Lone Buddhist widow holds out in war-torn Thai village

Lone Buddhist widow holds out in war-torn Thai village
Jiaw Pongthawil (L) accompanied by a soldier as she walks around her home.

BAAN GA DOH, Thailand - 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 neighbours. 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.

Those have included handing land and high status official jobs to Thai Buddhist migrants, stoking resentment among the local population and skewing the economic fortunes of the two groups.

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