PATTANI, THAILAND — A group of men, most wearing Muslim prayer caps, stand at attention. At the front of the room, an imam leads the group as they shout, “I will sacrifice everything, even my own life, to protect the purity of Islam.”
This isn’t a hardcore Muslim political or terrorist group though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Next, the imam has everyone shout, “I will not get involved with any separatist movement in any case at all.”
In the midst of southern Thailand‘s Pattani state, where sectarian conflict has killed more than 4,800 people since violence escalated in 2004, these men are at the heart of an effort to stamp out Malay Muslim militancy by eliminating possible recruits.
Facing a growing insurgency fighting to separate from Thailand, the Thai military set up the Peacebuilding Center to target at-risk youths. Local imams recruit men from “red zones,” areas known to have militant cells and high rates of violence.
“We are using Islam to solve the problem,” says Col. Chatchapon Sawangchote, director of the Peacebuilding Center. “Actually we don’t want them to side with the government or the state – we just want them to truly understand their religion.”
Colonel Sawangchote himself is new to Islam. He converted from Buddhism after working with Yeemae Pattalung, a local imam.
Mr. Pattalung is the regional head of Tablighi Jamaat, a rapidly growing global Islamic movement which eschews politics but is known for social conservatism. He admits he was skeptical when the colonel first asked for his help.
“I told him you cannot solve the problem with money or force because the problem is about the misunderstanding that has been accumulating systematically for a long long time,” says Pattalung, who now advises the Peacebuilding Center.
Both men say a small group of militants has distorted Islam for their personal gain. Pattalung compares the conflict to a car “which has been assembled, but needs one more thing to run — belief in jihad.” When young men at the center learn what Islam actually requires to justify jihad, he says they understand that Southern Thailand is not a jihadist war.
Since they began working in 2006, Pattalung says the center has now trained 4,000 people, and none of the project’s graduates have engaged in extremist or militant behavior.
Still, some observers worry the center will have little effect because the fuel of the conflict is not jihad, or anything to do with religion.
The fight is rooted in an ethno-nationalist narrative about restoring the historically Malay kingdom of Patani, says Mr. Pathan. Militant cells can come from secular origins. For example, a Malay soccer team once became a militant cell.
“It’s that narrative that you see every day, the minute you walk out of your home and see armed troops walking up and down your street. It radicalizes people,” he says.
Additionally, many Islamic leaders may be reticent to work with the government due to the militant threats. In the interest of self preservation, imams often find themselves supporting both the state and militants, depending on who is present at the moment. Nonetheless, they’re often targeted by both groups.
In this environment, some security analysts say its best to avoid a hearts-and-minds approach and allow communities to address the problems on their own.
“I think the better way for the military operations in local communities is trying to support communities to work on their own independently – and just step back,” says Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of the Pattani-based think tank, Deep South Watch.
Back at the Peacebuilding Center, Sawangchote acknowledges religion is not the only issue.
“There are many layers of the problem you have to solve, and religion is one of them,” he says.
Both Sawangchote and Pattalung accept that peace is far off, but they hope the center offers a complementary approach to the military’s “surround, search, and seize” strategy. Still, there is no sign of the fortified checkpoint leading into the center disappearing anytime soon.
Peace “will not happen like the flip of the coin — it will happen gradually like the change of the season,” says Pattalung.
(Andrea Wenzel of WAMU reported from Thailand on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project. Noi Thammasathien contributed to this story. )