|Buddhists flee Muslim terror in Thai south
Guarded by Thai soldiers from rebel attacks, an 81-year-old grandmother – the last Buddhist in a Muslim village – refuses to abandon her home, defying a wider split between insurgency-plagued communities.
Since violence erupted in the Muslim-dominated Thai deep south in 2004, Jiaw Pongthawil has seen her Buddhist neighbours flee Baan Ga Doh, a remote village in a security ``red zone'' in Narathiwat province.
She is now the only Buddhist among 1,200 Malay Muslims.
“I'm afraid. I have been attacked many times... but I have nowhere else to go. This is my property. This is my land,'' she says, her voice faltering.
It is a demographic shift playing out across the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where a festering rebellion against Bangkok's rule has killed more than 5,700 people.
Estimates suggest half of the region's 400,000 Thai Buddhists have fled in the nine years of war, wearied by near-daily attacks against state representatives and their perceived supporters, including many Muslims.
That decline – among a local population of around 1.8 million – may shape tentative peace talks with rebels, according to experts who say nervous Thai Buddhists are pressing Bangkok to secure their future.
Many Muslims lament the growing split from their erstwhile neighbors.
But there is also little love lost for Thai authorities after decades of alleged human rights abuses and efforts to weave the culturally distinct south into the kingdom.
Jiaw's home has been attacked three times in recent years despite the deployment of a squad of soldiers inside her compound.
The mother-of-six was widowed in 2007, leaving her alone in a spacious bungalow.
Her military guards, stationed in sand-bagged dug outs around the compound, say she is a courageous Thai elder who they are willing to defend with their lives.
Jiaw is saddened that most of her Muslim neighbors no longer visit her.
“We used to live together... we helped each other. But now they [Muslims] want all of us out. Buddhists and Muslims live apart,'' she says.
The Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, which governs the restive region, told AFP there had been no exodus of Thais, insisting Buddhists were in fact relocating to the conflict zone.
But the available figures paint a starkly different picture.
The last survey in 2010 by the National Statistical Office found 288,000 Buddhists living in the three provinces, 20 percent fewer than a pre-war count in 2000.
Academics say the numbers have slumped further since 2010 in parallel with a rise in violence.
The flight marks a success for the rebels, a shadowy collection of groups who are fighting for a form of autonomy from Thailand, which annexed the south a century ago.
Danger lies in the growing divide, according to Srisompob Jitpiromsri of Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.
Once seen as the champions of the Thai state in its southernmost territory, Buddhists are anxiously watching peace talks, fearing their influence could be eroded.
“Any new political settlement will be a very bitter pill for Thai Buddhists to swallow,'' says Srisompob, who is an observer at the talks.
“Tensions will reach a higher level if any settlement doesn't resolve their concerns,'' he says, warning ``sectarian violence could be the consequence'' if a form of self-government emerges.
In Baan Ga Doh local headman Uzman Ahmad, who is a Muslim, remembers Jiaw from his childhood when the village was at peace.
“I really wanted the Buddhists to stay. We were brothers,'' he says, a pistol holstered by his side. “Maybe one day we can live together again, but now it is too dangerous for them.''