Jiranan Phedsri confesses that she has "one true friend." The 51-year-old Thai housewife strokes the object of her affection, caressing its cool curves. The recipient of the devout Buddhist's ardor? A .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol Jiranan carries wherever she goes in Thailand's troubled deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has resulted in roughly 4,000 deaths since it gained momentum in 2004. The handgun, though, isn't Jiranan's only trusted companion. As a volunteer in the Iron Ladies, an all-female civilian militia designed to protect Buddhists from Islamic extremists, she received military training on how to wield rifles and machine guns. Jiranan is such a sure shot that she was chosen to show off her target practice for Thailand's Queen Sirikit, who has personally sponsored the Iron Ladies. "I am ready to die for my Queen and for my country," says Jiranan, her fuchsia-painted lips breaking into a wide smile. "That's why I need my little friend."
Little more than 60 miles (100 km) from Thailand's fabled beaches lies another land that has far more in common with the barbed-wire disquiet of Iraq or Afghanistan than the sunny image projected in tourist brochures. Nearly every day, violence motorcycle bombs, shootings, arson attacks, beheadings claims another life in Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which, unlike the rest of the Buddhist-majority country, are 80% Muslim. The region was a Malay sultanate until the early 20th century when Thailand annexed it. While members of both faiths have been killed by Muslim militants, as a proportion of the population more Buddhists have perished. This year looks set to eclipse 2008 in terms of bloodshed. Victims of the extremists, who generally decline to publicly articulate the reason for their terror campaign, range from rubber tappers and teachers to Buddhist monks and Muslim imams, as well as soldiers and police. Just a few years ago, neighbors of different religions used to mingle, but the carnage has frayed such bonds. "The communities have become alienated from each other," says Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who heads a think tank on the Thai south conflict at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani. "They both blame the other for being the real cause of the violence in the south."
The Way of the Gun
To try to combat the slaughter, Thailand has unleashed a massive surge, sending nearly 70,000 security forces into a region populated by 1.7 million people. But the authorities have also encouraged local residents to arm themselves and form militias with fanciful names like the Iron Ladies, the Night Butterflies and the Eyes of a Pineapple. Around 100,000 civilians are now members of such armed groups, and they either receive free guns from the military or can buy them at deeply subsidized rates. The majority of militia members come from Buddhist ranks because the government feels they are most vulnerable to attack.
Is handing thousands of firearms to briefly trained and skittish citizens the best strategy? Lieutenant General Pichet Wisaijorn, the Fourth Army commander in charge of security in a region fortified by miles of razor wire and tons of sandbag bunkers, contends that there's no alternative to a weapons buildup. "If everyone threw away their guns, that would be wonderful," he says. "But if the insurgents have guns and no one else does, that's not fair. We have to help people feel secure, and guns give them protection."
Critics of the arms proliferation are calling for the government to address the root causes of discontent in Thailand's south on both sides of the sectarian divide. Buddhists complain that an environment where simply commuting to work exposes them to possible assassination is unacceptable. They feel that too few insurgents have been punished for their crimes and wonder why the Thai authorities have not done a better job infiltrating militant cells. In turn, Muslims resent what they see as an official attitude that regards members of their religion as potential terrorists who must be suppressed by draconian emergency laws. Perceived discrimination against Muslims has so penetrated large segments of the population that it is likely feeding the radicalization of a new generation of extremists.
There's no question that Thailand's southern tip is increasingly awash in guns. The number of legally registered weapons in the three provinces has jumped 10% each year since 2004, and many more are owned illegally. The state readily distributes firearms to everyone from teachers to government officials. In Narathiwat's Tak Bai district, for instance, none of the 56 village chiefs owned a gun before 2004. Now all do. "Guns can't totally protect us against insurgents," says Yoon Yerntorn, chief of Tak Bai's Buddhist Sai Khao village, where five locals have been killed over the past few years. "But at least we can try to shoot back."
Forty other Sai Khao citizens have banded together as a unit of a village militia called the Or Ror Bor. Nearly all of the 25,000-strong Or Ror Bor operating in the three provinces are Buddhist, and their corps was inspired by no less an authority than the Queen of Thailand. In late 2004, after three Buddhists were brutally beheaded by militants, Queen Sirikit gave an impassioned speech advising the military to teach villagers how to defend themselves with firearms. Facing the cameras, she announced that even she "would learn to shoot guns without my glasses on."
Local Muslims complain they have largely been left out of the government-sanctioned arms race, even if more than half of all deaths have come from their ranks. "If we carry guns, [the military] says we are insurgents," says one Muslim academic who declined to be named. "But if Buddhists do, then that's O.K. because they're just protecting themselves." (Some ethnic Malays concede they are scared of joining state-sponsored militias because insurgents might see them as collaborators and target them.) Racial discrimination continues to fester in Thailand's deep south. An Amnesty International report released earlier this year documented systematic torture of Muslim detainees by Thai security forces. Business and civil-service activity in the south is dominated by Buddhists; the governors of all three provinces, for example, are from that faith.
As the guns proliferate, there are also worrisome signs that some Buddhists are straying from a defensive posture into vigilante justice. In June, 11 Muslims were shot dead by a posse of gunmen while praying at the al-Furqan mosque in Narathiwat province. Official speculation first centered on Muslim radicals turning against their own. Later, though, police issued an arrest warrant for a Buddhist militiaman from the neighboring village, where a rubber tapper had been killed the day before.
With the violence showing no signs of dissipating, Buddhist civilian militias patrol potentially dangerous street junctions or congregate in temple grounds where they peer through monsoon downpours with shotguns at the ready. One morning at the temple of Chang Hai Tok village in Pattani province, a batch of Iron Ladies, outfitted all in black, runs through military exercises. Surveying the training from behind a trio of Buddha statues, 60-year-old abbot Pracharoonkittisophano shrugs his shoulders when asked whether women twirling rifles, along with a shooting range behind his sleeping quarters, elicits any spiritual discomfort. "Guns are normal things in our world," he says. "I see them on TV all the time, and the types of guns used here are much safer than the big ones on TV." Until they kill.