By Brian Calvert
The National, Review
March 20, 2009
Late one recent night in Narathiwat town, on the breezy coast of southern Thailand, I found myself sharing roti and tea with a group of would-be English speakers. I had spent the evening with them in a classroom above the town’s Islamic Association, where they sat in a semicircle of moulded plastic chairs underneath a hard-working ceiling fan, asking newly learnt questions: “What is your hobby?” “Do you like skiing?” “What do you think of Narathiwat?”
After class, a 22-year-old named Muhammhadsaieudin Doloh, whose nearby shop sold secondhand rock-band T-shirts, asked me what I thought about Thai New Year, a rowdy festival celebrated in April by the country’s overwhelming Buddhist majority, during which people throw water at each other for good luck. “In Cambodia, they have it too,” I said. Only there, I explained, the throwers use baby powder instead of water.
At that, Seeteeaya Durao, an outgoing 27-year-old woman from the class, suddenly brightened with a joke. “Here,” she said, “they use dynamite!” To laughter from the group, she widened her eyes, spread her arms and opened her palms: “Boom.”
Explosions are a common theme in relations between Thailand and its ethnic Malay Muslim minority in the country’s far south. A separatist insurgency has been raging here for five years, killing up to 3,500 people, most of them civilians. An unknown number of rebels are spread across four contiguous provinces, and the Thai government has deployed nearly half of its security forces here to find and eliminate them. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the region’s Muslims are stuck in the middle.
For those like Doloh and Durao, struggling through the rituals of upward mobility (English classes, distance-learning), the conflict represents a distinct and ever-lurking undertow. If the youths were able to joke now, it was because they had managed to stay out of its grip. Others have not been so lucky. Whether wounded in the crossfire, caught up in the cause of the insurgents, or snagged in the Thai government’s expansive antiseparatist dragnet, many of Doloh and Durao’s countrymen have seen their lives pulled into chaos.
When I asked an Indian-educated software developer whether it was possible that he too could fall prey to a random arrest, he didn’t hesitate. “Anywhere,” he said. “Any time.”
The unruly provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as a few districts in Songkla province, comprise a burl in the middle of the Malaya peninsula – home to jungled mountains, rubber plantations and some two million people. The unifying narrative of the separatists is that this land was once the birthplace of the Patani sultanate, a great centre of international trade and Islamic learning.
After it was incorporated into Siam in 1902, however, Thai state policies threatened the region’s distinct “Patani Malay” identity. As time went on, the narrative goes, Thailand allowed the Muslim provinces to languish in poverty and isolation from the growing national economy. As early as the 1920s, the region’s Muslim Malays began to view the Thai state school system as a government tool for assimilating and effacing the local culture. Muslims chafed at orders requiring the ponoh, or religious boarding schools, to adopt secular subjects, a conflict that led to the founding of one of the early insurgent groups. An uprising erupted in 1922, followed by riots in 1946, guerrilla fighting in the 1960s and 1970s and, finally, a full-blown separatist movement in the 1990s.
Insurgents identify first as Patani Malay and second as Muslim, a combined ethnic and religious allegiance that leads to a powerful “cross-fertilisation” of greivances, said Srisompob Jipiromsri, a political science professor at Prince of Songkla University, who met me for tea one afternoon in Pattani town. The separatist narrative feeds on “inferiority and fear”, he said. Some Muslim Malays “speak Thai, but not quite correctly. So the Thais tend to look down on them.”
The persistent underdevelopment of the region has only exacerbated this sense of resentment. In the years building up to the insurgency, clerics sympathetic to the separatist cause spread into the private Islamic schools, ponohs and institutions of higher education. Volunteer teachers at the tadikas, weekend religious classes for children, then spread the ideology from the private schools to the villages. This network quietly expanded, until, finally, in the early hours of January 4, 2004, a hundred raiders attacked a Thai army camp in Narathiwat Province, seizing around 400 assault rifles, machine guns, pistols and rocket launchers.
By then, “it was too late”, said Jipiromsri, who also runs a regional monitoring group called Intellectual Deep South Watch. The recruiting networks had become too robust and self-replicating for the Thai forces to control the situation on the ground. The state education system is still seen as a hostile tool for effacing Patani Malay identity. Since 2004, it has come under direct, concerted attack: teachers have been shot in front of their classes, schools burnt.
There have also been attacks on Buddhist civilians and monks, government employees, suspected informants and health personnel. At one burnt-down school in Pattani Province a flyer was left behind to warn local Muslims: “You must be aware that our attacks on the symbols of their occupying forces – such as burning of schools – are carried out to completely destroy the Siamese infidels’ rule. You are warned not to send your children to their schools. They will convert your children, and take away their awareness as Patani Muslims.”
Subayoi is one of four districts in Songkla province where the counterinsurgency is being fought; it is designated a “red zone”, for frequent insurgent activity. I went there one morning to see a lapsed recruit of the movement. He was 27, dark-skinned and frail, and he wore a faded grey T-shirt that said: “Those who think they know everything annoy those of us who do.”
He was also nervous, dragging on a clove cigarette like a fugitive. He was constantly glancing behind him, then staring at the ground, scratching one arm, exhaling smoke, rubbing his neck. Until two months earlier, he’d been a member of a five-friend cell for the pemuda, the youth wing of one of the main insurgent groups. He had attended weekly meetings with unidentified “guests” who spoke about Islam and separatism and played cassette tapes that relayed the separatist narrative of history.
“They do not force you to join the group,” he told me through an interpreter. Like many youths in the southern Muslim provinces, he had attended an Islamic private school after finishing his primary education. At that point, he was already more interested in religious courses and the history of the lost sultanate of Patani than in studying secular subjects. When he returned home after four years at the boarding school in nearby Yala province, a friend convinced him to join the pemuda, “to get back Patani from Buddhist people.”
The pleas of his mother, a rubber tapper, and six siblings – his father died when he was 13 – stopped the young recruit from going further. But he’d already taken an oath on the Quran and had thought himself ready to fight for a separate state. Now he was stuck in limbo. The Thai Internal Security Operations Command had put him on a black list; it was also possible that, because he’d broken his oath, the insurgents had issued a fatwa against him. Now he feared them more than the police – hence the nervous tics and glances toward the door.
Thai security forces have made their own attempts to win over the local population, but their efforts have tended towards the clumsily Orwellian. Government-run “training programmes,” “seminars” and “peace projects” – which serve to propagandise and gather intelligence from attendees – are effectively compulsory for those tapped to attend them. The government says it officially ceased forced re-education in 2007, but rights groups say people are still coerced into joining such programmes. And while the military and police strongly deny allegations of torture, media reports and rumours of disappearances and abuse have spread through the villages, further tarnishing the efforts of the security forces.
One day, I joined a minivan full of volunteers at the Working Group on Justice for Peace, a small group of Malay university graduates who monitor the counterinsurgency for possible human rights violations. “Some of us had friends arrested,” said Sukkriyah Baheh, a 26-year-old political science graduate, by way of explanation. We drove to another red zone – Ruso District, Narathiwat Province – deep in the countryside, passing an oppressive number of police barricades and concertinawired, sandbagged Army outposts, until finally the van stopped at a cinderblock mosque in the middle of a rubber grove, where white resin dripped from gouged trunks into coconut half-shells.
The Working Group had come to meet with villagers upset by a counterinsurgency task force’s recent request that they take part in a training programme. The volunteers sat on the floor of the dim mosque, dutifully taking notes as the room filled with people. They don’t trust the state officials, Baheh whispered to me, roughly translating as one woman made a complaint from the far end of the room. The woman didn’t want her husband to attend the training programme, citing rumours that arrest and torture often followed. When the villagers try to raise this issue with the security forces, Baheh whispered, “suddenly the soldiers point: ‘Ah, this is an insurgency.’”
These villagers had paticular grounds for paranoia. They live just down the road from the house of an imam named Yapa Kaseng, whose March 2008 death was eventually attributed to abuse at the hand’s of the Army’s 39th Task Force Group. Yapa died of “blunt-force trauma, including rib fractures from the front, side and back that punctured his lungs,” Human Rights Watch reported. “Bruises and wounds were found all over his body.”
One villager Baheh interviewed was a 47-year-old rubber tapper and father of two, who had recently been told by a nearby task force that he was on a list of suspected insurgents. They asked him to join something calld the “Nara Peace Project”, and he complied. This entailed travelling to a rural camp some distance from his village and attending seven days of questioning and lectures by soldiers and an imam working for the state. It also involved fingerprinting, mugshots and the swabbing of his saliva. He’d become a suspect, he said, because soldiers had come to his house three times at around 10pm and found him missing.
The explanation was simple, he said: rubber tapping is best done at night, and he was in the groves. But the task force was unmoved. After the training, he was unsure if his name was still on the suspect list; he also didn’t know whether he should now fear the insurgents, who have been known to kill informants. Now that he had participated in a government programme, was he a collaborator? “The soldiers come or the insurgency will come,” he said. “How can we survive in this situation?”When Baheh told the man that the military claims people attended the peace project voluntarily, he just laughed.
On another day I met up with Masoree Teh, a man from the English class in Narathiwat, and we headed out to Yala town along with a handful of others from the Islamic Association. Our purpose was to attend a meeting there about setting up distance-learning programs with a private Bangkok college. About 150 prospective students gathered in a third-floor conference room at the Chang Lee Hotel, a threadbare venue that smelled faintly of cat, to gauge their prospects for bachelor degrees in business, engineering, or information technology.
The head of the Islamic Association, Mahussein Masuji, a tall man prone to long, humorous anecdotes, said he sees such development as an inoculation against the insurgency. “The government takes teens to seminars, to training,” he said. “Why not give them a job? They go to the seminar; they still have no job, still have no money, still talk bad about the government.”
For all the Islamic Association’s earnestly constructive efforts, the conflict was never far from anyone’s mind. “There are arrests, but no courts,” the software developer who had studied in India told me during the coffee break. “I see on the TV people arrested, but where do they go?”
After the meeting, Teh asked me if I wanted to go see a nearby local attraction – a rare white macaque monkey that someone had caught and caged. Sure, I said. So we turned off the main motorway and onto a road where potholes were repaired with coconut husks and the signs were made of wood and carved in Jawi, the Malay language written in the Arabic alphabet. We were heading through Raman District, where the brother of a local insurgent leader had been killed in March 2008, instigating the reprisal shooting of a school principal in July – the 99th recorded killing of a teacher – and the closure of 55 schools.
We parked in a dirt lot full of cars, as if at a country fair, where a young member of the security forces, shotgun slung over his shoulder, was helping direct traffic. We walked along a winding trail through the forest, joining families, couples and groups in the hard heat of midday, past crackling satay grills and stands where Coca-Cola and Sprite were served in plastic sacks.
The trail ended in a clearing, where a mob surrounded a cage. Two policemen were among them, dressed in olive drab fatigues and armed with M-16s and pistols, one of them pressing in for a closer look, the other scanning the crowd. In the cage, the white macaque looked dead or asleep. It was slumped forward and perfectly still. There wasn’t much to see. Teh looked downcast. “Very hot,” he said.
Along with two other men from the Islamic Association, we piled back into our pickup, where prayer beads hung from the rearview mirror and a photo-copied book titled Healing With the Medicine of the Prophet was tucked in a seat pouch. We were trying to head back to Narathiwat, but almost immediately we took a wrong turn into the jungle. The road became worse, the houses more ramshackle. There were few rubber groves, and the poverty was abject and palpable.
The only evidence of modern governance that I had detected for several kilometers was the sight of those heavily armed policemen around the monkey’s cage. Thinking back to the crowd gathered there, I started to wonder how many insurgents had been among us – and whether more were hiding in these mountains. We drove on nervously until there were no more houses, only rolling hills and thick forest. Finally, the route became impassible. We stopped at a series of washed-out switchbacks on a mountainside too steep for the truck to climb. We’d reached the end of the road, the frayed tip of a greater unravelling.