TALOH KAPO, Thailand – Customers no longer come to Kaboh Sulong’s teashop – not since two gunmen walked in at noon, coldly shot a Buddhist cloth vendor, cut off his head and left it in a sack outside.
Ten days later Sulong was still terrified as he pointed to a wooden table where Lek Pongpla was relaxing when the attackers killed him. And all around him, Buddhists were packing and fleeing the worsening violence in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south.
Beheadings and bombings are pushing tensions to a boiling point since a long-simmering Muslim separatist movement launched an armed struggle early last year that has left more than 860 people dead.
On Friday the government issued a decree giving Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sweeping emergency powers – to tap phones, order curfews and censor the press, among other measures. That was after six bombs and exchanges of gunfire in the capital of Yala province killed two policemen and injured 22 people in the first coordinated attacks in a large city since the troubles began.
On Thursday, at least 60 insurgents plunged Yala city into darkness by destroying electrical transformers, then roamed the streets with fire bombs, explosives and guns, targeting an area near a hotel, two convenience stores, a restaurant and the railway station, Interior Minister Chitchai Wannasathit said.
“Whenever or wherever a society or community is not safe, freedoms and personal rights … must face some limitations in order to have all people living together in peace,” Thaksin said Saturday in response to critics of the emergency powers.
The attack and the government response were just the latest indications of the worsening tensions.
Fear has engulfed the southern provinces, with Buddhist monks slashed to death and temples bombed. Vendors have received flyers threatening them for selling pork in Muslim areas.
“I am very scared and don’t want to go anywhere, especially at night. Women are now being attacked,” said Piyathida Thongchuay, 34, a Buddhist living in the district where Lek was killed. A few days earlier a school headmistress and two other Buddhist women had been murdered – the latter two beheaded.
Buddhists are the overwhelming majority in Thailand, but in the southernmost provinces they are outnumbered nearly 3-1 by 1.3 million Muslims. The region, once a separate Islamic kingdom, became part of Thailand in the early 20th century. But a deep desire for independence persists, as do Muslim feelings of discrimination.
Several Islamic leaders have condemned the violence. “Such acts are very cruel and beyond the imagination of any human being,” said one, Nidir Waba.
The government has tried improving life in the south with development and job-creation projects, but it has also taken a tough approach to the militants. Last year 106 Muslims were killed in a single day when militants mounted an attack on security posts. Six months later 78 Muslims who had been rounded up following a protest rally suffocated to death when they were crammed into a police truck.
The Thaksin government’s approach has been criticized as heavy-handed, but Thaksin seems in no mood to negotiate, saying Friday: “These people only want violence; it means they do not want to talk.”
Since October, authorities have trained and armed about 10,000 Buddhists, raising fears that an “eye-for-an-eye” mentality will take root.
“We have no intention of harming anyone,” Gen. Napol Boonthap told the trainees on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Pattani province. “But we will not let anyone behead us.”