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Thai Violence Dividing Neighbors

Muslim-Buddhist Friendships Crumble in Sectarian Strife

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page A27

RANGAE DISTRICT, Thailand -- As Taveesak walked the gravel road, he pointed to a cramped clapboard home and recalled a peaceful time before southern Thailand was rocked by separatist violence.

"Before all the tension, I used to come here to rest," said Taveesak, 44, a tall rice merchant. Motioning to another shack, he recalled: "I would go into the corner of the room and they'd feed me snacks. We were like brothers and sisters. No more."

A Thai soldier with an M-16 assault rifle accompanied a Buddhist monk near the village of Bacho, in Muslim-dominated southern Thailand, last May. (David Longstreath -- AP)

This Muslim hamlet has gone cold for Taveesak, who is Buddhist. At the same time, the store to which he long supplied rice, gossip and good humor is no longer welcoming to Muslims such as Samsuddin Bersa, a stocky village headman whose family for years bought provisions from Taveesak and other Buddhist shopkeepers.

The renewed campaign of violence by Islamic militants, and the Thai government's heavy-handed response, are destroying once-amicable relations between Muslims, who form the majority in southern Thailand, and the Buddhists who live in their midst.

"They're scared to talk to us," said Bersa, 32, a frown settling on his full face, heavy eyebrows knitting. "The elders who have lived here for almost 100 years say they've never seen anything like this before."

While local separatists have staged revolts nearly once a generation over the last century, this is the first time the violence has so deeply divided the two communities. Now, Muslims and Buddhists alike warn that the rift could prove the most enduring legacy of the year-old insurrection, leaving them estranged long after the guns have fallen silent.

"For almost 30 years, I've been working in the south on and off, and for the first time during the last year, I've seen personal relationships break apart," said Maj. Gen. Thani Thawidsri, deputy police commander of the southern region. "Neighbors who have lived next door to each other look at each other with suspicion."

Since violence erupted at the start of last year, more than 650 people have died. The victims have often been Buddhists, including monks, teachers, shopkeepers and officials, gunned down or stabbed by unidentified assailants. In October, 78 Muslim men suffocated or were crushed to death in the back of Thai army trucks after being arrested at a protest.

Taveesak and Bersa embody the bitter discouragement of many in their respective communities, united in their nostalgia for a recent past of camaraderie but divided over who is to blame for its loss.

Taveesak's unmistakably Chinese features make him hard to miss in the Muslim village. The villagers now greet him stiffly, if at all. As he passes, nearly the only sound is the cooing of songbirds in painted cages and his sandals crunching on gravel.

"Most of all, we're afraid," said Taveesak, who asked that his second name and home town not be published for security reasons. "We have the feeling that the Buddhists are being pressured to leave the area."

Taveesak's own cousin was gunned down in November. The dead man's family, blaming Muslim extremists, has already fled the region, and Taveesak said his own wife was urging him to do the same.

"There's a growing belief here that it's okay to kill a Buddhist. When I hear that, I become very scared," he said, speaking in a soft, anxious voice. "In the past, we lived together. What happened around here never affected our relations."

Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but about 5 percent of the population is Muslim, with nearly half concentrated in the three southernmost provinces. Many villages in the south are mixed. The stone cremation towers of Buddhist temples rise beside the minarets of mosques. But the economy is dominated by Buddhists, in particular those of Chinese ancestry like Taveesak.

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