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.
On April 25, the players pulled on their green jerseys and returned to that school for the local tournament. On a field with goals fashioned from long tree branches, T.R. Sport beat out seven other teams for the championship.
But villagers said they had been doing more than training for the tournament. Two years ago, strangers had appeared at the local mosque and organized an Islamic study circle. Some of the players joined, traveling occasionally from village to village, preaching and proselytizing, said Ma Mangputeh, grandfather of team goalie, Abdul Bassi Mangputeh, 21.
Some of the strangers were not from southern Thailand, Mangputeh said, because they could not speak the local Yawi language. A Muslim educator in the area said parents had told him the outsiders had come across the border from neighboring Malaysia.
Gen. Kitti Rattanchaya, the government's top security adviser for southern Thailand, said in an interview that separatists with possible links to foreign Muslim extremists were behind the attacks. He said these rebels had recruited the local men through the missionary groups, manipulating their religious beliefs.
Villagers recalled strange behavior by the soccer team members that began several months before the attacks. They said the players cleared brush from the village cemetery. Then, in the last few weeks before their deaths, several requested that they all be buried together if they should be killed, villagers said.
After evening worship on April 27, the team members took their prayer mats and traditional caps and drove out of the village on about 10 motorcycles, leaving word they were going on a religious outreach trip. Some said they would be back in about three days, relatives said. Others did not say where they were going.
Word of their deaths reached Suso the next morning.
"They thought they were fighting for justice," said their coach, Pittaya.
When the bodies were recovered, villagers said they discovered that some of the men had tucked their caps into their backpacks. In their place, they had donned red-and-white checked headdresses rarely worn in Thailand but common in the Arab world.
When Sama-ae Wani, 51, was growing up in Yupo, another village of rubber tappers east of Suso, there was no television, just radio. But he recalled that in recent months, he and his son would sit together and watch the news on Thailand's state-run television. Though the programming was not anti-American, the reports from Iraq troubled him, and he said his son's face showed he felt the same.
"What happens in Iraq and Palestine and Afghanistan really makes me angry. I feel Muslims all over the world are victims. Even here, it's the same," Sama-ae said. "It makes me want to fight back."
The young men of Yupo village did just that. Like their counterparts in Suso, Sama-ae's son, Aliyah, 22, and at least six other men left their homes April 27. The next morning, five were killed in a raid on a police position elsewhere in the province. "They were so brave to fight against officers who have rifles," Sama-ae said.
Aliyah was shot in the leg and survived. From his hospital bed, he confided to his father that a stranger had encouraged him to participate in the attack with the aim of stealing weapons from the police, Sama-ae said.
A neighbor's son, Yahya Doloh, 32, did not live to give a similar account. Yahya's involvement in the fatal endeavor came after months of chatter in the local coffee shop about the similarities between the situation in southern Thailand and that confronting Iraqis and Palestinians, recounted his brother, Doramae Doloh, 36. They cheered the courage of these Arabs willing to die for their cause.
"In my heart, I feel that way, too," said Doramae, a rubber tapper who wore a black tank top and blue sarong, smiling shyly. "I am a Muslim, and I see Muslim victims. I want to hit back, but I can't. Unlike my brother, God did not choose me for this."
Ahmad Somboon Bualang, a retired lecturer at Prince of Songkhla University in the nearby city of Pattani, is a sharp critic of the Thai government's policies in the south. But he said the homegrown grievances of local Muslims were not so severe that they alone could have motivated the young, mostly lightly armed men to fling themselves at the security forces. The explanation, he said, is the wider sense of being a Muslim victim.
"Whatever way people in Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine have been treated, it is the same way people here have been treated," Somboon said. "The extent may be different, but it has become symbolic of the same kind of treatment. The point is injustice."
Bent on Martyrdom
The young fighters from the two villages, Suso and Yupo, were already dead when the clashes climaxed on April 28 with a standoff at Pattani's historic Krue Se Mosque. Nowhere was the suicidal intent of the attackers more apparent.
After assaulting a nearby police post, a group of militants holed up in the 450-year-old red brick building, long a symbol of southern Thailand's Muslim identity. One of the leaders announced they intended to become martyrs, recounted Nising Nilaeh, the elderly caretaker who was inside at the time. The leader told anyone who wanted to live to leave the mosque immediately.
"He said, 'I want jihad, to fight in the way of God.' He never said anything about surrendering," said Nilaeh, who fled the building when given a chance.
Security forces surrounded the mosque, storming it at midday using assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. All 32 militants inside died, Thai authorities reported.
Local residents complained bitterly about what they termed excessive use of force, demanding that the bullet-pocked facade of the mosque remain unmended as a testament to the government's brutality.
Even as Thaksin ordered a special commission to look into the violence at the mosque, the government dispatched hundreds more troops to the south this week in a move that some local residents said could exacerbate the tension.
In Suso, the bodies of the soccer players were returned to the village late on the night of the attacks. They were buried in a common grave, together as they had requested, with the site marked only by a thin red ribbon strung along wooden sticks around the edge.
Though Muslim ritual requires corpses to be bathed before they are buried, in this case, the local imam directed that the bodies be placed in the grave unwashed, villagers said. It is a practice reserved only for those who have fallen as martyrs.
Special correspondent Somporn Panyastianpong contributed to this report.