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Thai Violence Dividing Neighbors

Taveesak's grandfather sailed to Narathiwat province from southern China shortly before World War II, and Taveesak's father later established himself as a rice trader. Taveesak recounted growing up in the province's Rangae district, playing with the children of Muslim employees and spending lazy afternoons napping on the rice sacks.

In the local markets, Taveesak said he still orders traditional Muslim dishes in the Malay dialect spoken by southern Thai Muslims. "They say, 'Hey, you speak my language!' " he recalled. "I say, 'Hey, I'm from here!' "

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)

He learned much of the dialect, he said, by hanging outside his father's shop in the market town, listening to him joke and gossip with Muslim customers. After his father died five years ago, the shop passed to Taveesak. On one desk, he still keeps his father's antique abacus, on another, a computer. The walls are decorated with framed portraits of his grandfather, his father and Buddha.

But the store has fallen silent over the last year.

"The conversation doesn't go as smoothly as before because of the situation," he said. "It's hard for us to look each other in the face." Sometimes, he said, he hears Muslims refer to him using a slang term that means outsider. Many customers no longer come at all. Taveesak said his sales have been down by about three-quarters since the violence began.

"It's getting to a point where it's intolerable," he said.

Bersa inherited his role as a village headman from his father and grandfather. Yet despite his position, he complained that Buddhist shop owners now shy away from him as soon as they see his sarong, marking him as a Muslim.

"They lump us altogether and say the Muslims are all separatists," he said, slumping in an old chair on his patio as a chicken scratched in the dirt. "Even for people who are friends and know each other's hearts, we're no longer close."

He said Buddhists, too, have been increasingly referring to the Muslims as outsiders in Thailand, using their own putdown meaning "unwelcome guest."

"Guest! As if we're not originally from here," Bersa said, flashing a sardonic smile between puffs on a cigarette. "We've been here for hundreds of years. We've always been here. But the Chinese, they're the ones who came from somewhere else."

Now, Bersa takes extra precautions. Before heading to town, he straps a handgun to his waist for fear that he could be targeted either by Buddhist vigilantes or by Islamic extremists who consider him a government collaborator.

Bersa also acknowledged that Muslims have begun taking their business to fellow Muslims. "The gap," he lamented, "is going to get wider and wider until it reaches a point where people are really separated."

Since the early 1900s, separatists in southern Thailand have repeatedly resisted the Bangkok government, seeking to restore the independence the provinces enjoyed until Thailand annexed the kingdom of Pattani in 1902. Earlier rebellions sought a continuing role for Buddhists in building a new state.

But the latest campaign is fueled primarily by militant Muslims, casting the conflict in religious terms that ominously polarize the communities, Thai security analysts said. Resurgent Thai nationalism, which makes Buddhism a central element, reinforces the trend. And while previous uprisings took the form of guerrilla warfare, the newest one has turned to assassinations and bombings, often targeting ordinary citizens.

Taveesak's cousin was killed one afternoon at the gas station his family had run for 30 years. A young man pulled up at the pumps on a motorcycle, filled his tank and then acted as if he was about to take out his wallet, according to Taveesak. Instead, the man drew a gun, shooting the station owner at least twice.

Taveesak is convinced that the assailant was a Muslim militant trying to terrorize the owner's family into abandoning Narathiwat province.

Now, Taveesak said he scrutinizes his own customers nervously. When traveling, he varies his routes and, like many other Buddhists, started carrying a gun in his car.

His wife suggested they take their three adolescent children and join relatives in Bangkok. Taveesak balked.

"At my age, do I want to start over from scratch? Can I adjust to a whole new way of life?" he asked. "This is where I live. We've had a good life here."

But, he conceded, "It's gotten to the point where it doesn't feel like home any more."

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