Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict

 
 

With the presence of more than 150,000 military, police and armed civilian forces, life in the three provinces of Thailand’s Deep South – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – gives the impression of happening under occupation. Checkpoints cut the main arteries between and within cities, where military convoys on patrol whizz by civilian vehicles preceded by soldiers on motorbikes, who scout the area in advance for any suspicious items, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Manned and unmanned checkpoints also dot the countryside in an attempt to hamper the insurgents’ movements. In Ruam Mit road, a busy commercial area in Yala city center, blast plinths line both sides of the street in order to minimize the impact of possible car bombs, which have already struck the area in the past with devastating consequences.

Babo Mohammed Ramli, the head of a pondok, or Koranic school, in Bra Ngan village in Yala province shared his views in no uncertain terms: “This is a jihad against the Thai state, but it has nothing to do with al-Qaeda.” To prove his point, he reads out in Arabic an excerpt from Imam al-Nawawi’s al-Majmu‘ sharḥ al-Muhadhdhab, a comprehensive manual of Islamic law according to the Shafi‘i school – one of the four main schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam to which the greatest majority of people in the Deep South adhere. “The basis for the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is peace and security, unless non-Muslims encroach on their rights, homes and properties. In that case, it is the individual duty of Muslims to fight jihad to ward off aggression.” He adds: “There is consensus among scholars about this, but no-one dares to speak out, for fear of the consequences.”

Yet despite the massive human cost of a decade of low-intensity conflict, the streets of the Deep South’s main cities are bustling with commerce and trade: markets are replete with goods; customers fill cafés and restaurants during the day and at night; and the ubiquitous motorbike-mounted food carts are patronized by young and old alike. Access to education remains unhindered with students flocking daily to schools and universities, although Thai remains the only official language of instruction – a major point of grievance for the majority Malay-speaking population.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst. Sulochana Peiris is a freelance documentary film maker and photographer.

 

Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Checkpoint on the outskirts of Yala
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Army patrol on the Pattani-Yala main road
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Ruam Mit road, Yala city center
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Babo Mohammed Ramli
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
On October 25, 2004, protesters took to the police station in Tak Bai town, in Narathiwat province. The army confronted the crowd with tear gas, water cannons and eventually live bullets. Seven people were killed on the spot. Live footage shows shirtless protesters being forced to the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. Hundreds were piled up in military trucks and taken to the Ingkayuth military camp in Pattani’s Nong Chik district. By the time the 115-kilometer ride was over, 78 more had asphyxiated. Today, locals resent the fact that not even a plaque has been placed to commemorate what they call the Tak Bai massacre. “People here seem to get by with their lives as if nothing happened. But do not be misled by this false sense of normality: there is deep sadness in their hearts,” a local kiosk owner says.
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
The entrance to the Sultan Muthaffar Shah Mosque, named after the fifth sultan of Malacca who ruled between 1443 and 1448. This centuries-old mosque, commonly known as the Krue Se Mosque, was at the epicenter of a seven-hour stand-off between Thai security forces and southern insurgents on April 28, 2004. The siege ended with the Thai army storming the building and killing all 32 militants holed up inside. Ten years on, the memory of the Krue Se incident lives on in the minds of the local population, fuelling grievances that feed into the insurgency – with little sign of abating.
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
A busy intersection in central Yala
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Easy rider: food cart with driver cum hostess. The majority of food and drink vendors in the streets and in small street cafés are women.
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
High school students chilling out after class in Yala city
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
As in other conflicts around the world, women in the Deep South bear the brunt of the on-going violence. Hundreds have died and, according to the authorities, 2,700 are registered as war widows – left to cater for the needs of their families and children. And yet, despite all odds, women have organized themselves to offer each other comfort and support, as well as to raise their voices in favor of dialogue, reconciliation and peace. Som Kosaiyakanon (right) is a 60-year-old widow from Yala city. In the early morning of November 4, 2004, her husband, a major in the police force, was gunned down by armed insurgents – or juwae, as they are known in the local parlance. She started her own organization to support the families of the victims of violence. “We started as a very small group,” she recalls. “But now we have about 200 members attending our regular meetings. We mobilize our network to find employment for women who have lost their loved ones and need to provide for their families. We are open to anyone in society, Muslims, Buddhists and whoever wants to participate. I refused subsidies from the state as I want to be seen as neutral.” As part of her activism, Kosaiyakanon attends the funerals of victims of violence to provide psychological and material support to their families, as with Praporn Keawmanirat (left), whose husband – also a policeman – was lying in state at Wat Mai temple in Pattani city. “Although right now it is difficult, we should all help to achieve peace by forgiving each other,” she says.
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict
Khamueng Chamnankit (left) moved to Pattani from her native town of Ron Piboon in 1977 to study accounting and marketing. Once she graduated in 1982, she converted to Islam and married her husband, Daud Mahmoud. On the morning of June 19, 2007, the Thai army and police surrounded their home on Rong Ang road in Pattani city. After a two-hour search, they alleged that two bombs had been found in the family’s backyard. Her husband was detained for two months, while their son was held for three years – only to be cleared by the courts on June 22, 2010. She has raised the issue of compensation with the courts time and again and received death threats as a result. “I don’t want to talk about peace because people in the Deep South don’t have any justice. With no justice, there’ll never be any peace,” she says. Chamnankit is an active member of the Network of Civic Women for Peace, which works to empower women-victims to become agents of change and peace building. Along with providing support to the families of victims, the Network’s Coordinator, Soraya Jamjuree (right), produces a radio program called “Voice of the Women in the Deep South,” which is broadcast on 14 community and state radio stations across Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
Image Credit: Sulochana Peiris
Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief