Thailand's Muslim south gripped by fear

YALA, Thailand Fri Jun 19, 2009 4:14am BST

Soldiers guard a village after a police raid in which suspected Muslim militants were killed in southern Thailand's Yala province, about 1,084 km (674 miles) south of Bangkok June 18, 2009. In the rustic villages of Thailand's Muslim south, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's promise of large-scale development aid to tackle a brutal insurgency sounds all too familiar. Four suspected Muslim militants were killed on Thursday during the raid, police said after a 30-minute gunbattle. He said they had received a tip that militants were using a house in the area as a hideout. REUTERS/Surapan Boonthanom

Soldiers guard a village after a police raid in which suspected Muslim militants were killed in southern Thailand's Yala province, about 1,084 km (674 miles) south of Bangkok June 18, 2009. In the rustic villages of Thailand's Muslim south, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's promise of large-scale development aid to tackle a brutal insurgency sounds all too familiar. Four suspected Muslim militants were killed on Thursday during the raid, police said after a 30-minute gunbattle. He said they had received a tip that militants were using a house in the area as a hideout.

Credit: Reuters/Surapan Boonthanom

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YALA, Thailand (Reuters) - When a gun appeared through an open window in her small wooden house, Patimoh Pohitaedaoh knew the insurgents had come to kill her.

She had already seen four family members shot dead in her village by shadowy assassins over the past five years.

Now, her time had come.

"They shot at me, I knew they would come after me," said Patimoh, a Muslim villager from Yala, one of three southernmost provinces plagued by five years of unrest.

"I ran to hide and defence volunteers heard the shots and chased the gunmen away. I was lucky to survive," she told Reuters.

Similar stories are told daily throughout the predominantly Muslim region bordering Malaysia, where nearly 3,500 people have been killed since 2004, among them teachers, soldiers, Imams and Buddhist monks.

The conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.

The violence adds to image problems that could affect foreign investment and tourism in Thailand, rocked by sporadic political turmoil and violence in other areas as well in recent years.

In the Muslim south, a place where fear and intimidation have become part of daily life, Patimoh, like most people here, is reluctant to speculate as to the identity of her attackers, or what they are fighting for.

"I didn't see them clearly -- no one knows who these people are," said Patimoh, 29.

"All I know is they are here in the villages, every day, all around us," she said.

TORN APART

Buddhist and Muslim families have been torn apart by the deadly violence, which has ranged from drive-by shootings and arson to powerful bombings and grisly beheadings.

Patimoh's younger brother, Samsudeen, a defence volunteer, elder brother Rohim, a village chief, brother-in-law Asif and sister Laila, a community leader, all paid a heavy price for working for the Thai state.

They were shot dead by gunmen on motorcycles who haunt the rustic villages of the jungle-clad region, silencing anyone deemed to be supporting the authorities.

Security forces are struggling to tackle the insurgency and say convictions of ethic Malay rebels are rare because witnesses are too scared to testify in the courts.

The failed attempt on Patimoh's life in Krong Pinang three weeks ago has forced her to move to the comparatively safer surroundings of Yala, the run-down provincial capital.

But she has vowed never to leave the deep south, where an armed ethno-nationalist struggle from three decades ago appears to have resurfaced.

"I no longer have ambition in my life, I just live day by day because I don't know what will happen to me," said Patimoh, who runs a support group for women and children affected by the violence.

"I can't turn my back on my family or my people, it would be selfish," she said, her eyes filling with tears.

"I still get death threats. I hear the words 'die, die, die', but I refuse to change my life or give in to those behind it."

(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Martin Petty)

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