The Strange Thai Insurgents Who Like Sorcery and Get High on Cough Syrup

The Pattani rebellion has been raging in Thailand for years -- but what drives these militants?
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Security personnel inspect the site of a roadside bomb blast in southern Thailand's Pattani province on January 11, 2013. (Surapan Boonthamon/Reuters)

Krue Se Mosque is just outside the city of Pattani on the shoulder of Highway 42, so nondescript you could breeze by without noticing. A bullet-riddled sign bears the notation, "Tourism Authority of Thailand," but nobody coming here is a tourist. Any visitor is told --first with glances, soon in stronger terms -- to keep his sojourn brief.

Before a cool April dawn in 2004, a hundred machete-armed guerrillas launched simultaneous attacks on eleven police and army posts, then took refuge in the mosque. Some were high on a brew of cough syrup, Coca-Cola, and a narcotic plant called kratom. Some were motorcycle-riding "pilgrim bandits," half hajji and half Hell's Angel. Most wore amulets that they believed made them invisible to their enemies, or capable of teleportation, or invulnerable to any type of weaponry. The talismans proved no match for the Thai army's machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The blood has been washed from the courtyard stones, but the bullet-holes in the sign at the mosque's portal remain defiantly unfilled to this day.

Over 5,300 people have been killed since 2004: for a population of only 1.8 million, a rate of carnage nearly double that of Afghanistan.

Welcome to the Pattani revolt: one of the world's longest-running insurgencies, and certainly among its most bizarre. The ravaged provinces of Thailand's Deep South lie less than 400 miles from the holiday-makers' utopia of Phuket, but for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, the world of the bombs and the world of the beaches might as well be on different continents.

The violence had simmered for decades before flaring into full blaze at Krue Se. Over 5,300 people have been killed since 2004: for a population of only 1.8 million, a rate of carnage nearly double that of Afghanistan. The insurgents, Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, use the fiery rhetoric of jihad. But the rebels are motivated by identity rather than theology, and even this motivation is hazy: they're driven less by what they are than by what they are not. They use Islamist language, but they're mystical Sufis rather than by-the-book Salafists; they're united by Malay language and culture, but they have no desire for unification with their cousins right across the border in Malaysia; they don't see themselves as belonging to Thai society, but they have no clear picture of where-- or even in which era-- they might want to belong.

They have been courted by terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaeda to Hezbollah to Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah. The rebels have sent them all packing. This leaves intelligence officials of several countries baffled, because the day that the Pattani militants link up with a transnational outfit, "we're all" (as one Western operative says bluntly) "in a world of hurt."

I have looked at this issue through a variety of lenses. I am an anthropologist by background, but have also worked as a journalist and a government official. Over the past five years I have made eight reporting trips to Thailand and Malaysia, visiting each of the core provinces (Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala), as well as the affected districts of Songkhla and the Malaysian border state of Kelantan. I have interviewed militants in the field, security officials, exiled rebel leaders, and ordinary citizens just trying to get by. If the conflict can be summed up in three letters, they would be "WTF?"

The story of the Pattani uprising is one of blood and magic, of outrageous characters living in the 21th century but simultaneously in the 16th. It is a tale of a revolutionary movement with an impenetrable cell structure seeking the restoration of a long-dead sultanate, in the name of an ethnic identity that none of its champions can convincingly describe. It reveals a great deal about radical Islam -- or perhaps nothing whatsoever. Most of all, it is a cautionary lesson for anyone claiming to understand such grand notions as "Islamist terrorism" or "globalized jihad," whether in Palestine, Dagestan, or Boston: If all politics is local, perhaps all insurgency is as well.

***

Both the government and the rebels commit unspeakable deeds. Live bodies are stacked like cordwood in police vans and emerge hours later as corpses. Schoolteachers and clerks are publicly beheaded. An imam was tortured to death over the course of days, displayed in a makeshift cage. A saffron-robed monk was blown to pieces. An informer was crucified, hands and feet nailed into the street, and soldiers didn't even bother to cast lots for his clothing.

Most young men in the Deep South know someone who's been killed, crippled, or arrested. Nearly all have been humiliated by authorities, often on a daily basis. What separates the 10,000 juwae -- the young fighters who form the backbone of the insurgency -- from the rest of their angry, alienated peers? A soda bottle, perhaps, and a headband.

The soda-bottle contains a narcotic brew based on the kratom, a leaf that grows wild throughout the region. Traditionally, it is taken with tea to mask its bitter taste. Today, the mixer is typically Coca-Cola, or sometimes, strawberry Fanta. The effect of kratom is similar to that of ya-ba or methamphetamine, and it has long been popular with construction workers, long-haul truckers, and anyone else with a professional need for periods of hyper-alert insomnia.

The new insurgents lacked identifiable leaders, issued no press statements, and didn't seem to have any structure whatsoever. The old ones had scrupulously avoided civilian targets, but the new ones didn't seem to care.

The juwae do not need to be sleepless and paranoid, so they balance the stimulant of kratom with the depressant of codeine. The beverage they favor was initially called "4 x 100," with the first numeral representing the number of ingredients (kratom, cough syrup, cola, and a fourth element varying by the brewer's taste) and the second (like so much else in the insurgency) bearing no clear meaning at all. The number of additional ingredients has spiraled, so the cocktail of rebellion is now known as "8 x 100." The foundation is still kratom, codeine and soda, but these are supplemented by meth, crushed mosquito coil, tungsten from the inside of light bulbs, and dried bird excrement. Some of the hardest-core militants boast of lacing their beverage with ash from a human corpse.

Why on earth would anyone drink this? Why would anyone get high on it every day until he has been drained of all capacity for rational thought? Some say it is bravado, others claim sorcery. But perhaps, tautologically, the second question answers the first.

The headband, meanwhile, is inscribed with Quranic verses and blessed by any of several hundred charismatic clerics. It could just as easy be a slip of cloth tied around a wrist, or an amulet worn around the neck. Some juwae favor a bath in holy water. Orthodox Muslims shun such displays as superstition, but the line between folk practice and rank heresy is often hazy.

The Krue Se massacre merely softened, rather than utterly discredited, belief in the efficacy of talismans. Sunai Phasuk, a skeptical observer (and resident expert on the South at the Thailand office of Human Rights Watch) says his militant friends have tried to prove the potency of their amulets by live demonstrations: they've hacked at each other with machetes before his doubting eyes, yet -- protected by their spells -- they've remained unscathed. He feels there must be some sort of trick but cannot explain what he says he's witnessed.

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