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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 24, 2005
Muslim women, children shield marine killers
By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - Suspected Islamist insurgents avoided capture after torturing to death two Thai marines by beating and stabbing the bound-and-gagged victims behind a human shield of defiant Muslim women and children, horrifying the government and plunging southern Thailand into a fresh security crisis.

Amid the world's most violent Islamist insurgency outside Iraq, angry and confused security forces hunted the elusive killers, described as three or four young men who ran away, leaving the marines' bloodied bodies in Tanyong Limo village.

"They were brutally beaten to death with machetes and sticks, while their hands and legs were tied up, and they were gagged

and blindfolded," Lieutenant General Kwanchart Klaharn, commander of the Fourth Army and director of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-building Command, told reporters.

The bodies were locked inside a building near a mosque, prompting security forces to break down a door to gain access before transporting them to a hospital morgue, he said.

The brutality of the killings - coupled with the security forces' failed attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis and the inability of the armed marines to defend themselves - was urgently being examined by politicians, peace activists, army generals and the Thai media.

"We will absolutely not let those two die for nothing. The law is the law," an agitated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told journalists after the killings Wednesday during a 19-hour stalemate between troops and villagers in violence-torn Narathiwat province.

"If I could, I would drop napalm bombs all over that village," a distraught Captain Traikwan Krairiksh was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying after he viewed the bodies of his former subordinates in a pool of blood. "But the fact is, I can never do that. We are soldiers. We must follow the law. We can only take revenge by using the law."

Throughout the stand-off, scores of shouting Muslim women dressed in traditional headscarves stood with children, blocking troops from gaining access to the hostages, and erecting banners that blamed the authorities, including one in Thai that read: "You are in fact the terrorists."

Apparently hoping for a peaceful solution, troops did not attempt a forced rescue. The two experienced marines, armed with a US-supplied M-16 assault rifle and two pistols, were initially captured on Tuesday night when they stopped their vehicle near the village.

Locals blamed them for the drive-by shooting death of two men dining at a nearby tea shop earlier in the night, but authorities later explained that the marines were pursuing the unidentified killers and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

More than 1,000 people on all sides have died in southern Thailand since January 4, 2004 when the smoldering rebellion flared in a so-called "night of the fires" attack on security forces, including synchronized arson assaults on 21 schools and a massive raid on a military base that netted the rebels hundreds of guns and heavy weapons.

Today, about 100 years after Thailand annexed the mostly ethnic Malay Muslim region, "mujahideen" holy warriors yearn for a separate state ruled by Islamic sharia law in a lush, tropical region where Islamists are waging similar insurgencies in the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere.

No one is sure who leads the increasingly sophisticated, disciplined and successful Muslim fighters in southern Thailand. The government blames indigenous rebel groups, allied with local Islamic schools, that are inspired by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Osama bin Laden's call to force non-believers from Muslim territories.

The ongoing violence threatens to inflame strained relations between Buddhist-majority Thailand and Muslim-majority Malaysia, because Bangkok accuses Kuala Lumpur of not doing enough to stop suspected insurgents criss-crossing the porous border.

In July, the government clamped the south under a "state of emergency", in part using Article 17 - granting impunity to security forces so they cannot be prosecuted for killings or other acts while deployed. In August, when asked at a news conference if the decree was "a license to kill", Thaksin held up a toy sign marked with an X and sounded a toy's electronic beep to indicate the question was "not constructive".

Asked if international terrorists were involved in the south, the tense prime minister again held up his X sign and sounded his son's Japanese toy, a move that infuriated the media but which Thaksin defended as a stress-reliever to deal with "heavy" questions during the first of what he called the "PM meets the press" conferences.

Scores of Thai Muslim men are believed to have undergone guerrilla training or religious study in Afghanistan before the Taliban's collapse in 2001, and many returned to southern Thailand shunning the region's popular Sunni Islam - demanding instead the austere, retro-justice of Islam's Wahhabi sect, pushed by Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden.

Recent leaflets and word-of-mouth warnings in the south have called for all markets to shut on Fridays, Islam's traditional day of rest, or violators will be beheaded or have their ears chopped off. As a result, many businesses throughout the south have shut during the past several Fridays, either in fear or in sympathy.

A dozen people, mostly Buddhists, have been beheaded in seemingly random attacks in the south in a strategy "copied from the violence in Iraq", according to Thailand's Interior Minister Chidchai Vanasathidya.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. He received a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

(Copyright 2005 Richard S Ehrlich.)

Thai refugees embarrass Bangkok (Sep 17, '05)

Thailand softens on the south (Apr 5, '05)

A more 'humane' Thailand promised (Mar 12, '05)

Thailand hits and misses, again (Feb 23, '05)

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