Women in the crossfire
The killers arrived under the cover of darkness, creeping up to the shabby bamboo huts where the schoolboys lay resting. Earlier that evening, the boys had accompanied the principal of their Islamic boarding school to a funeral. By 9.30pm, they were home and packed off to bed.
When the gunmen had finished firing, 10 teenage schoolboys lay injured or dying, and the calm of a Saturday night in this village had been shattered. A call went out from the school mosque for drivers to take victims to the hospital. Two were confirmed dead, the youngest aged 12, and rumours swept the stricken Muslim community that Thai security forces were to blame. Stories spread of army rangers in fatigues glimpsed between the rubber trees in the fields that surrounded the school.
The next morning, soldiers sent to the school in southern Thailand's troubled Songkhla provice to investigate the shooting found the road blocked by tree trunks and about 500 people. It was off-limits to outsiders, declared the protesters. Other routes into the school were also blocked. Tensions rose and shots were fired into the air. At one point, participants said, a soldier pulled the pin from a grenade.
Still, they refused to budge. Across the barricades, staring defiantly at the troops were scores of Muslim women, their heads veiled in black scarves. A shaky mobile phone video shows the women standing their ground as soldiers yell and fire warning shots into the air. Boys are seen milling by the road in the brief clip. 'We're not afraid of soldiers and guns. Not at all,' one elderly female participant said.
Female protestors facing off against security forces is becoming a common sight in Thailand's violence-plagued south, where more than 2,100 people have died since a separatist insurgency began in 2004.
In recent months, as the death toll rises, authorities have faced a surge of protests by women and children that are testing Thailand's commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the spiralling conflict.
Female-led protests can seal off Muslim villages to Thai security forces, stopping them from pursuing suspects or examining crime scenes, such as the boarding school shooting on March 17. That standoff ended last week, four days after the shootings, when trusted mediators including a prominent forensic scientist and the widow of a missing Muslim lawyer brokered a deal to allow authorities to enter the school.
Other demonstrations by women have forced security forces to release Muslim suspects to defuse tensions and disperse crowds. This practice is on the increase, say analysts, because police are reluctant to call in army reinforcements and risk seeing the situation escalate. The legacy of Tak Bai in 2004, when 78 Muslim men died in army custody after a protest was violently suppressed, is a potent reminder of what can go wrong.
The gatherings are also a tool for media-savvy insurgents to undermine the government's emphasis on peace-building, say officials. 'When they use women and children as protestors, this means pictures of soldiers confronting them that the media will use,' said Colonel Acra Tiproch, a spokesman for the army's southern command.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired army commander who was installed in October by Thai army coup leaders, has stressed peace and reconciliation in the troubled area. Analysts say his willingness to apologise for past mistakes such as Tak Bai and pay compensation to victims' families has won him some respect in the south. He has insisted that security forces try to use peaceful means to resolve disputes.
But the release of detained suspects has sparked counter-demonstrations by Buddhists in the south, who are a dwindling minority. On Monday, about 2,000 Buddhists rallied in Saba Yoi district capital that oversees the boarding school in Pian sub-district to press authorities to provide more weapons for self-defence.
Buddhist villagers complain that authorities are favouring Muslims, giving in to militants and failing to protect their communities from increasingly brutal attacks, such as the March 14 execution-style slaying of eight Buddhists on a bus. A ninth later died in hospital, but the driver, a Muslim, was spared by gunmen after he reportedly knelt to pray.
The widening sectarian divide in the south, where Malay Muslims have long complained of mistreatment by Bangkok-appointed officials, is testing Mr Surayud's peace-building stance. He said on a recent visit to the area that he was concerned by the rift between Buddhists and Muslims, but said his policy would remain unchanged. 'We will have to find the cause of these misunderstandings and fix them,' he said.
Intelligence officials say the mobilisation of women, while fuelled by genuine anger over incidents such as the boarding-school shootings in Pian, is being manipulated by militants. The use of unarmed women and children is part of an ongoing psychological battle in the contested zone, which was annexed by Thailand in 1909 but is culturally, ethnically and linguistically closer to Kelantan state in neighbouring Malaysia.
The tactic puts Thai security forces on the back foot as they are wary of wading into a crowd of veiled Muslim women for fear of provoking a riot or being accused of abuses. Militants sometimes don burqas and direct the women from behind the front lines, say officials, who believe a female wing is now active in many insurgent-run villages. Women are allegedly used to transport weapons and bombs past checkpoints, knowing that male soldiers and police won't try to search them.
'It's a set-up, it's been planned. Most of the women [protesters] are wives and relatives of the insurgents, not the victims,' said Chidchanok Rahimmula, a professor of political science at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, who tracks the conflict in the south.
In response, Thailand has begun training almost 200 female paramilitary rangers and policewomen to negotiate with women protesters and try to defuse tensions. However, efforts to recruit local Muslim women to be rangers have been thwarted by anonymous threats to their families that stoked concerns over possible militant revenge attacks.
Colonel Pakorn Juntarachota, a ranger commander, said the first batch of female rangers fell short of recruitment targets. Of 40 Muslim applicants, only half joined the intake of 132 rangers. 'We wanted the majority to be Muslims, but it's hard. Their parents are very wary.'
One of those who hasn't backed out is Rupeeya Dumalee, 22. She has learned to handle crowds, pacify protesters and fire an automatic weapon. Until last year she was a college secretary. Today, she wears black fatigues, combat boots and a purple-and-black neck scarf, carries a snub-nosed M-16, and earns US$275 a month as a ranger.
Earlier this month, Ms Rupeeya's unit was sent to a Muslim village in Narathiwat province where a group of women and children had blocked soldiers from searching for two suspects. At first, the local women mocked her for joining the rangers and asked why she wasn't wear a headscarf (ranger uniforms don't yet include headscarves for Muslims, but will in future). Others refused to talk and looked straight through her.
After a week, the women softened, and some invited Ms Rupeeya and other female rangers to visit their homes in the village.
Eventually, after two weeks, the wanted men were handed over to authorities, and the rangers headed back to their base, satisfied that they had helped reach a peaceful end to the standoff.
Ms Rupeeya says her family supports her career move. She believes the female protesters are victims of intimidation and ideological brainwashing by separatist insurgents. 'My job is to negotiate. I think they will listen to me because I'm a Muslim and we speak the same language,' she said.
Women at the boarding school in Pian deny that they were forced to mobilise against authorities. They say the crowd was drawn spontaneously from the school and surrounding village, and that locals feared that the army would try to plant incriminating evidence at the school to prove it was an insurgent base and cover up what local Muslims believe was an atrocity carried out by soldiers.
Soldiers searched the school last year, but made no arrests, and protesters say they suspected the army would seek to close down the school. This fear was fanned by Thai media reports after the incident that quoted local security chiefs alleging that the boys had died after a bomb they were assembling had exploded.
None of the women protesters wanted to give their names for fear of reprisals. But they agreed that their role was to front the crowd so as to keep out Thai security forces. 'It's psychological. With women standing there, the soldiers don't come closer. If we use our men, the soldiers will turn violent,' said an elderly villager, her jaw trembling as she describes the incident.
A woman who left her two young children behind and went to the front lines said it was exhilarating but frightening to face down the soldiers. 'I felt excited. This was my first time [at a protest]. Everyone felt afraid, including me,' she said.
School principal Haji Abdullah Chelah, who stayed at the school during the standoff, said the incident shocked the community, and nobody was willing to trust the security forces. A compromise was reached to allow officials to examine the crime scene with Pornthip Rojanasunan - a government forensics scientist who has campaigned against injustice in the south - as a mediator and witness.
'I don't know who would do this [shooting]. But I believe it's not carried out by Muslims. We help local people, we take care of their children,' Mr Chelah said.