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On Saturday, five days after his ordeal had begun, Azu was released with 1,172 fellow prisoners. A fleet of buses took them to the town of Narathiwat, just 30 km from Tak Bai. The journey back from Pattani this time took not six hours but only two. Muslims lined the highway and cheered as the convoy passed. Some wept with relief. In Narathiwat there was a profound outpouring of emotion as the men were reunited with their families. Azman, who had been arrested on his way to work near the police station and did not participate in the protest, says he just wants to return to his "simple life." "I will try very hard to forget this," he says.
Some who live in the south insist that there are men who have disappeared, whose names do not appear on the arrest list released by the army, nor among the dead, and who have not returned home. For example, eight Muslim employees of a construction company owned by a Buddhist businessman attended the protest; two were killed but the remaining six are missing. "They are not on the list and they were not identified among the dead," says the businessman, who asked to stay anonymous. "Where are they? These are real men with real families. These were not drug takers or bad men, as the government says. They were normal people exercising a democratic right. I am a Buddhist and I will say this: there is no justice for Muslims in this country." From Ai's village, 35 men were arrested, three are dead and seven have disappeared, Ai says. "Many women are missing their husbands or sons."
The Tak Bai tragedy is just one of many deadly episodes that have erupted all year throughout Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces. In effect, the south is in the throes of an uprising. Inspired by the ideology of global jihad, once-dormant Islamic separatists have reawakened, setting off bombs and assassinating anyone from soldiers and officials to teachers and monks. There have been deaths on both sides. In April, the authorities gunned down more than 100 Muslims who had apparently launched suicide attacks on military and police posts, armed only with machetes and knives. Now, with Tak Bai, the death toll has risen to some 430 lives since the start of this year.
In the south, the Thai government is pursuing, as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told TIME in a recent interview, a dual policy of "an iron fist and a velvet glove." It has pledged nearly a billion dollars in development aid to the area and tried to involve local communities in decision making, but it has also declared martial law and beefed up troop numbers there. Both strategies are clearly visible in the region. Billboards display the smiling face of Thaksin, standing in front of a tropical beach scene, promising the south's 6 million Muslims "Peace, Unity and Development." Next to the billboards, heavily armed police and soldiers man highway checkpoints, stopping vehicles and body-searching every Muslim male. Yet neither fist nor glove has stopped the deaths. "This is a very dangerous time," says a local Muslim leader, who does not want to be named. "Tak Bai tells us that we are all at risk. These were not insurgents, they were innocent people exercising a democratic right to protest. It tells all of us that any Muslim can be killed."