Thai troops sworn in as monks

FAITH UNDER FIRE: After three monks were slain on their alms rounds, Bangkok has detailed troops to raise Buddhists' confidence in three restive southern provinces


Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 6

Thailand turned soldiers into monks on Thursday for dispatch to remote temples in the largely Muslim south in hopes of restoring confidence among Buddhists in the violence-torn area.

Most of the soldiers, police officers and civil servants among the 222 monks ordained at temples in three Malay-speaking provinces would serve for the three-month Buddhist Lent period starting on August 1, officials said.

The majority of them, heads shaven and clad in the saffron robes of a monk, were low-ranking soldiers whose mission was to boost Buddhists' sense of security during the period when the devout study holy scriptures, they said.

"People have been scared to become monks these days, so we are now recruiting monks from [among] soldiers," Lieutenant General Pisan Wattanawongkeeree told reporters after one ordination ceremony.

Pisan said he was not worried about the troops' safety, despite three monks being among the 300 people killed since January, when violence erupted in a region where a low-key separatist war was fought in the 1970s and 1980s.

The government says it cannot pinpoint the precise roots of or motives behind the violence, citing a complex mix of history, corruption, crime, drugs, religion and separatism.

Many of those killed were shot or hacked to death by motorcycle pillion riders, including the three monks who were killed with machetes while on their morning rounds to collect food from lay Buddhists.

"These new monks need no extra training because they are innocent people whose job is to nurture Buddhism," Pisan said.

Thailand's Buddhist Lent falls during the rainy season, when monks are not allowed to take long journeys. Thai men often use the season as a period of retreat to study their religion.

About a fifth of the 200 temples in the far south have been unstaffed for years, and many more were abandoned after the monks were killed in January, officials said.

That left southern Buddhists, who are about 20 percent of the population in the three southern provinces that have borne the brunt of the violence, without the monks who are a common sight in the rest of Thailand, which overall is 90 percent Buddhist.

After the three monks were murdered, other monks either suspended alms collections or were escorted by soldiers.

The violence erupted without warning on January 4, when gunmen stormed an army camp and killed four soldiers before making off with about 400 assault rifles.

Almost daily attacks since then have targeted police, officials, schools and teachers. Much of the area is under martial law, with 10,000 police and soldiers manning roadblocks and security posts.

The latest casualty came on Thursday, when a policeman was shot dead while directing traffic near a bustling market in Pattani province, police said.

A Cabinet minister newly appointed to supervise military operations in the south said on Wednesday that security forces would begin to use guerrilla warfare to stop the daily killings.