Like many autonomy movements, the insurgency in Southern Thailand is fuelled by a combination of nostalgia for the past, anger over the present and the deep-rooted desire for recognition and respect. But how do you show respect to a villager when you stare at his face through the scope of a machine gun on top of an armoured car? And that, in a nutshell, is the problem, says Farish Noor in this despatch from Southern Thailand.
As we sit by the roadside café sipping thick, milky tea, the ustaz (religious teacher) nods in my direction and looks away. His eyes turn to the armoured Humvee that rolls past us ever so slowly, the open roof mounting a large and rather nasty-looking machine gun. The soldier who mans the turrets looks to be no older than 18, his head dwarfed by the large helmet and his framed rendered diminutive by the bullet-proof vest he wears. The soldiers are all clad in body armour and their eyes are hidden behind black ray-bans that reflect the searing light of day back at us. The armoured car passes by at a menacing pace, like a predator about to pounce. The men in the café stare back, returning malicious glances. In a minute it is over and the soldiers have passed. Smiles re-appear and we continue with the business of sipping tea and talking politics.
“You see what its like here in Patani?”, the Ustaz asks me. “Its like living in Baghdad. This place is like Iraq now. The Thai soldiers are everywhere, they stop us all the time, we cannot even drink tea in peace without having a gun pointed at our faces. And the government says this is for our own good, for our ‘protection’. Protection from what? From whom? We are Patanis, this is our land, our people. We don’t need to be protected from each other. So is this what they call good governance?”
One week in Patani and the other Southern Thai provinces of Jala and Narathiwat was all that was needed to convince me that this is indeed an insurgency war with a high human cost. Since 2004 the four southern Thai provinces have been up in arms and the relationship between the Thai government and the Malay-Muslims of the south has deteriorated to such an extent that road blocks, mass arrests, curfews and violence have become routine. During the course of my short stay there I encountered 34 road blocks and we were stopped four times. During the daylight hours the landscape of Patani is dotted by sandbags, outposts, guard towers, surveillance cameras and the sight of armoured cars and trucks darting back and forth across the region.
In the evenings however it is another picture altogether. Since Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared martial law in the region more and more troops have been send down to reinforce the Thai Fourth Army that is stationed there to police and defend the deep south. Yet despite the efforts that have been made – ranging from direct counter-insurgency assaults to mass arrests, from soft efforts to woo the Malays to funding of local development projects – nothing substantial has been achieved.
What is worse is the rise in the number of attacks on civilians by the underground army of insurgents who may number anything from the hundreds to the thousands. Over the past four years those targeted have included religious teachers – both Muslim and Buddhists, schools and school teachers, post offices, public markets, shops and malls, and of course police stations and army camps. Til today no single group has come out with a set of specific demands. The Thai National Reconciliation Council has attempted to assuage the anger and frustration of the Malay Muslims by recommending that the central government in Bangkok accept and recognize that the southern provinces of Patani, Jala, Narathiwat and Satun were and remain Malay-Muslim provinces that were once independent Malay kingdoms before they were incorporated by Thailand, and that the identity and culture of the Malays should be respected at least, but to no avail.
Instead, the powers-that-be in Bangkok have maintained that Thailand is a single unitary state with one definitive dominant culture, that of the Thai-Buddhists, and that all communities have to abide by the standards that have been set. Since the time of General Phibun Songkram in the 1940s, the assimilationist policies of the Thais has been imposed on all the communities, though it is here in the deep south that resentment is the deepest and strongest.
The net result has been the deepening of resentment and feelings of marginalization and discrimination among the Malays who feel that their religion and culture are not respected. One of the consequences has been the rise in the number of vernacular Malay religious schools (pondoks) that have popped up everywhere in the south, and as one travels from one district to another one is struck by the number of pondoks and madrasas that one sees by the roads.
The other result has been the reluctant acceptance of the Thai mainstream educational system, which forces all citizens to speak and learn the Thai language – though the Malays insist that their language (Yawi) is not something they are willing to forget. Amidst the tension and anger of the locals, native insurgents have come to the fore to give voice to the anger of the community. On our third night in the region a national primary school was set to the torch and burned down, just three kilometers from where we were. The army and police responded immediately, but at the last minute even the fire engines and rescue teams would not brave the countryside roads in the dead of night for fear of landmines and snipers: as they approached the scene their sirens were turned off and they turned back.
This then is the impasse that prevails in the south of Thailand at the moment: During the daylight hours the presence of the army and police is everywhere, but once dusk arrives and the light is dimmed, the roadblocks in the country roads are emptied and unmanned. During the dark hours of the night the countryside returns to the hands of the insurgents who continue their low-level insurgency with minimum manpower and resources, but at great cost to the state’s coffers. All the high-tech weapons technology that Thailand has bought from its Western allies could not prevent a bunch of local insurgents from burning down a primary school smack in the middle of the village in full view of the locals.
And perhaps the most difficult thing of all would be to get the two communities, the Thais and the Malay minority, to finally understand and accept each other’s rights to exist. In the words of another religious school teacher: “We don’t hate the Thai people, we never have. They have their ways, their culture, their God, their religion. But why do they have to come here and bring their culture to us when we have never imposed our culture on them? Patani was a Malay kingdom even before Ratanakosin (Bangkok) existed. We were a kingdom when Ayuthaya was around. But why don’t they accept this? Why cant they leave us in peace and accept that we are different?” Like many autonomy movements, the insurgency in Southern Thailand is fuelled by a combination of nostalgia for the past, anger over the present and the deep-rooted desire for recognition and respect. But how do you show respect to a villager when you stare at his face through the scope of a machine gun on top of an armoured car? And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.