Both sides in the unrest are aware of an unwritten rule – leave the holy men alone or pay a high price
Insurgency violence in the southern border provinces looks to be entering another disturbing phase, matching the level of mayhem witnessed 10 years ago with attacks on Buddhist monks and temples. The strategy appears the same – discredit the state security apparatus put in place to quell the separatist uprising.
Friday’s attack in Narathiwat’s Sungai Padi district left two monks dead and two others wounded, ensuring a jolt to the nation. Buddhists and Muslims alike are repelled by such attacks on defenceless targets in sanctified places. There was room for doubt the last time a monk was murdered in the South, in 2015. It was argued that the bomb hidden in a roadside trash bin in Pattani was intended to kill or maim patrolling troops, not a passing holy man. This time there can be no doubt about the intent.
In February 2014 a monk was shot dead along with three laymen, one a youngster, at an alms-giving rite in Pattani’s Mae Lan district. Insurgents dressed in military fatigues opened fire on the crowd in retaliation for the killing days earlier of three little boys in Bacho district by a pair of paramilitary rangers. Only the monks’ own security detail prevented more deaths at the scene.
The revenge killings stopped after the two rangers admitted to killing the youths – confessions withdrawn months later when the case went to court. The rangers, both Muslims, insisted they acted alone, but there were reports of a Buddhist military officer also being present in what was described as an attempt to wipe out an entire family. The slain boys’ father and four-months-pregnant mother were shot but survived. It was claimed that the presence of the third party was kept secret because the authorities wanted to dismiss the killings as part of a feud among Muslims.
Charting the violence in the deep South in a bid to understand its causes and find solutions is of course exceedingly difficult. Hampering efforts is the fact that the separatist movement has no identifiable spokesperson able to issue confirmations or denials. One clear trend in recent years, though, is that civility disappears whenever there is a perceived violation of the unwritten ground rule that religious figures must be left unharmed. When one side breaches that rule, the other side will respond with extreme force.
In the past two months, three imams – Muslim religious teachers – have been shot dead gangland-style and many more have been detained, interrogated and otherwise harassed. There have been reports of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur harassing people with strong religious credentials to help get peace negotiations rolling. The pressure applied to bring forward leaders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has had the opposite effect – driving them deeper underground.
The attack on the monks in Sungai Padi last Friday must be condemned in the strongest possible terms as an attack on the very fabric of local society. It’s possible that the abbot, Prakru Prachote Rattananurak, was targeted – despite the enormous respect he commands among both Muslims and Buddhists – simply to test southerners’ resilience.
The government spent three years talking about establishing “safety zones” free of violence and conducive to peacemaking, only to jettison the idea recently when a new chief negotiator arrived on the scene. This is what ratcheted up the pressure to find the BRN. The murder and harassment of Muslim clerics cannot continue with impunity and without repercussions. We will all continue paying a high price for violations of the rules.