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Thai Muslim Guerillas Warn Tourists To Stay Away

Thai Muslim Guerillas Warn Tourists To Stay Away


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Muslim guerrillas have told the "people of the world" not to visit southern Thailand, where Thai troops killed more than 100 Islamic militants and bloodied a mosque in Pattani, but the stark warning also included Phuket island, a wealthy, tourist playground untouched by the carnage.

Phuket island is graced by lavish, expensive, self-contained resorts cooled by gigantic "infinity pools" and "jungle pools" set among meticulously coifed foliage, rustic wooden bridges, stone paths and palm trees.

Tourists can swim toward floating bars which provide whatever they like to drink while luxuriating in pools amid statue-studded gardens or lazily wander the island's ring of sandy beaches.

Nightlife on the island includes pumping discos and sidewalk nightclubs teeming with prostitutes and souvenir sellers seeking to attract the millions of annual tourists.

Wealthy foreigners and Thais have bought so many of the island's exclusive homes that a real estate boom has started to clog Phuket's extravagant splendor.

"Despite violent unrest in southern Thailand, Phuket developers are upbeat and have recently raised prices by 10 to 25 percent, as interest from overseas buyers continues to spur new projects," the Nation newspaper reported on Friday (April 30).

But in a harsh wake-up call, the unprecedented warning specifically included Phuket island and was signed by the United Front for the Independence of Pattani -- a feared guerrilla group usually referred to as Bersatu, which means "united" in Malay language.

It was posted on the "official website" of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which forms part of the united front along with the Mujahideen Pattani Movement and two smaller rebel groups.

The unusual, one paragraph "message from Bersatu" said:

"Dear people of the world, persons who plan to visit Thailand NOW are warned not to travel to Pattani Raya Region -- Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Satun, Songkhla -- and the neighbor provinces [of] Phuket, Pangnga, Krabi, Pattalung. Pattani people are not responsible for anything [that] happens to you after this warning."

Thailand's worst day of bloodshed in decades occurred on Wednesday (April 28) in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Songkhla, where Thai troops clashed with Islamic militants, killing at least 107 alleged assailants.

Pattani's small Krue Se mosque became a blood-spattered slaughterhouse when Thai troops panicked and killed all 32 people inside.

Three police and two soldiers also died in the scattered clashes, bringing the one-day death toll to at least 112.

Bersatu's naming of Narathiwat and Satun provinces completes the list of five southern provinces where most of Thailand's four percent minority Muslims live, and where insurgents have long fought for an independent Pattani Raya, or Pattani Kingdom.

Phuket island is northwest of that troubled area and is Thailand's jewel, a place so prosperous that it enjoys a virtual parallel economy compared to the rest of the country, allowing it to bask in pampered luxury even when Thailand led Asia into an economic meltdown in 1997.

Pangnga and Krabi also attract tourists, including countless international backpackers who dig the cheap paradisiacal splendor, freaky rock formations along the coast, and hedonistic outdoor parties.

The insurgents' warning was not dated and did not indicate why it was posted, but apparently Wednesday's bloodshed angered the shadowy, illegal group.

The only other announcement in English on the website was a plea by PULO "urging the Thai authorities to investigate at least 60 people from Narathiwat [who] disappeared" during security security sweeps between January 5 and April 9.

That demand was signed by PULO's deputy president Lukman B. Lima, who was believed to be in exile in Sweden.

The PULO leader said "a pattern of torture and unlawful killings of individuals alleged to be members or supporters" of Islamic insurgents must be stopped, and he quoted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which opposes torture and other abuses.

In May 2003, Mr. Lima boasted Thai security forces were "falling like leaves" in southern Thailand because Muslims were rising up in "liberation movements" against "colonial" repression practiced by Thailand's majority Buddhists.

Thailand's Islamic guerrillas are too weak to occupy any permanent territory, so they unleash surprise attacks and rapidly disperse, hitting targets in the south such as police and army posts, government buildings, Buddhist temples, plantations and nightclubs, often killing people at the sites with machetes or other light weapons.

They have burned dozens of government schools which teach a Thai curriculum loathed by the minority ethnic Malay rebels who prefer the Yawi dialect of Malay language and religious lessons in Arabic to memorize the Muslim's holy book, the Koran.

A handful reportedly learned to fight in Afghanistan alongside U.S.-financed mujahideen against the Soviet occupation -- when Washington endorsed an Islamic "holy war" against "godless communists" -- or with Taliban Sunnis and al Qaeda before that regime was chased out by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

"All of us were sacrificing ourselves for God," said an arrested alleged militant, Mana Matiyoh, on Thursday (April 29) while describing the attacks to journalists in Pattani.

The militants, who display increasingly sophisticated synchronization in simultaneous multiple attacks, emphasize theirs is a fight between Thailand's persecuted minority Muslims and trigger-happy majority Buddhists.

The government denies such allegations and fears the Islamic militants' cause will become "internationalized", attracting unwanted inspection by foreign governments, human rights organizations, the United Nations and other aliens, and also cash, weapons and training from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and their "global jihad".

Thai officials meanwhile dread being posted in the impoverished south where violent criminal gangs have corrupted the administration, resulting in confusion when the government tries to identify suspects as Islamic insurgents or blackmarketeers.

Similar to Thailand's Buddhists, some lax Muslims in the south have incorporated earlier animist beliefs, but most southern Muslims are Sunnis, with a tiny number of Shias.

***** ### *****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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