It’s hard not to talk about safety concerns in the Thai province of Pattani. In a region rocked by separatist violence since 2004, Buddhist monks collect alms under the guard of soldiers. Government-appointed district chiefs travel in unmarked armoured pick-ups, accompanied by three escorts armed with assault rifles. Some visiting researchers confine themselves to their hotels after dark.
And so it seemed natural for me to ask a local: “Do you drive at night?”
“No,” she replied.
“Is it because of attacks? Or robberies?” I pressed.
“Because the soldiers at the roadblocks might put guns in your car to cause problems,” she said.
Whether fact or fiction, her fear underlined the suspicions that the Malay Muslim population in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have towards the tens of thousands of security forces stationed in the three border provinces.
According to a 2012 report by the International Crisis Group, there are 41,000 policemen and soldiers in the region, as well as 18,000 volunteer rangers and 7,000 volunteer defenders. These numbers do not include almost 85,000 civilians who are members of volunteer militias.
Unlike other parts of Buddhist-majority Thailand, Malay Muslims form more than 80 per cent of the roughly two million people in the region, which used to be part of a sultanate until they were annexed by then Siam more than a century ago. The people argue that the heavy military presence and emergency laws – which allow for pre-charge detention – ripen the ground for abuse.
About 6,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the insurgency flared up a decade ago. While militants have been accused of targeting locals to stoke anger against the authorities, security forces have been accused of extra-judicial killings. Locals whisper about a “third hand” and “dark forces” behind attacks.
Strong sentiments against the state were evident in the Narathiwat district of Bacho, where three boys, all brothers, were killed on Feb 3 after gunmen ambushed the family in their village house. Mr Abdul Fatah Haji Soleh, 47, a brother of the boys’ mother, told The Straits Times: “My neighbours and I believe the authorities did it. A Muslim will not do this to children.”
Two days after the interview, police announced they arrested two Malay Muslim army rangers who said they had attacked the family for revenge. Still, locals remain sceptical.
Their cynicism runs deep, says Narathiwat politician Najmuddin Umar, who is a candidate for the ruling Puea Thai party in the disrupted Feb 2 general election.
When Puea Thai and its coalition partners tried to push through a wide-ranging amnesty Bill in Parliament last year – it would allow fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand a free man and possibly absolve the military of alleged abuses in the south – civil society activists here were up in arms. But some locals simply shrugged it off, said Mr Najmuddin. They believed that the guilty will be let off the hook even without such a Bill.
No wonder that Muslim-Buddhist relations there are fraying. Ms Jaruk Jeenple, a 49-year-old Buddhist in Tak Bai, a district bordering Malaysia, no longer visits Muslim friends in their homes. She meets them in neutral places like the market instead.
“People are scared of the ‘third hand’,” she says. Tak Bai was where security officials’ harsh attempt to control a protest outside its police station 10 years ago resulted in 85 deaths.
“I used to have a Muslim friend whom I would bring to the temple. We would eat together, just that she could not touch pork,” she says. “Now, people are afraid that if they talk too much, they might get attacked.
“How did it get to this?”