BANGKOK — When two monks were killed on holy ground in Thailand’s Deep South one week ago, virtually every human rights group from Human Rights Watch to the local Cross Cross Cultural Foundation denounced the violence as unacceptable. That didn’t stop a Buddhist monk from taking to social media three days later to stoke grievances by claiming the opposite.
“What’s the use of having rights activists? Or are they all dead? Soldiers are shot, they remain quiet. Villagers are shot, they remain quiet. Monks are shot, they remain quiet,” the Buddhist monk wrote Monday on Facebook under the name Phra Ajarn Frank Power of Awakening Chayakaro. “When the joen are caught, they shout out to protect the joen.”
Joen is a euphemism employed as a catch-all to describe Malay-Muslim separatists and is akin to “goons” or “bandits.”
The monks’ murders have further inflamed inter-religious and ethnic tensions, with activists and scholars comparing the current climate to a festering wound of distrust in which both sides only see and remember what they want.
“It’s like festering pus,” said Wichai Kanchanasuwon, director of the Peace Studies Institute at Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai city. Wichai has for years sought peaceful resolution of separatist-related violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Both a local and Buddhist, Wichai said Buddhists have become enraged by the attacks one week ago which left two monks dead and two injured, with some calling for swift retaliation.
“But they have forgotten to look at the fact that three Muslim religious leaders have also been killed recently,” he said, adding that it doesn’t seem to register as big news or create a stir of the same magnitude in Thai society when such thing happens, which is predominantly Buddhist.
On the other side, Wichai said some Muslim religious leaders have floated conspiracy theories, questioning whether it was in fact a “false flag” operation by the state to sow more hatred against them.
“They said the temple wasn’t that far from an army outpost, and no culprits have been arrested so far,” Wichai said.
Wichai has been monitoring the use of social media and said rising hatred has become widespread in Thai society.
He likened it to filling a jug about to burst.
“Violence doesn’t solve problems. In the end more innocent people will die, not the extremists,” he said.
That includes messages such as those stoking resentment toward human rights groups which have spoken out about abuses, including torture and the execution of suspects without due process.
Caught in the crossfire has been leading human rights figure Angkhana Neelapaijit, caretaker National Human Rights Commissioner. Angkhana is a Muslim from Bangkok whose husband, a rights lawyer, vanished and was presumably killed 15 years ago.
She said Thursday that she had been a target of many social media attacks due to the issues she promotes, for which she is accused of siding with the separatists.
“Our job is to verify the facts and make proposals,” Angkhana said. Last year, she even lodged a police complaint over threatening speech made against her.
“They posted my photos and asked why a person like me should live,” she said.
Angkhana fears that people of the two religions and ethnicities will increasingly hate one another as the conflict continues unabated. More than 7,000 people have been killed in the past 15 years of conflict, according to monitors.
Also subscribing to the festering wound analogy is Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of Cross Cultural Foundation, a human rights advocacy group that has promoted rights and published reports of system torture practiced by the Thai military.
Pornpen believes hate speech on social media wouldn’t be effective was there no mutual anger and frustration simmering beneath the surface.
“This uneasiness cannot be activated by online media alone. There must be a germ festering,” she said.
Human rights activists working in the south are often branded as useless if not as assisting enemies of the Thai state when they defend the civil and political rights of Thai-Malay Muslims prosecutes by authorities.
Pornpen acknowledged that it is disturbing for Buddhists to see bullet holes in monks’ alms bowls. She added the pictures of the bullet holes cut deep into the hearts of many Buddhists, but that most do not remember images of mosques being attacked or Muslim religious leaders being shot to death.
The commissioner suspects that some of the hate speech has been planted by extremists on both sides to stoke division.
Such speech prevails online on both sides of the divide, where public Facebook groups such as “We Love Buddhism and Hate Islam” exist. Though it only boasts about 180 members, it exemplifies the incendiary language used in the conflict. On the other hand, Facebook pages such as “We love Buddhism” recount the issue from the other side.
On the page – which has more than 25,000 likes – a Yala province monk in a short video posted the day after the attacks, said he’d been threatened with death by Thai-Malay Muslim youths who told him not to go out for alms in the morning.
His message of being ignored, saying such complaints are ignored by the mass media, struck a chord.
In under a week, the video was watched more than 345,000 times and shared almost 12,000 times.