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Buddhists, Muslims work together in Thai bamboo business
Tuesday November 18, 2014 2:48 PM, Gaspar Ruiz-Canela, EFE

A group of Buddhists and Muslims work together in a cooperative business to make bamboo goods in troubled southern Thailand, an unusual initiative amidst sectarian strife in which more than that 6,000 people have died since 2004.

Thailand bamboo

Since Muslim guerrillas intensified their armed struggle 10 years ago, a climate of distrust has been created in the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat which are home to 80 percent of the country's Malay-Muslim population.

Residents of the neighbouring provinces do not resent other beliefs and religious minorities, but fear visiting villages just a few kilometres away, which has generated a progressive alienation between Buddhists and Muslims, especially in rural areas.

However, there are a few exceptions, such as that of Buddhist Sompong Artinmong who has united Muslims and Buddhists in several Pattani villages for making bamboo baskets and other goods.

"We started our project in 2003 and used bamboo waste to make baskets. We did not have any place to store the goods, so we used to leave them under a tree," the 50-year-old Sompong told Efe news agency.

With donations, they were able to build a shed where Sompong encouraged other women and men to make the baskets.

"One cannot earn much with rice cultivation and the unemployment rate is very high. I had an idea to use bamboo waste to make baskets," she recalled.

"We organise better. The government sometimes does not understand the needs of local people," she said, adding that a family earns up to $913 in a year by selling rice.

Mastha Sini, a 23-year-old Muslim girl who studied in Islamic Yala University and works in the business, said: "I don't know why Muslims and Buddhists kill each other, maybe for revenge."

Around 1,500 soldiers, paramilitary personnel, policemen and volunteer militias are fighting around 9,000 insurgents who are demanding independence or autonomy for the region, according to data from the Deep South Watch organisation.

Civilians, including monks and Buddhist and Muslim teachers, considered to be informants, are frequently targeted with gunfire and bombs in the three Thai provinces.

The military camps are often inside or close to temples which are considered to be easy targets, along with schools and teachers.

After a night of burned schools and bombed karaoke bars, it is normal to see Buddhist monks leaving early in the morning to gather food guarded by M16 rifle-wielding soldiers.

The local people do not only blame the insurgency for the attacks, but also criminal gangs and even army factions.

Thailand's military government has promised to solve the insurgency issue within a year. However, it has sent only 2,000 assault rifles to the civilian volunteer militias so far.

The military government has also made people afraid to freely express themselves.

"I want independence, Pattani was a Muslim kingdom," a local Muslim said.

"The priority of the separatists is the identity, the Malay identity, the Muslim identity of the Pattani region, which in the past was a kingdom. Their language, culture and religion is different from the rest of Thailand," Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Deep South Watch director, said.

The provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of the ancient sultanate of Pattani which was annexed by Thailand in 1909.

The Malay-Muslim community was subjected to an aggressive assimilation policy, although last year the authorities and guerrillas held their first round of talks to negotiate peace.

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