BANGKOK – More than a decade ago, Sapae-ing Basor was one of Thailand's most wanted, his face plastered on posters around the south offering 10 million baht, more than $250,000, for his capture.
But when the spiritual leader of many Muslims in insurgency-torn southern Thailand died at 81 in self-imposed exile in Malaysia Jan. 10, it wasn't just thousands of his followers mourning in mosques that noted his passing.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his condolences. So did Thawee Sodsong, the officer who signed Sapae-ing's arrest warrant, meeting relatives in Pattani, the insurgency's epicenter.
The government's careful treading indicates how large Sapae-ing loomed in the imagination of southern Thailand, where a grinding insurgency has killed some 7,000 people since 2004. Several separatist groups are active in the three provinces closest to the Malaysian border, and Sapae-ing was associated with the most powerful, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional or BRN.
Malay Muslims who make up the majority in of the three provinces have resented what they see as an imposition of Buddhist culture for decades. After a nationalist military junta seized power in 1932, Thailand passed the "National Culture Act" to press a uniform culture on the country. Lessons taught in local Jawi script were switched to Thai, and Muslim courts were replaced by civil courts, sparking resistance.
Sapae-ing was educated in local Islamic schools before departing for Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to study Islamic law in 1964. After his return, he swiftly established himself as a charismatic theologian with a potent authority. He became headmaster at Thamma Witthaya, a prominent Islamic school.
He "was not only leader of his family, but was also the leader of a family of tens of thousands," the school said in a statement. "He was not just headmaster of the school, but the headmaster of society in general."
Over the 1960s and 70s, the rebellion was sporadic and fractured among dozens of separatist groups. Violence waned in the 1990s, as Thailand allowed limited cultural rights.
In the early 2000s, attacks escalated dramatically, led by the BRN. Sapae-ing was senior in the BRN but his official role in the organization is unclear.
Don Pathan, a southern Thailand security analyst, said that although was little proof Sapae-ing was involved organizing day-to-day fighting, he served as a "one-man religious police."
"It was enough to build a new generation of separatists," Don said.
Sapae-ing urged southerners to hold fast to their Malay Muslim identity and values while decrying the Thai government as a corrupting influence.
"He would go around the pubs and bars and look for his students, and if he'd see them he'd beat them," Don said. "They look at the rest of the country and see that 'This isn't what we want for our kids.'"
Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a bloody crackdown on separatists in 2004. Lawyers disappeared. Imams were shot. An army roundup on a single October day left 85 protesters dead; seven were shot to death and the rest suffocated in overcrowded trucks taking them away to be detained.
Police suspected Thamma Witthaya to be a "hotbed of recruitment for the militants." Accusing Sapae-ing of spearheading the insurgency, police issued a warrant for his arrest, and he fled to Malaysia in 2004.
Don said that although Sapae-ing said little publicly after leaving Thailand, he remained an influential figure in the south.
"He has moral authority, but he's not a politician," Don said. "He's like a pope without a church."
After a decade of violence, the Thai government reached out to Sapae-ing. Jaded, he balked but eventually sent representatives calling for greater autonomy instead of outright independence, a reconciliatory step that took insurgents by surprise. But he refused to meet Thai officials and talks went nowhere.
Sapae-ing died after suffering from stomach illnesses and complications from diabetes, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of the independent monitoring group Deep South Watch, who has been in touch with Sapae-ing's relatives.
His death comes as new rounds of peace talks are underway. But the BRN has opted out and few think things will change.
"For now, they do not trust the military government," Srisompob said. "It depends on the progress of the peace dialogues. Just wait and see."