Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

Thai Buddhists on a Long March to Muslim South

Marwaan Macan-Markar

SONGKHLA, Thailand, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - Wearing a floppy cotton cap for shade, an exhausted Sarawut Kunrapang enters the compound of a mosque in the blistering afternoon sunshine. It is the latest stop for this 27-year-old Thai Buddhist in his walk for peace since mid-July from Bangkok.

The lanky Sarawut steps into the Yaman Yamaeh after halting at another mosque, some 25 km away.

This journey from the Thai capital, 984 km to the north, is a personal quest. Sarawut is on a mission to spread understanding for the sake of his father and brother in the Thai army battling an insurgency raging in this corner of the country for more than six years.

“I don’t want them to die. I want to see them every day,” says Sarawut as he leans against a pale blue wall of the mosque. “This is a walk with good intentions.”

Sarawut, manager of an Internet cafe in Bangkok, is among many others who has taken such a walk. Others, such as Kharusak Sukchuay, are on a pilgrimage to learn about the country’s largest minority. He has spoken to people along the way for a lively programme he hosts on a community radio station.

“Interviewing people during the walk and sharing details of our progress about our message of non-violence has created a big following,” says 36- year-old Kharusak. “It is a more powerful social commentary than talking about peace in the studio.”

Gotham Arya, 67, the brainchild behind this 1,100 km walk — which began Jul. 11 and is due to end 53 days later on Sep. 1 at the central mosque in Pattani — appears far from giving up.

It is the first such journey for Arya, in a tradition favoured once by Buddhist monks and more recently by activists out to send a political message.

“Ours is a social walk. And what is new is that nobody has done such a peace walk from Bangkok to the South,” says Gotham, director of the Research Centre for Peace Building at Mahidol University, located in a Bangkok suburb. “It is a walk that is trying to break barriers and show some kind of genuine relationship.”

The walk comes as the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva considers accommodating measures to end the latest cycle of the insurgency. The conflict involving heavily armed Thai troops facing a shadowy network of rebels from among the Malay-Muslims in the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and parts of Songkhla has seen more than 4,300 people killed since it erupted in January 2004.

“The people in the area have no confidence in the state. There is a lot of distrust,” Srisomphob Jitpiromsri, founder of Deep South Watch, an independent research group in Pattani, told a seminar here this week hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The violence has had a strong impact on the local people.” The area close to the Thai-Malaysian border is home to some two million people, mostly Malay-Muslims.

The nearly 10,000 incidents that Jitpiromsri’s group has documented “ranging from shootings, bombings to arson” has meant “about 30 percent of the people have friends or relatives affected by violence, either injured or dead,” Srisomphob said.

Muhammad Ayub Patan, a senior journalist from Pattani, warns of other disturbing trends. “The society is getting used to the frequent killings,” he told the UNDP seminar. “People have begun to treat reports of violence and murders as normal news, a normal phenomenon.”

The current cycle of violence, where there have been 11,000 recorded casualties, is rooted in a conflict going back decades, since Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces in 1902. Until then, they had been part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani.

Malay Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural, linguistic and economic marginalisation, giving rise to a separatist struggle in the 1970s that was brought under control by the mid-1980s.

The gruelling walk for peace led by Gotham is seen here as a welcome balm to relieve a tense atmosphere. “It is an innovative way to get the issue of peace and reconciliation back on people’s minds, at least those that the walking group met on the way,” says Saki Pitakkumphol, director of Peace Studies at the Pattani-based Prince of Songkhla University.

But there is no saying how far such a walk can go to ending the conflict. “The security community in the south is uncomfortable with civil society initiatives that they view as undermining state security,” Pitakkumphol told IPS.

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