Inspired by Anger a World Away
Iraq War Images Spur Muslim Attacks in Remote Thailand
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 15, 2004; Page A01
SUSO, Thailand -- Two days after the T.R. Sport soccer team won a local tournament last month, the squad members left this remote rubber tappers village on their motorcycles, telling their families they were headed for Muslim missionary work.
The next morning, shortly after daybreak, the 12 young men and seven friends from other teams launched a raid on a police post in a nearby town. Though authorities said the attackers had an assault rifle and several shotguns, most carried only knives and wooden planks in what villagers described as an act of suicidal zeal unprecedented in southern Thailand. Well-armed police were waiting and killed them all.
The strike was one of a series of coordinated attacks on the morning of April 28 against 11 police posts in three provinces that left at least 112 people dead, all but five of them assailants. The attacks took place in a region where a Muslim majority harbors long-standing grievances against the Bangkok government. But the violence also offers a case study of the spread of Islamic militancy. Officials and local villagers said the attacks were spurred on by widely broadcast images of al Qaeda and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Those interviewed said Islamic operatives may have entered the region from outside the country, exploiting local issues and a growing sense among Muslims that they have been wronged.
Muslim separatists waged a revolt through the 1990s in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, which have a Muslim majority in the predominantly Buddhist country. But villagers said the latest militancy has been shaped and sharpened by what they call oppressive U.S. policies in Iraq and elsewhere.
"Villagers often talk about American abuses of Muslims -- in the mosque, in the coffeehouse, wherever they gather, especially if there's a television and the news is on. The way Muslims are treated really makes people angry," said Masduki, 38, a slight Suso villager. "Some people in the village say the way the Thai government treats Muslims is the same way Americans treat Muslims."
Until four months ago, southern Thailand was generally calm. But on Jan. 4, unidentified attackers raided a Thai army camp, killing four soldiers and capturing 300 weapons. The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra responded by imposing martial law and dispatching more troops to the south.
Local residents complained about arbitrary killings and arrests, commando-style raids on mosques and unwarranted searches of their religious schools. The clampdown stirred simmering resentments over perceived discrimination by Thailand's majority Buddhists. Residents of southern Thailand said Muslims were denied a fair share of places in universities and government jobs, that Muslim villages received paved roads and electricity long after Buddhist ones, that it was easier to get government approval for nightclubs than for Islamic schools.
In Suso, tucked deep in the groves of skinny rubber trees, villagers followed events in Bangkok and beyond on a large television set out on a shelf in the local coffee shop, an open-air structure under a thatched roof. The men, clad in sarongs and often wearing white Muslim caps, gathered nightly after sunset prayers at the nearby mosque, villagers said. The news provoked debate and consternation among the patrons, while reports about suicide attacks in Iraq and Israel drew praise.
After mornings in the rubber tree groves and afternoons on the soccer field, Dareh Dueramae, 32, would wade into the coffee shop talk, recalled his niece, Manasada Jehmasong, 22, days after his death.
"He talked about the situation in the south like other people. After January 4, the situation became scary, and people were getting killed," Jehmasong said inside her modest wood-plank home, erected on stilts, like many in the village. "People compared what's happening in Iraq with the local people who have been killed since January 4."
T-shirts depicting Osama bin Laden were a common sight during recent visits to Suso. At the new village mosque, still under construction, a notice was posted outside the entrance: "Stop buying American and Jewish products. The money you spend goes to buy weapons to kill our Muslim brothers."
It was at the mosque that the soccer players often gathered, sometimes spending the night there in private conversation, relatives said.
T.R. Sport was a tight-knit group of men, 18 to 32 years old. Many had played together since they were schoolchildren. They took their name from the Than Khiri subdistrict, where Suso is located, and they were the top team in that area. Some aspired to play soccer at the provincial, even national level, said coach Pittaya Maeprommit. His younger brother, Kamaruding, 23, a midfielder on the squad and one of those who died in the raid, had been named to the team from Songkhla province.
Players as Proselytizers
But as sons of poor rubber tappers, they could not afford to go to schools with strong soccer programs. Though a few of the players had attended private Islamic high schools in surrounding towns, most stopped studying by the time they were 14 to work in the groves, said Somkhit Khwaisuk, principal of the local elementary school.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The mosque under construction in Suso, Thailand, was a meeting place of soccer players involved in the deadly raid.
(Photos Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)