Bangkok - Advocates of a kinder and gentler approach in ending the insurgency in southern Thailand may have a harder time pressing their case following the savage killings of two Thai marines in a Muslim village in Narathiwat on Sept 21. A pledge made by an angry Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra "not to let those two die for nothing" has raised concerns that his government may resort to an eye-for-an eye retaliation.
The two marines, Sub-Lieutenant Winai Nakhabut and Petty Officer Khmathon Thong-iat, were held hostage by villagers for 19 hours before their blood-soaked bodies were retrieved.
They had gone to Tanyong Limo village on the night of Sept 20 to investigate an earlier incident in which suspected militants killed two men and wounded four others in a drive-by shooting at a teashop. But their car broke down and the marines were soon surrounded by hundreds of angry villagers. They were accused of being among the assailants in the shooting and were taken to the village mosque.
Negotiations between security forces and hostage-takers failed to make any headway. The situation was tense as troops confronted a group of villagers - mostly women and children - who had set up a tent at the entrance to the village to prevent outsiders from getting in.
The villagers then demanded that media representatives from Malaysia be called in to defuse the situation and report what had really happened. The villagers said they did not trust both the Thai authorities and the Thai media.
The security forces gave in to the villagers' demand and used a helicopter to fly in six Malaysian journalists to mediate in the standoff. However, the marines were killed - apparently amid rumours that troops were about to storm the village - five minutes after the Malaysians arrived.
"They were brutally beaten to death with machetes and sticks, while their hands and legs were tied up, and they were gagged and blindfolded," said Lt-Gen Kwanchart Klaharn, director of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-building Command.
Prime Minister Thaksin on Sept 21 ordered a massive manhunt for the masterminds behind the marines' killings even as peace advocates, including members of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), urged the government to show restraint.
Ms Chidchanok Rahimmura, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, said the government must try to find the real culprits to avoid prosecuting innocent people, which would drive more villagers to the insurgents' side.
NRC member Petdao Tohmeena said the tragedy showed that the villagers did not trust the government to protect them.
"We have lost out to the insurgents in this effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents because the state has never brought out the truth behind the situation in the region," he said.
* PM: Killers will be punished (Bangkok Post, Sept 22)
* Government urged to respond sensitively (Bangkok Post, Sept 22)
* Trust has vanished: NRC (The Nation, Sept 22)