Saturday, February 14, 2009

Facing Death at every turn

Thai Takes

THE 29-year-old woman sitting next to me during a 90-minute flight from Bangkok to Narathiwat did not look like the typical passenger heading to Thailand’s troubled south.

She was fair-skinned, wore an elegant silk dress and clutched a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Curious, I asked her why she was flying to Narathiwat, one of the three Thai Muslim-dominated provinces synonymous with shootings, bombings and beheadings.

“I’m a judge,” said the woman, a Buddhist born and bred in Bangkok.

The deep south is not exactly her dream posting as government officials are favourite targets of Muslim insurgents. But for her to climb up the judicial ladder, she has to survive a one-year stint in Narathiwat, which is under martial law.

I asked if it was andtaraai (Thai for dangerous) living in Narathiwat.

“It is safe for me, as I am under police guard day and night, and I only stay in the city,” said the judge, who has two months left of her stint.

The city she was referring to is the provincial capital, which is also called Narathiwat. It sits on the Gulf of Thailand, about 30km from the Malaysian-Thai border.

Narathiwat province has a feel of Kelantan – women wear tudung, Malay with thick Kelantanese accent is spoken, and nasi kerabu (a Kelantanese dish) is served in Muslim restaurants.

In fact, the Narathiwat Malays are ethnically and culturally similar to the Kelantan Malays.

“Is it safe here?” I asked Abas, a 44-year-old motorcycle taxi driver as we zoomed through the capital – a charming small town with a sprinkling of Sino-Portuguese buildings more than a century old.
“Yes, because there are so many soldiers patrolling,” he said, referring to the soldiers who move about the town on foot and in Humvees.

“But there have been bombings in this town,” I countered.

“Yes,” he said, and gave me a tour of the establishments – mostly owned by Thai Chinese and orang Siam (people of Thai ethnicity) – which through the five years of bloody conflict had suffered from explosives hidden in a motorcycle or plastic bag and detonated by handphone.

“Six months ago this karaoke lounge was bombed,” he said, before moving on to a Chinese-owned coffeeshop that was bombed five years ago.

I had lunch at the Chinese coffeeshop where 16 people were injured in a bomb blast in late 2003. On one wall hangs a photograph of Thai Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn with the shop owners.

“The picture was taken after the shop was repaired by soldiers sent by the Crown Prince,” said Atit Jearun­grot, a 28-year-old Thai Chinese.

“After the shop was bombed, Queen Sirikit and the Crown Prince visited our shop to give us moral support.”

In the past year, two shops and a market within 100m of Atit’s shop were bombed. I asked if he felt safe living in town.

“I’m used to it. It is safe in town as there are soldiers protecting us. But I’m afraid to go to the villages,” he said.

At Kampong Batu Besar, a Muslim village about 23km from Narathiwat town, three men were rolling rokok daun (palm-leaf cigarettes) and drinking tea sweetened with condensed milk at a run-down shop facing a mosque.

“It is difficult to talk about the situ­ation here. There are mata-mata (spies) from the military or the other side. If we say the wrong thing, they will come and kill us,” a 60-year-old rubber tapper said in a thick Kelantanese accent.

Who are these killers? I asked.

“We don’t know. Some wore hijab, baju dakwah (Muslim cleric garb), military camouflage uniform or a monk’s robe,” he said as four soldiers on foot patrol passed by.

Earlier, in Narathiwat town, Su­waibah, 24-year-old waitress, had told me that when she returned to her village on her weekly day off she would not venture out of her house at night.

“Why are you afraid? You’re a Muslim,” I said, assuming that most of those killed in the conflict were Buddhists.

“More Muslims have been killed in this conflict,” she said. Since January 2004, 1,788 Thai Muslims and 1,384 Thai Buddhists had been killed in the deep south conflict.

Like others I interviewed, Suwai­bah fears the unknown. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.

(Published in The Star on February 14, 2009)


Anonymous said...

I believe that is the first time I've ever heard of a portrait of the Crown Prince ever being shown in a business establishment.

Roger said...

That's a good point. Actually, there's been a considerable effort for the last five or six years to improve the Crown Prince's image.

One point mentioned in the story, though, has been bothering me for several years. Nobody ever claims credit for the killings or bombings. This just is not the way any other separatist or insurrectionist group has ever operated. If you want to foment revolution, you want people to know that you have the power to kill and hurt. You want to terrorize those who might cooperate with the authorities and you want to encourage those who might be sympathetic to your cause. The lack of claims of responsibility has always made me distrust the government's identification of the perpetrators as separatists.

Buddhist shop said...

This is a very good point. They are pressing hard to improve the image.