Razee Dorloh, 22, left his house built on stilts near the riverbank on Monday morning without a word, his family recounted. He headed for the district police station to join a protest against the detention of six men for allegedly supporting a Muslim insurgency.
The last time Razee's brother, Nasae, saw the young man alive, Thai soldiers had opened fire on the estimated 2,000 demonstrators. "At the sound of shooting, everyone dropped to the ground. That's when I lost sight of Razee," said Nasae Dorloh, 30.
About 1,000 people were arrested at the protest, and 78 died when they were suffocated or crushed after being forced to lie atop one another in trucks on a five-hour drive to a military base. Razee's battered and bruised body was found by his family at the base in the town of Pattani the following day.
These deaths, along with those of six people shot and killed in the crowd, are among more than 440 this year in a wave of attacks by Muslim insurgents and an aggressive response by military forces in southern Thailand. The violence has stoked the anger of people in three southern Muslim provinces who have long complained of harsh tactics and discrimination by the government in Bangkok, about 750 miles to the north.
"Even before this week, we felt that people in this area were treated badly and unfairly compared to other parts of the country," said Razee's sister, Zubaidah Dorloh, 37, a white head scarf draped loosely over her head. "Now people are even more upset with how the army treats them."
On Friday, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced an inquiry into the killings and expressed regret for the violence. "I will set up an independent commission to investigate the incident with the aim of bringing wrongdoers to justice," he said in a speech on national television. Meanwhile, most of the detainees were released Saturday, the Associated Press reported.
Thaksin has been criticized by local organizations and human rights groups for heavy-handed actions in his response to violence in the Muslim portion of this predominantly Buddhist country.
Muslims in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat charged that the government denied them employment and education opportunities. Separatists battled the central government in the 1970s and 1980s, but the region, part of a Muslim kingdom annexed by Thailand in 1902, had been largely calm in recent years.
'We Live in Fear'
Until this year, the Dorlohs said, they had led a tranquil life in Pondok Humulanah, a village of 30 families concealed amid the coconut palms on the banks of the languid Narathiwat River. Villagers worked hard but made a reasonable living in construction and fishing, and by smuggling fruit, rice and clothes across the nearby Malaysian border.
In early January, unidentified attackers raided a Thai army camp in Narathiwat province, killing four soldiers and capturing 300 weapons. Thaksin responded by declaring martial law and sending more forces to the south.
Muslim insurgents pressed their campaign of shootings and machete attacks, primarily targeting police, teachers and Buddhist monks. Thai security forces responded with increasingly aggressive tactics that drew accusations of brutality from local residents.
"Since January, everything has been different," Zubaidah said. "We live in fear."
Seated on woven mats spread out on their porch, the Dorlohs recited a list of grievances against the security forces, accusing them of abducting and killing Muslim teachers. They also complained that soldiers at times barred residents from leaving the village to work.
After a policeman was shot and killed in front of a school about a month ago, soldiers swept through Pondok Humulanah, searching each house for militants and weapons. Two youths were arrested, but later released.
"When the soldiers went away, we couldn't sleep at all that night because we were so scared the army would kill us or plant weapons here to make us a scapegoat or take one of our boys," said Jawahae Dorloh, 33, another sister.
A Mass Arrest
Razee was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters living in several airy, wood-plank homes along the river. His family said he shared their sense of injustice but took little interest in politics.
A skinny man with short wavy hair, Razee was a recent graduate of a Muslim high school and worked for a brother-in-law in the construction business. He was an observant Muslim who snapped to attention when he heard the call to prayer coming from the village's whitewashed mosque, his family recalled. But photographs from a summer outing with friends reveal a lighter side. In one, he poses on the beach in a baseball cap and sunglasses; in another he dons a plaid hat.
After losing sight of Razee at the demonstration in Tak Bai, south of Pattani, his older brothers, Nasae and Ibrahim, said they watched from behind a wall as Thai troops charged into the crowd, arresting the men.
Over the next two hours, Nasae and Ibrahim said, soldiers stripped the protesters of their shirts, using them to bind their hands behind them. The men were kicked, pummeled with rifle butts and, in some cases, made to crawl across the pavement.
"Then they brought them one by one and shoved them into the back of army trucks like they were loading animals," said Ibrahim, 35, a grocery store employee.
The troops put about 1,200 men into waiting army trucks, stacking them four deep, according to a sweetbread seller in the market who witnessed the process. The truck beds were sealed with green tarpaulin for the drive to the army camp in Pattani.
One of Razee's fellow demonstrators, Azaha Lulae, 22, recounted being forced to lie on top of another man with at least two more layers of people above him. He heard others gasping for air.
"Imagine a plastic bag being put over your head," Lulae said, describing the ordeal from a hospital bed in Pattani. "Some people begged the soldiers, but the more you begged, the more they stepped on you." He recalled the soldiers taunting their prisoners, "If you want to die, we can deliver that for you."
When Razee did not come home Monday evening, his brothers returned to Tak Bai to search for him. They found only his red motorbike.
After a sleepless night, eight family members boarded a pair of pickup trucks to search for him in Pattani. Other villagers went with them.
An officer at the camp made them wait for two hours, then returned with a partial list of the dead, including Razee's name.
Zubaidah collapsed and began to weep. "We were shocked and stunned," she recalled. "We felt so helpless."
Razee's brothers retrieved his body. They said his head was disfigured and covered with dried blood. His mouth was bloodied, his neck badly scraped and his chest swollen by bruises. They brought the body home.
"So many innocent youths were killed," said Nasae, a fish trader. "It makes us angrier and angrier. It's going to be harder and harder to solve this problem."
Relations between the Muslim and Buddhist communities were already tense in this region. After the deaths this week, businessmen and professionals have been buying guns and armoring their vehicles with steel plates, according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security analyst at Chulalongkorn University.
Religious leaders and security experts said they feared further violence. A bomb exploded Thursday outside a bar in a border town, killing three people and wounding about 20 others. Two bombs killed a policeman and wounded 19 people Friday morning at a crowded food stall in neighboring Yala province. Authorities defused a large bomb that had been set to explode near a Buddhist temple in a Narathiwat market at a time when monks were scheduled to be there collecting alms.
Analysts, including Panitan, warned that the deaths on Monday could strengthen an evolving alliance between younger Muslim radicals and older separatist groups, which have remained largely quiet in recent years.
Razee's brothers consulted religious leaders at the mosque in Pondok Humulanah and decided not to bathe the corpse, as is standard Muslim practice, or to recite the usual funeral prayers.
Instead, shortly before midnight Tuesday, they wrapped the body in a plain white cloth and quietly lowered it into a sandy grave near the gate of the village cemetery alongside another 22-year-old, who had been shot during the demonstration. This simple rite, they explained, is reserved for Muslims who die as martyrs for their religion.
Special correspondent Somporn Panyastianpong contributed to this report.