Bangkok – A brutal attack on a Buddhist temple in the town of Pattani on Oct 16 is seen as an attempt by militants to deepen the religious divide between Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand's deep South. The pre-dawn attack came on the heels of several violent incidents in recent days, fanning fears that the 21-month insurgency could flare up into a regional flashpoint for Islamic militancy and stoke global terrorism.
In the Oct 16 attack, about 20 insurgents stormed the Promprasith Temple in Pattani's Panare district, armed with assault rifles, knives, machetes, fireworks and petrol. They then hacked a 76-year-old monk to death while two teenage temple boys died in the hail of gunfire. Many others narrowly escaped by jumping out of windows. The temple was also set ablaze during the 15-minute attack.
Fourth Army Region Commander Lt-General Kwanchart Klaharn said the militants chose the area in Panare district as they knew Muslims and Buddhists had lived there in harmony and peace for a long time.
One local resident said most of the people living near the temple were Buddhists, but they had never had any conflict with their Muslim neighbours.
"I suppose the militants might be outsiders who want to create a rift between Buddhists and Muslims," he said.
A senior army commander in the south told Singapore's The Straits Times that he expected the temple attack to strengthen calls from hardliners in Bangkok for tougher military tactics.
Although Buddhist monks and temples have been targeted before, the Oct 16 attack is the first on such a brutal scale.
Other violent acts in recent days included the shooting of six government supporters by suspected Muslim separatists and two policemen. On Oct 15, a 10kg pipe bomb wired to a mobile phone triggered detonator was found and defused at the entrance to a Buddhist temple.
Analysts have warned that the violence in Thailand's deep South could develop into full-scale terrorism if not tackled quickly.
US ambassador to Thailand, Mr Ralph Boyce, sounded a similar warning during a meeting with Thai Justice Minister Chidchai Wanasathit on Oct 13. Mr Boyce said United States had not come across any evidence to suggest that the separatist insurgency in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces was escalating into international terrorism.
However, Mr Boyce asserted that the problem could head in that direction one day.
* Pattani temple murders: Monk and two teenagers slain (The Nation, Oct 17)
* Monk, temple boys murdered (Bangkok Post, Oct 17)
* Militants strike temple, 11 killed in attacks in Thai south (The Straits Times, Oct 17)
* US fears full-blown terror threat (Bangkok Post, Oct 14)