Nervous Buddhists in Thai south plan to leave

By Nirmal Ghosh, Straits Times Thailand Correspondent, Nov 9, 2004

Bangkok, Thailand -- MR PREECHA, from Betong in Yala province, lives in Bangkok where he works as a website developer for a finance company. In regular conversations with his family in Betong, which borders Malaysia, the 24-year-old hears the buzz on the ground in the south: local Buddhists are scouting for relocation options.

'Many people are looking for land in other provinces, like up near Hat Yai,' the young man who was afraid of giving his full name told The Straits Times.

'My dad has a house in Hat Yai, so many people especially in Yala and Narathiwat, have come to him for advice on moving up there.

'And I have many cousins in Yala looking for new houses further north. They may move if the situation gets worse. They want to find a place to take refuge until it is safe to go back home. Even my father will move if the situation deteriorates,' he said.

Fear is widespread in the south.

Buddhists fear Islamic radicals and local middle-of-the-road Muslims are afraid of both the armed forces as well as the radical extremist fringe.

There are reports of non-Muslim Thais leaving the south or sending their children to schools further up country.

While the departure of Buddhists from the region cannot be called an exodus yet, it is poised to become one.

At the grassroots level, the community has not been as divided for a long time.

Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims have lived in harmony at a basic level for generations. Interfaith conversions, while uncommon, are far from rare.

A small photo album of post card prints in the hands of abbot Phra Kru Phraphattsorn Sirikhun, from Khao Kong temple just outside Narathiwat, tells of better times.

Sitting at a simple wooden table, the abbot flips through the photographs showing him at various functions with local Islamic religious leaders.

The first abbots of Wat Khao Kong, he told The Straits Times, were Muslims who converted to Buddhism.

But the policeman in dark shades and flak jacket sitting behind the abbot, with his M16 by his side, underscores the fact that harmony is currently under serious pressure.

The contrast outside the sprawling grounds of the peaceful, sylvan temple is becoming starker.

The backlash from the Thai military's hardline approach has been severe. At least 22 people have been killed by unidentified gunmen in drive-by attacks since 85 Muslim protesters died at the hands of the military on Oct 25.

In some cases, leaflets were left stating revenge as the motivation for the killings.

This year, Buddhist monks have been targets of murders and bomb attacks shaking the community.

An unnamed man at Wat Sampaochei in Pattani said this weekend that human rights groups were ignoring the daily death toll among Buddhists.

'If I did not have to take care of my elderly parents, I would have moved out and settled elsewhere. My neighbours have already bought land in other provinces,' he said.

Across the south, Buddhists are keeping a low profile staying indoors at night, keeping children from going to school and avoiding riding bicycles for fear of being easy targets.

A young Buddhist policeman in Pattani said: 'Of course Buddhists and Muslims can stay together, but the situation is being set up by the militants to make us hate each other.'

Only a trickle of people turn up nowadays for ceremonies at temples, several abbots said.

Abbot Phra Kru Phraphattsorn said that monks from other temples did not come to visit him much because they were worried about the unstable environment and the presence of police and soldiers. Several of the temple's monks had left for other provinces.

But he said he preferred taking the long view. 'Buddhists and Muslims have had good relations,' he noted.

'The population around here is largely Muslim. They often help out in the temple. And I have helped Muslims raise money to build a mosque and an Islamic school.

'I don't want to get into politics, it is not my place as a monk. But I tell people, be patient, everything is fated.

'Whether you are Muslim or Buddhist, we are all brothers and sisters. Terrorism can take place anywhere because there are good people and bad people everywhere, not just in Thailand.'