Saturday, March 03, 2007

A faceless Grim Reaper lurks


A glimpse of the lives of Thais living in South-East Asia’s most lethal conflict.

ALMOST every other day, I receive reports of killings in Thailand’s deep South from The Nation newspaper’s SMS news alert.

A soldier killed, and a child injured, by a bomb at a house in Yala on Monday. Separatist militants shot dead a Muslim teacher and a Buddhist woman in Narathiwat on Wednesday. An ice cream vendor was shot dead and beheaded by Muslim insurgents in Pattani on Thursday.

I then delete them.

Like most Bangkokians, I’ve become inured to the Muslim separatist insurgency in the southern region, where about 1.3 million ethnic Malay Muslims form the majority of the population in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces bordering Malaysia.

At least two people are killed a day in the conflict, which has taken 2,000 lives since 2004.

Last Saturday, I was in Pattani town, about 1,000km from Bangkok, to get a feel of the lives of those whose deaths might be SMS-ed to me.

Twenty kilometres into Pattani province, at a petrol station, I was one of the few non-Malay faces in a crowd of women in tudung (headgear) selling food that were typical of those in Malaysia’s east coast states and men with goatees and wearing white skullcaps.

Who among them is a separatist, I wondered as I entered a restroom, fearing I could be shot in the back any time.

My fear arose from a two-hour briefing the night before by a high-ranking Pattani-based Thai Buddhist government official at Songkla town, which is 110km from Pattani town.

“Don’t go to Pattani. Andtaraai (danger, in Thai),” cautioned the 51-year-old man, who for security reason wanted to remain anonymous.

He said my Chinese face would make me a target. His warning was justified in the wake of the Chinese New Year bombings in southern Thailand that targeted Thai Chinese.

He revealed that in Pattani province he had to travel in a bullet-proof car escorted by two police outriders.

“If I can help it, the only two places that I will go to are my house and office,” he said, adding that government officials, soldiers and policemen were potential targets of bombs and bullets.

Pointing at my rented vehicle, he said: “Andtaraai”. Its licence plate indicated the vehicle was not from Yala, Narathiwat or Pattani.

“There are no Jawi inscriptions on your car,” said the man, whose car was plastered with Malaysian Education Fair stickers because the separatists were partial to Malaysians.

The provincial capital of Pattani is a sleepy town that resembles Kota Baru, albeit on a smaller scale. Except for the occasional rumble of Humvees with a mounted 50-calibre machine gun, and the heavily barricaded government buildings, there is little hint that the most lethal conflict in South-East Asia is played out in this town.

It lulls visitors into a false sense of security, that it is not wracked by bomb blasts, shoot-outs and beheadings. But faceless andtaraai lurk.

"Muka chomi tapi tak tahu kalau hati chomi (the face looks nice but we don’t know whether the heart is nice),” said Suriani, a 34-year-old Thai Muslim, in the Kelantanese dialect, echoing Thai Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas’ statement that Thai intelligence was clueless to the identity of an enemy that refused to show its face.

She nervously nodded when asked whether her civil servant husband was a target of the insurgents who kill Muslims they suspect are government collaborators.

The Thai woman, who has relatives in Kelantan, related that the military had to escort frightened Buddhists living in villages to town to protect them from anonymous militants.

“Muslim villagers are also afraid to go to town as they fear the military may kill them,” she said.
Her guidelines to surviving the restive south include: Don’t travel after 5pm as insurgents may booby trap the road with sharp objects and then gun down the occupants of the immobilised vehicle.

Avoid eating at food stalls patronised by soldiers, policemen or government officers.

On that Saturday, there was no SMS announcing death in the deep South. My mobile phone didn’t have any reception in the three Muslim-dominated provinces, so that it could not be used to detonate bombs.

The next day, The Nation reported that a 28-year-old Muslim was gunned down in front of his house in Pattani by a group of gunmen who drove up on motorbikes and opened fire.

(Published in The Star on March 3, 2007)