Kuala Lumpur - The unrest in Thailand's deep South may enter an even more dangerous phase if the militants were to succeed in turning it into a full-blown religious conflict. The recent spate of attacks on Buddhist temples and monks suggest that the militants have started to focus less on nationalistic elements in favour of waging a religious war against Buddhists living in the Muslim-majority South, said an expert.
Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who teaches at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said in the past, the militants had limited their attacks to security and government targets.
The latest round of orchestrated violence against Buddhist temples and monks reflected the militants' determination to deepen the rift between Buddhist and Muslims, he said at a workshop in Kuala Lumpur for journalists from South and Southeast Asia.
Since the 1960s, "conventional separatists" in the deep South had engaged in "ethno-nationalistic" ideology in their struggle and refrained from attacking religious symbols because they believed Buddhists had a right to live in the region.
The first attack on a Buddhist icon took place on Jan 22 last year. The latest attack occurred at a temple on Oct 16, when suspected militants slit the throat of an elderly monk and killed two teenage novices before torching the temple.
Assoc Prof Ramakrishna said a religious conflict "is more difficult to negotiate than the ethno-nationalistic type". But there is hope yet: In his assessment, the militants have not yet succeeded in broadening their religious conflict in the deep South and local Buddhists and Muslims still tolerate each other.
To counter the religious conflict, the central government in Bangkok must make it clear that Muslims are good citizens of Thailand and can live well in the mainly-Buddhist kingdom, Assoc Prof Ramakrishna said.
He suggested that the authorities find someone who is wise enough to produce a message with Islamic terminology to counter the militants' propaganda. The media could also play a part by making it clear that the conflict in the south has nothing to do with religion, the academic added.
* Sectarian violence is 'difficult to stop' (The Nation, Nov 22)