Last month police and soldiers shot dead six Muslim protesters in nearby Tak Bai, and another 79 perished on military trucks ferrying them to an army camp. Since then more than 30 people have been killed by unknown attackers in what Buddhists fear is an escalating campaign to drive them from southern Thailand. In response, Buddhists are arming themselves—and not just in the villages. Every Sunday a Thai businessman drives his armor-plated car to a navy firing range outside Narathiwat town, where he and other local Buddhists practice how to shoot. While a bank manager and a bookshop owner blast away with sleek Italian-made shotguns, the businessman—who doesn't want to be named—takes out a Walther PPK pistol and deftly peppers a target with bullets. "Want to try?" he asks through wisps of choking cordite. "We are being victimized and killed every day. The government has no power to stop this, which is why we must protect ourselves." Demand for firearms in Narathiwat has pushed prices up 30%. "These days we carry a gun everywhere," says the businessman. "It's like living in a western."
For decades it has been the Muslims of southern Thailand—one of the country's poorest regions—who have felt marginalized and persecuted. Although they form the majority here, they own less than 30% of the region's businesses. Unemployment forces tens of thousands of men across the border to work in Malaysia's rubber and fishing industries, despite a Thai government affirmative-action program to boost Muslim numbers in certain professions. Allegations of abduction, torture and other abuses by elements of Thai security forces have fueled Muslim resentment. Some analysts believe that unidentified Islamic separatists, inspired by the global jihad, are exploiting this anger to launch attacks against the state. Others caution that the south has long been a violent place, with the police, military, gangsters and politicians fighting turf wars with one another over the black-market trade in gasoline, guns, narcotics and other contraband.
Now Buddhists, too, feel under siege. In recent weeks militants have been targeting not just soldiers, police and government officials but also ordinary Buddhists in what is apparently a campaign of vengeance for the Tak Bai killings. The militants are driving a wedge between communities that used to live in relative harmony. "When I grew up here, Muslims and Buddhists got on like brothers and sisters," recalls a monk at Ba Pai temple near Narathiwat. Today what both sides share is fear, paranoia and a simmering anger that the violence now threatens their homes. In the Buddhist village of Tung Kha, 54-year-old headwoman Penporn Suranatukul sits in the shade of a postcard-perfect temple, watching soldiers fill sandbags. Penporn lives in dread of Islamic militants. "They want to chase the Buddhists out," she says, her eyes welling with tears. "We're just sitting here, waiting to be killed."
With the military stretched thin across the south, some Buddhists have sold up and moved out while others have taken their security into their own hands. In the remote mountainous region along the Thai-Malaysian border, Buddhist villages now resemble fortresses. Most men are armed with government-issued shotguns and assault rifles, and take turns manning checkpoints outside the village. They turn back any car or motorbike carrying Muslims, including those who have traded in the villages for decades. "We can't trust anyone anymore," says Sakarin Chanhon, 52, a member of the militia in Pukhaotong village in Sukarin district, Narathiwat, where two villagers were shot by unidentified militants early last month. "The enemy is all around us."
Even Buddhist monks and temples have been targeted. Across the south this year, four monks have been murdered (one was beheaded) and temples have been bombed, burned and shot at. Soldiers now routinely accompany monks on their morning alms round. At Pattani's Lak Muang temple, barefoot monks pad past sandbagged bunkers while soldiers keep fit and earn merit by jogging around a giant whitewashed stupa. But monks are quietly fleeing, say local Buddhists, and some soldiers have taken leave to be ordained as monks in a desperate attempt to bolster monastic numbers.
The southern death toll is up to nearly 500 this year, and there's no end in sight to the violence. "We really wished to solve the problems by peaceful means," said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a recent radio address. "But some people still use violent ways, so we have to use both ways." The name Narathiwat means "the residence of good people," notes a local tourist brochure. The good people of southern Thailand—Buddhists and Muslims alike—wait with growing desperation for protection from the bad.