Thu, Jun 03, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Buddhists rally for peace

REUTERS , NARATHIWAT, THAILAND

Buddhists in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south gathered yesterday for a morale-boosting rally after the beheading of a Buddhist man this week stoked fears of sectarian conflict in the restive region.

Tension between Muslims and Buddhists, who are the overwhelming majority in Thailand but are outnumbered four to one in the deep south, is on the rise after five months of attacks on government officials, teachers and security forces.

The Thai government called off talks between the military and a Muslim separatist group on Tuesday because of the beheading and an attack on a Chinese shrine popular with Buddhists.

Some Buddhist temples have been ransacked and three monks killed this year. The unrest burst into major bloodshed on April 28 when police and soldiers killed 108 Muslim attackers, including 32 who had taken refuge in a mosque.

The Lim Ko Nhieo Chinese shrine in the town of Pattani is next to Krue Se mosque, where the 32 militants were hiding after an earlier shootout.

"In the past, when monks went out for alms, children helpers followed to help carry food," said Phrakru Praphassorn Sirikul, abbot of the temple that hosted the gathering to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.

"But nowadays when they go out, soldiers carry M-16s to protect them. This is very ugly," he said.

The 1,000-strong rally of mainly government officials and students in Narathiwat, 1,200km south of Bangkok, was billed as a morale booster for the region's nervous Buddhist population.

Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said the situation was improving after Bangkok sent in military reinforcements, although authorities remain fearful of infiltration by foreign Islamic radicals and their ideas.

"There is some influence from outside but we are trying to explain to our people what is the correct thing in the Koran," Chavalit said.

Despite his assurances, Thais are evacuating the region.

"Wealthy Buddhists have already fled their homes and the middle-class people are joining them," the abbot said.

"Only the poor can't afford to leave and they can barely nourish Buddhism. We may soon become another Indonesia, where there are many Buddhist structures, but few followers," he said.

Tension in the region began on Jan. 4, when dozens of suspected Muslim militants raided an army camp and stole 400 guns, provoking fears of a resurgence of a low-key separatist war that rocked the region in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the latest incident, an elderly Buddhist rubber tapper was found decapitated in Narathiwat over the weekend.

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