Was it political vengeance? Or was it the deadly result of a personal conflict? As the police and the military scramble to answer the questions and catch the culprits behind the deadly ambush on the Maman family in Narathiwat early this week, one thing is clear.
Innocent children remain victims of senseless violence in the restive South. And no parties to the conflict really care. Not the insurgents. Nor the authorities. In the 10th year of protracted violence, the daily killings have become so routine they no longer raise eyebrows, particularly when Bangkok, the seat of power, is being convulsed by its own turmoil.
It took an ambush which brutally murdered three little boys, Muyahed Maman, 11, and his two brothers, Bahari, 9, and Eleyas, 6, to focus some public attention on the southern violence again. But as in previous tragedies, the shock will be short and attention fleeting as media attention shifts elsewhere.
The target of the ambush was the boys' father, Jehmu Maman, 40, who survived his wounds. So has the boys' mother Paleedah Mayu, 33, who is four months pregnant. The authorities still cannot agree if the attack was motivated by vengeance by insurgents against informants or a personal conflict.
The locals, however, believe the authorities are involved, showing deep a distrust of the state as the number of child casualties keeps rising. In the past three months alone, five children have been killed in attacks. Several others have been injured; the youngest was two.
According to Deep South Watch, more than 50 children under 15 have been killed and over 350 injured during the southern insurgency which began in 2004. The violence has also left over 7,000 children without parents to struggle with the poverty, ill-health and poor education that are plaguing the southernmost provinces.
The rising number of child casualties and orphans indicates the escalating evel of violence in the deep South. Finding a way out is difficult when conflicting parties do not care that they have to pay for their goals with the lives of civilians, including children. According to official figures, over 3,700 people have been killed during the 10-year insurgency. Nearly 2,500 of them were civilians. Of some 9,000 people injured, more than 5,200 of them were also civilians.
Ethnic prejudice and injustice are the main grievances of the Muslim-dominated far South.
While peace in the deep South through formal negotiation with the insurgency leaders is still not in sight, the government has full responsibility to ensure that citizens in the three southernmost provinces have equal access to education and other welfare benefits. The best and easiest place to start is with the children.
Persistent youth unemployment is also a social time-bomb, exacerbated by widespread drug addiction. The lack of quality vocational education and the destruction of the seas and mangrove forests by trawlers and prawn farms have also deprived new generations of livelihoods and income that have long sustained their communities.
During the past decade, the government has poured more than 2 trillion baht into the restive South.
Instead of being spent on armed solutions, this money could have been better used to strengthen support for children to pave the way for a more peaceful future.
Also, the southern Muslims' long demand for decentralisation should no longer be dismissed now that decentralisation has become the main theme of reform. Only when the government starts to listen to the locals and puts children's welfare and future as the priority can the southern fire be extinguished, and children have a chance to live in peace once more.