|Southern Thailand: Drawing Lines|
|Written by Jay Lamey/Prestige Magazine|
|Monday, 08 September 2008|
|PHOTOS BY LEIGH MITCHELL
Unresolved issues are preventing meaningful integration in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, and this in turn is fueling the insurgency.
Downtown Yala. Two men carefully steer their motorcycle into a crowded parking lot, stopping in an empty space next to a phone booth. Several groups of people walk past, on their way to the nearby fair held annually by the Thai Red Cross. The pair dismount and walk quickly back the way they’ve come, soon breaking into a run. Perhaps some heads turn their way, a few people realizing what’s coming next. It doesn’t matter, it’s too late. The bomb explodes, sending shattered glass, serrated metal and torn plastic flying into the crowd. People are thrown to the ground, some badly injured. Satiya Chaimongkol, 24, soon dies at the local hospital.
I’d just finished interviewing Muu Poksapan when we heard the cracking of this bomb echo through Yala’s night skies. Muu is someone with a special reason to fear the militant violence that is now a way of life here. He comes from one of the most prosperous families in the province and as such, they are being targeted for killing. His aunt, uncle and nephew are dead, all shot, and police recently told Muu that he’s also “on the list”. “They want to show their power to people in the area, because if they can get us, they can get anybody,” explained Muu. “They want to destroy the economic and social symbols in our town. My uncle was a big factory owner, and a lovely and respected guy. That’s why he was shot.”
Scared for his life, Muu is now planning to leave Yala, effectively becoming a refugee. “No one wants to leave the land of their birth, but I have no choice. Many families want to leave, especially the Thai-Chinese and Buddhists. And the economy has gone down significantly. The main industry in the area is agriculture and people are too scared to go to their fields. The way of life has changed.”
The city of Yala is neatly arranged, a ‘planned city’ with a pleasant tree-lined boulevard. Each morning the market hums with activity, as old friends greet each other from across the racial and religious divide. Despite an economic slump induced by the conflict, there remains a sense of industriousness here, and the latent promise of wealth and happiness to be enjoyed by a united people. The new ten-million-baht museum at the sophisticated Anuban School is a case in point. Opened by HRH Princess Sirindhorn, it presents a pleasant multi-cultural mosaic, with traditional Malay bird cages and fish traps standing alongside the travelling trunks of Chinese immigrants.
Another intriguing monument symbolic of the national ‘integrationist’ spirit is the Yala Central Mosque. Constructed by the government in the 1970s, the green spire of the minaret folds in prematurely on one side. It is clearly reminiscent of a lotus bud, a spiritual flower of the Buddhist faith. The craftsmanship is commendable, but what can be said of the motive? The spire could be lauded as a progressive gesture, symbolic of a specifically Thai-Muslim identity. It could also be unsettling for some local Muslims, symbolic instead of a threat to the essence of their culture. A group I spoke to confirmed that “some people don’t like it”.
The relative prosperity of Yala city demonstrates the richness of Thailand’s southern lands. But as is the case elsewhere in the Malay peninsula, the spoils of progress are not evenly distributed. “They are poor,” says Soraya Jamuree, referring to the
Malay Muslims who make up approximately 78% of the population in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces. “You see, Chinese own most of the land.” Indeed, some observers say it is this sense of disparity between the southern Muslims and other
Thais, as well as the more affluent Malaysia to the south, that aggravates the sense of economic grievance. The imbalance is interpreted as evidence of discriminatory and exclusive practices by the Thai state.
Based at Prince of Songkla University’s Pattani campus, Soraya spends time amongst conflict widows and orphans through her Friends of Victimised Families foundation.
Although relevant, she describes economics as a secondary factor driving the conflict, believing that “identity issues” are at its core. “People here want their identity as Melayu and Muslim to be respected by the government, and this is something I don’t think we get,” continues Soraya, citing as an example the refusal to incorporate Yawi as an official “working language”, as was recommended by the National Reconciliation Council report.
She says that these fundamental problems are then compounded by “justice issues”. Many arose from ex-PM Thaksin’s harsh response to the renewed violence – most notably the Tak Bai ‘incident’ in which 86 People died in military custody – and smaller-scale cases of abuse continue to occur. One of the most destructive and controversial events of the conflict was the killing – to the last man – by Thai army commandos of 32 people holed up inside the historic Krue Se Mosque. The group had earlier attacked a nearby police post, stabbing several officers to death, in part of a region-wide uprising in April, 2004.
Among the dead was the husband of Wan Norpisah. “He used to say that we are oppressed by the government, and that we had to do something about it,” she recounted to me in front of her small stall in rural Pattani. She vehemently believes that the blame for the ongoing crisis lies at the feet of the Thai government and goes as far as to endorse the insurgent campaign. It’s very rare to capture such sentiments, given the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that permeates the conflict zone.
“He went that day to announce that we are poor and have no freedom,” continued Norpisah, speaking Yawi. She described the political system as “useless to us” before declaring, “I want the government to give us our independence.Please understand, we are not cruel people – we are just trying to take back what is ours.”
The military presence in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat is highly visible. On the small winding road to Norpisah’s home we passed several roadblocks, where armed soldiers peered into our car before waving us on. At other times we would see a solitary soldie perched on a stool outside a small police post, school or temple.”I think the people do want the army here, but they want an army that understands them,” says Pongpan, a Special Forces soldier staioned in Yala. He says that the army provides some sensitivity training to recruits, but in the end it’s up to the individual soldier how they behave on the ground. Pongpan’s unit is deployed on “Public Relations Operations”. Their task is to improve the quality of life for citizens in the deep south – and with it the image of the central government. “On a normal day, we’ll go to a village and find the things they lack, such as electricity and water, or schools and mosques,” he says. “We do anything we can to develop their quality of life because we are trying to change their attitude. Every unit has the command to do this.”
But Norpisah is dismissive of the gifts the soldiers’ bring. “The Thais might come into this village and offer to build us things, but they have an ulterior motive,” she says. “The only thing they have to give me is freedom.”
I ask why she feels separation from Thailand is necessary. “Our young people have no place in this society,” she responds. “The people who study at Islamic schools, even at a high level, can be nothing but labourers.” This refrain about schooling is one heard often in the southern three provinces. It is the point where the various ‘identity issues’ of language, religion and ethnic traditions collide with the demands of a modern nation.
The Thai education system has always helped deliver the nation-building ideology to the country’s far-flung regions. It has a largely uniform curriculum and only employs the Thai language. In the Malay areas of the south however, a very different tradition of education already exists: pondoks. These are schools that teach immersive Islamic studies and use the Yawi language. Although many now also offer general subjects, pondok graduates have difficulty integrating into Thailand’s higher education system, consigning them to lives near the bottom of the pile. Stark statistics bare this out – at tertiary level 1.7 percent of southern Muslims have a degree, compared to 9.7 percent of Buddhists in the region. An indicator of the importance of the education system to the unrest is the continued targeting of teachers and their military escorts.
On the same day that Norpisah was lamenting the fate of pondok graduates, two army marines were severely injured when their seven-person team was attacked with a roadside bomb after delivering a teacher to school. Pongpan says that the routine of such assignments makes them the most dangerous. One local woman in her twenties told me that at school she had been passed over for scholarships because she was Muslim. She also said that since the insurgency broke out, government services have been improving, with plenty of cash being sent south for projects like those of Pongpan’s.
But the fissure runs deep, with the forces of history working against attempts to patch up the system. Pattani was a mostly independent kingdom until 1902, when Britain confirmed Siam’s dominion over it. “You could once ‘walk on the roofs’ from the city to here,” a young man tells me as we drive to the beach, evoking an image of a thriving colonial-era metropolis.
Later, I speak to a teenage student in a rural schoolyard with a dilapidated mosque in the corner, a far cry from the manicured gardens of Yala’s Anuban. He asks where I comefrom. “Australia,” I respond. “And where do you come from?” Having had this exchange many times, I wait for him to say “Thailand”. But he doesn’t. “Pattani,” he replies with a smile.
Jay Lamey is a regular contributor to AMANA and is a Senior Writer at Prestige Magazine, Thailand. This article was originally published in Prestige, August 2008, online here.