Islamist schools are blamed for bloody uprising in Thailand

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The Independent Online

Hidden a few kilometres down a remote country lane in the heart of Thailand's troubled deep south - where a Muslim separatist uprising has left more than 200 dead this year - is the multi-million-dollar new campus of the Yala Islamic College.

Hidden a few kilometres down a remote country lane in the heart of Thailand's troubled deep south - where a Muslim separatist uprising has left more than 200 dead this year - is the multi-million-dollar new campus of the Yala Islamic College.

With more than a dozen Arab teachers from across the Middle East and a seemingly endless flow of funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, Yala has become the most obvious manifestation of what critics here say is an "Arab threat" to the traditionally moderate and tolerant local Islamic tradition. It was first brought home in 2002 when two dozen Middle Eastern suspects were arrested in the south for forging travel documents, visas and passports for al-Qa'ida operatives.

The south's largely unregistered Islamic schools - which offer religious education, a regular curriculum and training in Arabic and the local Yawi dialect - are accused by the government of being breeding grounds for radical separatists. The Islamic faith in Thailand, like Buddhism, has always been seen as being integrated with many other beliefs and practices, but the foreign-returned Muslims are insisting on a "purer" form of Islam.

A number of the Muslim separatists killed on 28 April, when more than 100 Islamists were gunned down on their motorbikes by soldiers acting on a tip off about a planned series of raids on army posts across the south, taught at local Islamic schools. Radical Thai Muslims have also targeted government-run secular schools, with nearly 100 this year alone being burned to the ground.

Last week a Bangkok court issued an arrest warrant for a Muslim teacher accused of organising the worst separatist attacks - proof, say critics, that many Muslim Thai teachers who went overseas to Islamic schools must have come under the influence of hardliners.

The Buddhist minority in the south are circulating pamphlets detailing alleged local Muslim extremism, saying it poses an unprecedented threat both to their religion and the state. One senior Thai government official in Pattani said that he was aware of the first signs of "ethnic cleansing" in Narathiwat, one of the south's Muslim-majority provinces. "Some Thai Buddhist families have been told to leave under the threat of violence," he said on condition he not be further identified.

The Deputy Prime Minister, General Thamarak Isarangura, has said the Thai government believes there are military training sites in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt where Thai Muslim separatists are trained to execute terror attacks. More than 160 Thai Muslims students are enrolled in Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia, and 1,500 in Egypt.

Yala Islamic College is run by Dr Ismail Lutfi, a Thai graduate of the hardline Wahhabi Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He has an estimated 8,000 followers in key Islamic posts throughout the south, and the 1,500 students at the college are taught a hardcore Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law in the Arabic language.

"I am against violence and I am against extremism," Dr Lutfi said in flawless Arabic in an interview at the college this week. "However, I do not consider telling the local Muslims that they should go to the mosque and pray five times a day extremism," he added.

Thai Muslim complaints of discrimination in jobs and education - along with the economic neglect of the south - have provided fodder for various separatist movements since the provinces here, once part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, were annexed by Thailand in 1902. Their quest for an autonomous homeland has been rekindled partly because the Iraq war and Israel's violent suppression of the Palestinian intifada, but new visa restrictions on Muslims have also had a radicalising effect.

The upsurge in violence is proving difficult to control largely because it comes after Bangkok effectively dismantled its intelligence apparatus in the area and scaled down its military presence, thinking it had all but crushed the separatist movement in the late 1990s.

Local resentments, which radicals from outside are trying to exploit by linking them to a wider Islamic struggle, have become more intense. There is the alleged underlying hand in the recent violence of local military and police officials, each vying with the other (and local separatists, who frequently double as criminals) for control of arms- and drug-smuggling rings. And there are almost continuous reports of false arrests and torture.

After the Islamists killed on 28 April were shown on television wearing green Hamas-style headbands and other clothes with Islamic slogans emblazoned on them, the government conceded it was facing a complex separatist threat. One killed militant had stitched into the back of his jacket the letters JI - an assumed reference to Indonesian-based terrorist group Jummah Islamiya (JI), which seeks to establish a pan-South-east Asian Islamic state from southern Thailand through Malaysia and Singapore and across Indonesia into the southern Philippines.

Numerous regional leaders from JI, al-Qa'ida and the Free Aceh Movement are known to have spent time in southern Thailand since the attacks on New York on 11 September 2001.

Neighbouring countries, many battling their own Islamist insurgencies, fear that calls for revenge over alleged Thai army heavy-handedness in the ongoing crackdown could provide the excuse JI and other regional terrorist networks need to broaden their ties to local Thai separatist groupings.

Independent estimates already put JI membership in southern Thailand as high as 10,000, and the Thai military says that it is hunting down at least 5,000 armed separatists.

The success of the military operation against those calling for jihad ultimately depends on closer co-operation from neighbouring Malaysia. Bangkok is urging Malaysia to withdraw the right from about 30,000 Thais who hold dual citizenship.