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Militants Silence Villagers In Thailand

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Militants silence villagers in Thailand



KATHONG, Thailand -- Islamic militants in Thailand are spreading a murderous message to would-be informants that government collaborators face death, further hardening the battle lines in a bloody insurgency.

Nowhere is that clearer than in this southern village, where Sudeng Warebuesa's empty bullet-riddled house stands as a haunting reminder.

He, his wife, 8-month-old daughter and five other relatives were slain in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 15 by a half-dozen gunmen who stormed their house, firing a barrage of bullets as they slept.

Outside, other gunmen sprayed bullets into neighboring homes - an apparent warning to keep away.

One of 300 so-called red-zone villages, Kathong is one of the most dangerous places in the country's increasingly restive southernmost provinces. It is in the middle of an Islamic insurgency that has killed more than 1,200 people in two years, with almost daily bombings, beheadings and drive-by shootings.

One way to stay safe, villagers say, is to steer clear of the path that Sudeng took - betraying the insurgents.


"Sudeng was a key member of the rebel movement. He turned his back on it about four or five months ago and became an informant," said Col. Somkuan Saengpataraneth, spokesman for the regional army headquarters. "He was terminated by the movement."

Relatives and friends are incredulous, saying the man they knew was a rubber tapper who made his livelihood at plantations around Kathong, a village of 120 people in Narathiwat province, bordering Malaysia.

"People said my uncle was a member of the rebel movement, but I don't believe it," said Ha Salae, 25, who lives nearby and recalls huddling with his family in a bedroom during the gunfire that killed his uncle.

Security forces have blamed the slayings on insurgents, though, as in every attack before and since, no one has claimed responsibility.

More than 20,000 soldiers and police across the region are hunting for an estimated 2,000 insurgents, but the true number remains unknown.

The insurgency, rooted in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala - the only ones with Muslim majorities in predominantly Buddhist Thailand - seeks a separate Islamic homeland.

Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia who recently visited the region, said the militants are intent on imposing a strict interpretation of Islam - and punishing Muslims who don't heed their vision.

About 10 percent of Thailand's 65 million people are Muslims. Most live in the three southernmost provinces, where they have long complained of second-class treatment.

The violence has mostly targeted Muslims, who represent more than half the victims, according to Abuza and other experts. Official statistics do not provide breakdowns by religion.

"Since March 2005, most of the victims have been Muslims," Abuza said at a seminar in Bangkok. "They're trying to impose their hard-line vision on society."

Others see the movement as nationalist rather than religious, with Muslims targeted mainly if they work for the local government and are seen to be siding with authorities.

"This is a way to scare the people who work for the government - or take the government's side," said Srisompop Chitphiromsri, a professor at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.

Either way, fear among villagers has become pervasive - partly because it has become difficult to tell if a father, son or neighbor has joined the insurgency.

Mana Jehsani, 48, looked pale and shaken on a recent afternoon as he sat in a military safehouse watching an army video in which his son confessed to membership in the rebel movement.

"I was recruited into the black organization several years ago," his son, Masorey Jehsani, 25, said, staring into the camera. "I had strict orders to keep the secret and tell no one - not even my mother or father. Nobody was allowed to know about our mission for God."

Masorey was one of 16 people arrested in December during raids in Pattani province. He is charged with the murder of a Buddhist monk and the beheading of another man, as well as membership in the rebel movement, and faces the death penalty.

The confession could yield a reduced sentence, but his father was weighed down by additional concerns.

"I am frightened that my family will meet the same fate as the family in Kathong," he said.

Since the violence started in January 2004, the militants' bombs have grown larger and more sophisticated, lending weight to speculation that they get help from abroad - though there remains no hard evidence of outside involvement.

The government insists the insurgency is "homegrown," and no foreign terrorists are involved.

But authorities have been stumped about exactly who is leading the movement. There have been few arrests of leaders and no clear statement of purpose by the rebels.

Najmudeen Umar, a former lawmaker who was acquitted of involvement in a raid by insurgents, said authorities need intelligence few villagers are willing to provide.

"No one dares to tell the truth about what is happening here," he said, "because they fear for their lives."

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