Their pitiless response has further fueled the insurgency. The dispersal by soldiers and armed police of a protest at Tak Bai town in 2004 led to the deaths of 85 Muslim men and boys, mostly by suffocation, after they were stacked four or five deep in army trucks.
Mahrosu Jantarawadee symbolizes the divide between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand — a martyr to some, a murderer to others. He was born, killed and buried in Bacho, an area of rice fields and rubber plantations the Thai military calls a “red zone” of insurgent activity.
Hundreds of mourners cried “God is great” at his funeral in Duku village. Mahrosu’s family and neighbors believe he died while fighting a holy war against a Thai government whose harsh assimilation policies have suppressed their religion, language and culture.
Mahrosu is no hero to the authorities or to the relatives of his alleged victims. The Thai military links him to an eight-year streak of gun and bomb attacks that killed at least 25 people. Sometimes, said the military, he shot his victims and then set their bodies alight. His mug shot appears on posters at heavily fortified police stations across the region.
One of his alleged victims was teacher Cholatee Jarenchol, 51, shot twice in the head in front of hundreds of children at a Bacho school on Jan. 23. The children included Cholatee’s seven-year-old daughter.
“She’s scared she’ll be killed next,” said her mother, Fauziah, 47.
Cholatee was one of at least 157 teachers killed by suspected insurgents since 2004, ostensibly for being government employees.
Mahrosu was advised not to attack the Bacho military base, said Abdulloh, the BRN-C operative. A wiry man in his sixties dressed in a tracksuit and sneakers, Abdulloh was speaking in a teashop in Yala, the capital of Yala Province, in a shabby neighborhood known locally as “the West Bank.”
Like many militants, Abdulloh hides in plain sight in the towns of the region, although he kept the meeting brief and clutched a bag that he said concealed a pistol.
“He wouldn’t listen to the elders,” Abdulloh said, referring to Mahrosu. “They told him it was too risky to have so many fighters in one place, but he was stubborn and went ahead.”
It was Abdulloh’s task to monitor the movement of soldiers and police, and to liaise between militant cells and what he called “the elders.” He said nine of the 16 dead, including Mahrosu, were “commandos” — well-equipped veterans who join forces with villagers to form platoon-strength units for big attacks.
The Bacho operation illustrated an insurgent attempt to “shift military operations to a higher level,” said Anthony Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s.
“There are relatively fewer attacks than in previous years, but they are often better planned and more lethal, reflecting a “growing professionalization within insurgent ranks,” Davis said.
The insurgents are also making more — and bigger — bombs. On March 15, just two weeks after the Malaysia talks were announced, a 100kg device exploded beneath a pick-up truck carrying three policemen through Narathiwat Province, flipping the vehicle and scattering body parts across the road. All three died on the spot.