plant bombs to divert the authorities’ attention,” he said.

Independent analysts say the rebels want to establish Islamic law over the population and control the region’s profitable rubber plantations, coastal fishing industry and other natural resources.

The U.S. Embassy believes the “the southern insurgency is fueled by a communal sense of grievance based on an overall lack of justice,” according to a 2009 confidential cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

“The police and judiciary have historically been part of the problem in the deep south,” said the cable, signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Eric John.

“Corrupt and abusive police units, coupled with a weak and opaque judicial system, have inflamed the long-standing animosity of majority Malay-Muslim population toward the central government.

“As these institutions have exacerbated the problems in the south, their reform is crucial to any [Thai government] effort to end the violence.”

To avoid discovery, the guerrillas keep hidden. They identify no leader or spokesman and never claim responsibility for successful attacks, except for occasionally scattering printed warnings about their vengeance.

The guerrillas bomb, shoot, stab or behead government officials, teachers, moderate Muslims, Buddhist monks and others who stand in the way of their demand for autonomy in the south.

The army and police in the mountainous jungle region respond with mixed results.

The Thai government forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment and other human rights violations.

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