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Thailand: 'Religious conflict' worries premier
By Richard S Ehrlich, Asia Times Online, Jan 28, 2004
BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Thai government has warned against a Muslim-Buddhist "religious conflict" after assassins killed two Buddhist monks and a novice in southern Thailand, while the army canceled sending Israeli-trained Thai troops to Iraq because they might anger Iraqis.
"Don't take what happened as a religious conflict, otherwise we could become a tool of the [Muslim] separatists," warned Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after three members of the Buddhist clergy were killed in Thailand's Muslim-majority south.
Muslims fighting for a separate Islamic nation are suspected of countless bombings, arson attacks, shootings and other assaults during the past several years in southern Thailand, to destabilize Bangkok's grip and allow Islamic Sharia law to dominate there instead.
"I will never let anyone take away even a square inch of Thai soil," the prime minister vowed in his weekly radio broadcast on Saturday.
Hours earlier, assassins killed a 65-year-old Buddhist monk and his 13-year-old novice - the latest victims in a new strategy of assaults against saffron-robed clergy. Previously, Buddhist religious figures were not a main target in the violence-racked south.
Four men on two motorcycles ambushed their victims while the monk and novice strolled barefoot, silently collecting alms on Saturday in Yala, about 1,000 kilometers south of Bangkok, according to police reports.
On Thursday, a sword-wielding man on the back of a motorcycle driven by his partner sliced a 64-year-old monk to death while the shaven-headed Buddhist walked to a temple in nearby Narathiwat province, police said.
Islam and Buddhism are at different ends of the spiritual spectrum because, unlike Islam, there is no "god" in Buddhist belief. Muslims also denounce the "worshipping of idols", while statues of Buddha appear throughout Thailand and are revered by bowing Buddhists who comprise more than 90 percent of this Southeast Asian nation's population.
Some Buddhist scholars say the statues are not to be "worshipped" but instead used as a symbolic portal, similar to a spiritual keyhole, enabling seekers to transcend earthly existence and the illusions of human thought. Afghanistan's former Muslim Taliban regime, however, judged the huge, ancient Bamiyan statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan as a "idols" and unleashed multi-barreled rocket launchers and tanks to obliterate the pair in 2001 while cheering and praising Allah.
Some of Southeast Asia's Muslims trained in Afghanistan in the 1980s when the US-backed mujahideen received massive funding from Washington and successfully ended the "godless communist" Soviet Union's decade-long occupation. Others trained there in the 1990s when Osama bin Laden and the strict, Saudi-inspired Wahhabi sect of Islam increased their influence in Afghanistan.
Thai officials suspect that returnees from Afghanistan, plus Wahhabi-financed religious schools, have influenced some Thai Muslims at more than 100 small, private Islamic campuses in the south. Relentless arson attacks on government schools in the south during the past decade have been blamed on Muslims who want to cripple the official education system so more Muslim children end up in local Islamic schools or fundamentalist institutions in the Middle East.
In a separate development, Thailand's army canceled plans to fly about a dozen Israeli-trained Thai soldiers to Iraq, "to end concerns about possibly upsetting the Iraqis", the English-language Bangkok Post reported on Sunday. Israel trained the soldiers in desert farming techniques in the Jewish state, but Bangkok's Defense Ministry "worried about negative consequences for the mission due to conflicts between Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East", the paper said.
According to the Defense Ministry's deputy spokesman, Palangkoon Klaharn, a substitute team will go from Bangkok to Karbala instead, and use their experience gained at farm projects in Thailand. No Israeli-trained Thai forces have been sent to Iraq, where more than 420 Thai troops are stationed, he stressed.
Two Thai soldiers, both sergeant-majors, died in Iraq last month when assailants attacked their military camp in Karbala.
A Thai Muslim, Colonel Montri Umaree, has reportedly been selected to become the new commander of Thai forces in Iraq, beginning in March.