Special Report: Life beyond checkpoints in Southern Thailand

IN THE SHADOW OF WAR: It has been 14 years since separatist insurgents struck in Thailand's southern provinces. But there is business to be done, art to be produced and a new airport is being built, The Straits Times uncovers in the first of a two-part report.

In Thailand's deep south, villagers go about their daily lives in the midst of bunkers and bombs. Fourteen years after a separatist insurgency flared up, Straits Times journalists Tan Hui Yee and Arlina Arshad traverse the high-security region.
Art gallery founder Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh says Malays in Pattani province are upset when officials see identity as a zero-sum game, suspecting people who espouse their Malay identity as having separatist leanings.
Art gallery founder Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh says Malays in Pattani province are upset when officials see identity as a zero-sum game, suspecting people who espouse their Malay identity as having separatist leanings. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD
Above: Soldiers in armoured vehicles on the highway to Betong in south Thailand. Left: Members of the National Defence Volunteers Organisation at a checkpoint in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province.
Soldiers in armoured vehicles on the highway to Betong in south Thailand. ST PHOTOS: ARLINA ARSHAD, TAN HUI YEE
Above: Soldiers in armoured vehicles on the highway to Betong in south Thailand. Left: Members of the National Defence Volunteers Organisation at a checkpoint in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province.
Members of the National Defence Volunteers Organisation at a checkpoint in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province.ST PHOTOS: ARLINA ARSHAD, TAN HUI YEE
Residents at a recent Hari Raya concert in Betong, desensitised to the deterrent military presence. Officials say the presence of paramilitaries has only strengthened the local economy.
Residents at a recent Hari Raya concert in Betong, desensitised to the deterrent military presence. Officials say the presence of paramilitaries has only strengthened the local economy. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Entrepreneur Nuraini Muhi hit upon a winning idea when she started making pizzas at a streetside stall on the edge of Yala city using portable ovens one year ago. It proved to be so popular that customers placed bulk orders via Facebook and people ap
Entrepreneur Nuraini Muhi hit upon a winning idea when she started making pizzas at a streetside stall on the edge of Yala city using portable ovens one year ago. It proved to be so popular that customers placed bulk orders via Facebook and people approached her to be franchisees. Today, another 10 Pizza Fah and Farus outlets have sprung up all over the deep south. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD
Ms Rahayu Merah, who guards Narathiwat’s city hall, used to be a seamstress. Mr Abusahed Nor, who belongs to a special task force in the Volunteer Defence Corps, sleeps with a gun under his pillow.
Ms Rahayu Merah, who guards Narathiwat’s city hall, used to be a seamstress. Mr Abusahed Nor, who belongs to a special task force in the Volunteer Defence Corps, sleeps with a gun under his pillow. ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE, ARLINA ARSHAD
Ethnic Malay artist Waearong Waeno with his artwork depicting a scene at Yala Railway Station on the bollards which buffer shopfronts from car bombs.
Ethnic Malay artist Waearong Waeno with his artwork depicting a scene at Yala Railway Station on the bollards which buffer shopfronts from car bombs. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

We slow our car as it approaches one of Yala city's many checkpoints, the mugshots of wanted men glaring from a nearby poster.

A policeman motions for us to proceed. Then he spots our backseat passenger, Mr Waearong Waeno, an ethnic Malay artist who wears his snowy beard long, with unruly hair peeking out from under a beanie.

The policeman taps a neon stick on the side of the car. "Window," he says. "Open the window."

Mr Waearong, 63, tenses as the vehicle is stopped for the first - and only - time during our two-week journey. It also happened during the only time we gave a lift to a local Malay man.

The separatist insurgency here in Thailand's southern border provinces has created an alternate universe in the famously laid-back Land of Smiles.

In the Buddhist-majority country of 66 million, Malay Muslims form the bulk of the population of two million in Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, as well as some parts of Songkhla - collectively known as the "deep south".

 
  • AT A GLANCE

  • 1 The Thai "deep south" - comprising Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, as well as some parts of Songkhla - has been under martial law since 2004.

    2 Violent incidents are on the wane, but threats still exist.

    3 Locals are constantly under greater scrutiny than the rest of their countrymen. Resentment over heavy-handed policing has prompted the government to replace troops with locally-recruited paramilitaries.

    4 These paramilitary jobs with comfortable incomes are taking away skilled workers from some businesses.

    5 Despite the insurgency, new local businesses are thriving and a new airport is under construction in the border town of Betong.

They share a strong identity and Malay dialect, their ancestors having once lived in the Patani sultanate that stretched to northern present-day Malaysia.

This shadow of a war is waged by decentralised networks of militants seeking to disrupt and drive out agents of the Thai state, who they believe are encroaching on their ancestral territory and cultural identity.

But the fatalities - almost 7,000 since 2004 - are largely civilians. Some attacks are designed to intimidate. Last December, insurgents ordered all the passengers, an attendant and the driver off a bus heading from Yala's border town of Betong to Bangkok, before torching it.

Other offensives are far more deadly. Cooking gas cylinders packed with explosives were detonated from the back of a stolen pick-up at a hypermarket in Pattani last year, wounding 80 people.

A year earlier, armed fighters stormed Cho Ai Rong Hospital in Narathiwat and used it as a staging post to attack paramilitaries nearby, triggering a shoot-out.

Seven rangers and one militant were wounded.

In the latest spate of attacks which first surfaced last month, trip-wire explosives were rigged up in Yala's rubber plantations, maiming a rubber tapper and seriously wounding two others.

Martial law has been applied to this region since 2004, giving specially deployed soldiers extensive powers to search and detain people, as well as seize items, with legal immunity.

Sandbag bunkers, camouflage netting and armoured personnel carriers form a ubiquitous backdrop along busy roads and smaller lanes in the town centres. Tightly packed convoys race through traffic junctions to narrow the chances of officials being ambushed.

According to the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) - a powerful unit of the Thai military - some 58,500 security officers are currently patrolling the region.

They include soldiers, policemen and paramilitaries such as rangers and officers from the Volunteer Defence Corps, better known locally as "or sor", who get far less training than soldiers.

Heavy-handed policing has stirred local resentment and driven disaffected youth into the arms of insurgents, prompting the government to soften its approach by replacing troops with locally recruited paramilitaries.

The number of soldiers and rangers shrank from 39,111 in 2016 to 33,248 this year, according to Isoc. In contrast, or sor numbers have swelled by over 2,000 to 11,487 in just a year from 2016, the Interior Ministry told The Straits Times.

SECURITY BUDGET BOON AND BANE

The money ploughed into security has helped support a local economy ravaged by the insurgency, but in turn made it more difficult for some businesses to recruit skilled labour.

  • TROUBLED TIMELINE

  • 1902: Siam, as Thailand used to be known, annexes the region covering the present-day provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which make up the bulk of the "deep south". This region was already mostly inhabited by Muslims back then.

    1932: With a bloodless coup by a group of military officers and intellectuals, absolute monarchy in Siam comes to an end.

    1938: Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram comes to power. He changes the name of Siam to Thailand, bans the use of minority languages such as Malay in government offices, and requires everyone to take a Thai name.

    1947: Respected religious leader Haji Sulong issues "seven demands" for more Malay-Muslim autonomy in the deep south.

    1954: Haji Sulong disappears under mysterious circumstances. This turns him into a symbol of resistance for separatists, who take up arms under various groups in the next few decades.

    For example, in 1977, insurgents threw a bomb at a royal ceremony in Yala. Then King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was visiting at that time, escaped unharmed, but five people were killed and 47 injured.

    1981: Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda sets up the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), which lowers tension by facilitating dialogue between central government and local leaders.

    He combines support for cultural rights and economic development in the region with an amnesty programme persuading insurgents to surrender.

    Late 1990s: The separatist movement quietens.

    2002: Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra dismantles the SBPAC.

    2004: Insurgent attacks flare up. Thaksin, heavily criticised for a bloody standoff between insurgents and security forces as well as mishandling a protest in the deep south, imposes martial law there.

    2005: Emergency decree is imposed by executive order. This allows security forces to use both the martial law and emergency decree in tandem to detain people for up to 37 days without charging them. It also gives security forces legal immunity for their actions.

    2006: Military coup topples Thaksin. Insurgent attacks continue in the succeeding decade of political turmoil in Bangkok.

    2013: Start of official peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, facilitated by Malaysia.

    2014: Military coup unseats the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister.

    2015: Military government restarts peace talks.

An or sor is typically paid around 17,000 baht (S$700) a month, almost double the wage of some local clerks and mechanics.

The comfortable salary and the appeal of working close to home have enticed many locals, from fishermen to housewives to fresh school-leavers, to sign up.

"My friends had urged me to sign up," says Mr Sabri Arshad, 40, a former postman based in Betong who made the job switch four years ago.

"When people sleep, I have to work. But the money is good."

Narathiwat native Rahayu Merah, 44, who guards the province's city hall, used to be a seamstress. After signing up, she had to learn how to shoot with live bullets and sleep on jungle floors alive with snakes and scorpions as part of the military-style training.

But meagre job options meant she could not be choosy.

"This is not Malaysia, where you can work in factories and food stalls and the salary is higher. Jobs here are fewer," she says, a black tudung wrapped tight around her head as the camouflage or sor uniform hung loosely over her lean frame.

Her husband, with whom she has three children, is doing the same job.

At a recent Hari Raya concert in Betong, an annual celebration where vendors grilled smoky chicken patties and tossed halal papaya salad for open-air dinners, Mr Sabri and his teammates paced the perimeter with fingers dangling near the triggers of their AK-102 assault rifles.

While several boys in flowing white robes crooned a religious tune against a blinking neon backdrop, villagers strolled past an armoured truck designed to sweep potential bomb material off the road.

Years of conflict have desensitised them to such deterrent displays of force.

Officials say the presence of these paramilitaries has only strengthened the local economy.

"They improve business confidence," Pattani Vice-Governor Luechai Charoensup declares.

"Many of the or sor are Muslim. They are locals taking care of their own community. They know the area well, so they will notice as soon as strangers appear."

But local businesses, already struggling to persuade skilled workers to travel here even for short stints, lament that the paramilitary jobs are shrinking an already small talent pool.

"It's hard to find people to fix fishing boats when they run into engine trouble," laments Mr Pharunyu Chareon, a Pattani-based businessman in the fishery industry. "We can only find ageing mechanics, because the younger ones want to be or sor.

"Hence what normally takes three days to repair needs 15 days."

Pattani's chamber of commerce chairman, Mr Dumrong Chaiuanon, has been forced to be self-sufficient over the years in his energy, computer and auto-parts businesses. His gas-distributing machine broke down after a lightning storm two years ago.

"The company that I called wanted to charge me twice the usual fee for sending someone down to fix it," he says.

When he tried to negotiate, the boss said his employee was actually reluctant to travel to the southern provinces.

In the end, Mr Dumrong had to repair the machine himself, based on instructions given over the phone by a company employee.

These hurdles do not deter new local entrepreneurs though.

On the edge of Yala city, 27-year-old Nuraini Muhi hit upon a winning idea when she started making pizzas at a streetside stall using portable ovens one year ago.

The gooey halal delights from ready-made dough are piping hot in 10 minutes. Customers place bulk orders via Facebook. "I learnt everything by myself, and watched some YouTube videos," she says.

Not only did she turn a profit quickly, franchisees - mostly people in their 20s - came knocking.

Today, another 10 Pizza Fah and Farus outlets have sprung up all over the deep south.

Meanwhile, a new airport is under construction in Betong, in one of the government's biggest votes of confidence in the town's potential.

With a nearby decades-old runway now more of a gravelly haunt for learner drivers, residents have to travel for over three hours, winding around mountains, just to get to the nearest Thai airport.

  • VOICES OF THE SOUTH

  • When I hear people call me rong muer rong thao (servant), I feel angry. But I keep it all inside. I stay quiet.

    MR NAWAWI ISA, 31, who works full-time in the Volunteer Defence Corps (or sor) and is a part-time radio deejay, on derogatory remarks about his work as an or sor.

    This place is comfortable to live in... and Muslims and Buddhists are united. After coming here, many want to come back again, although before coming, they were scared about the violence.

    MS ROSIDAH PUSU, 46, a women's activist.

    Not all soldiers are bad. But we don't side with the insurgents too... We just want to live in peace.

    I really don't like all these bombings and attacks. If you die, then fine. But imagine if you don't die but lose a leg?

    MR NASIR AWAN, 70, rubber tapper.


    The most scary part of the job is when I have to patrol at events. I am afraid of bombs. It is okay to die but I don't want to become blind or lose my limbs.

    MS JASMIN BUESA,35, a Volunteer Defence Corps member. 


    Although this is a Buddhist (influenced) government, it doesn't trouble us. We are free, we can worship, go to Friday prayers and listen to sermons.

    MR SHIHABUDDIN WALONG, Islamic leader. 


    (If a stranger approaches), we have to see what his intention is. If he is doing no harm, I will smile at the person. But if there's any risk, I need to use my muay thai skills on him.

    MS RATIKAN SUKSAWANG, 29, National Defence Volunteers Organisation member. 


    What the state is doing, we do not regard this as a suppression of religion, but a suppression of the identity of Malays... We use soft power. This is better than us rising to fight the government.

    MR ANAS PONGPRASERT, 34, founder of community group Saiburi Looker.


    I was born here. Am I scared? Yes. But I have to take care of myself... If there is a suspicious vehicle passing frequently in front of my shop, and the driver leaves it there, I will try to make sure to ask him where he is going.

    MR SANYA AMNUAY, 51, provision shop owner. 


    We wanted them to learn about other people and other cultures because in the future when they finish school, they need to work together with other people.

    MS KADARIA HEMMIN, 40, restaurant owner and parent who made her children switch from an Islamic school to a state school. 


    People always think of football as a man's sport, an aggressive sport. But this arrangement sends a very strong message to society. It challenges people to think about the spaces for different genders.

    DR ANTICHA SANGCHAI, philosophy lecturer who runs a mix-gender football club.

Betong's upcoming facility can serve 80-seater planes in the initial phase and is expected to start operating by the end of next year.

Betong Mayor Somyod Lertlamyong is confident that the airport will draw local and foreign tourists.

"It will grow peace and prosperity in the three provinces," he says.

WAR OF NARRATIVES

Yet, 14 years of martial law have bred deep distrust among the locals. Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the militant group known to have the largest number of fighters on the ground, does not claim responsibility for attacks.

Some locals even blame security forces for concocting incidents.

On a street corner in Sungai Kolok, a border town in Narathiwat popular with sex tourists from Malaysia, a few men lingering at a motorcycle taxi station perked up when they heard we were trying to locate the site of a bomb attack in April.

"It's nothing, don't worry about it," one of them says in Malay.

After darting his eyes about, he continues in a whisper: "The soldiers did it because they wanted to justify their budget."

Such allegations are regularly denied by Thai officials, who in turn play down the ideological motivations for the insurgency and instead blame the criminal networks trying to guard their turf.

"These incidents are caused by a single group of people, not a movement, but those with old ideas of doing anything for their own benefit, including illegal businesses," Lieutenant-General Piyawat Nakwanich, the Fourth Army Region commander overseeing these provinces, tells The Straits Times over the phone.

"They pay youths to cause violence just to chase new investors away, so they can monopolise business. These youths commit violence because they are poor."

Poverty rates in the deep south, worsened by poor education and job prospects, stand among the highest in Thailand.

According to latest data from the National Economic and Social Development Board, 37.3 per cent of people in Narathiwat were living below the poverty line in 2016.

In Pattani, it was about 36 per cent, and 21 per cent in Yala.

"The masterminds behind these incidents are often not clear," says Betong-based state attorney Adisak Suthiyothin.

"(But) once people have full stomachs, they don't fight."

Analysts disagree with the official line. "Conflicts over economic interests are hardly confined to the deep south, which is the only region to experience routine bombings, assassinations and ambushes," argues International Crisis Group's South-east Asia senior analyst, Mr Matt Wheeler.

"More jobs and higher incomes may change calculations about taking risks involved with the insurgency, but will not address the grievances that motivate Malay-Muslim separatism."

Malays are upset when officials see identity as a zero-sum game, and place people espousing Malay identity under immediate suspicion for separatist leanings.

Art gallery founder Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh says: "People from these three provinces are seen as different. Our work is always filtered for its 'Muslim-ness', or 'Patani-ness'.

"Our work needs to be vouched for by someone else, to be accepted as 'Thai'."

Officially, Malaysia-facilitated peace talks that began in 2013 under Thailand's then civilian government are still on track. But critics have questioned whether Mara Patani - the umbrella group representing insurgents - has any real control over the most active militants on the ground, and whether real progress can be made if the current military government, ushered in after the 2014 coup, continues to be resistant to granting political concessions.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn paid a rare visit to Pattani just before he ascended the throne in 2016. His father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who built a palace in Narathiwat, visited the region in 1993.

Mara Patani chairman Awang Jabat, in a video message to mark the end of Ramadan last month, reiterated an earlier plea by a colleague to the new and increasingly assertive monarch: "I totally agree with Ustaz Shukri Hari, the Mara Patani dialogue chief who had earlier stated that only His Majesty (Maha Vajiralongkorn) is capable of solving this conflict, and I propose to His Majesty the King to justly execute the peace process to end the hardships of the Patani people."

CHANGING CLOTHES TO GO HOME

In the meantime, locals working in security posts, caught in the protracted struggle between separatists and the state, do what they need to keep out of harm's way.

Violent incidents are on the wane, data from Deep South Watch, a Pattani-based group which monitors the insurgency, shows.

For the first half of this year, 112 people were killed, which may mean a drop in the toll for the full year, from the 250 killed last year and 309 killed in 2016.

But threats still exist.

Gunmen opened fire on a Narathiwat defence volunteers' base as recently as February.

"I try to wear a jacket over my uniform when I get off duty so that the enemies don't know that I am an officer," Ms Titima Kaerawang, a 39-year-old or sor, tells The Straits Times, while keeping a wary eye out for suspicious figures setting off the metal detectors at Narathiwat city hall. "On the road from my home to my workplace, there have been a lot of incidents."

Unlike many local Thai Buddhists in the deep south who have been spooked enough to pack up and leave, she has chosen to remain in her birthplace, in the hope that they will eventually return and rebuild their lives with the Muslim neighbours they had grown up with.

In the same province, Mr Abusahed Nor does not let his guard down. "My village is safe, but I sleep with my gun under my pillow," says the Malay Muslim who belongs to a special task force in the Volunteer Defence Corps.

"I am ready to pull the trigger any time. I am alert when I hear sounds, like of the door knocking.

"Even when I am eating at home, the pistol is at my hip."

The 33-year-old former professional footballer, dressed in sharp blue sneakers with combat trousers, sits through a dinner with The Straits Times with a handgun tucked under his T-shirt.

He promptly pulls out his Glock 19at our request.

"Behind my back, my community has called us (or sor) slaves of the government and military dogs. That's very common. They don't dare to say it to my face," he says, eyes narrowing at the recollection.

"But their thinking is wrong. It is wrong to want independence."

One of his three sons wants to be a policeman. Cops, like soldiers, are targeted by insurgents in the region, but Mr Abusahed says he will respect the boy's wishes.

"Even if he were to die in battle, he would have died pursuing his dream."

SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS?

Over the years, security forces stationed in the south have been accused of torture and extrajudicial killings, as well as intimidation of human rights activists who make public these allegations.

While we were in Pattani, for example, the house of local university lecturer and human rights activist Soraya Jamjuree was searched by policemen and soldiers without a warrant. Other homes in the neighbourhood were also searched as security forces were reportedly hunting for a suspected bomber.

Security forces cited existing special laws to justify their actions.

Malay men, the prime suspects in many attacks, tend to be the ones stopped at checkpoints - a source of resentment.

While the forced assimilation of earlier decades here have been eased to provide more protection for Malay language and culture, locals are constantly under greater scrutiny than the rest of their countrymen.

When the telecommunications regulator wanted to introduce biometric registration for buyers of SIM cards last year, for example, Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani were the first provinces to be targeted.

Mobile phones are regularly used to detonate bombs.

"People feel like they are second-class citizens," declares Mr Harong Waebako, 55, a Yala-based lawyer and artist. "The tone that (security officers) use when they address us is not polite. It is insulting.

"They call us 'Ai Khaek'."

Khaek is a term used to describe a foreigner, as well as people of Indian or Arabic descent.

In his spare time, Mr Harong paints scenes of rustic idyll with paddy fields and wildflowers, but always signs off on them as "Haron", because that is what he considers his real name.

His registered name - which sounds vaguely Thai - is the accidental product of officials unused to Malay names, he recalls, sounding both bemused and bitter.

"Frankly, right now there isn't (equality). Am I angry? Yes I am.

"How angry? Not much, because the fact is, while there is no equality between the Malays and Thai Buddhists, there is no equality among Thai Buddhists either," he says. "There's also inequality between the government and ordinary people."

Various attempts by Bangkok to promote "Thai-ness" have rankled in the deep south, given how the efforts are closely associated with promotion of majority Thai Buddhist culture.

Another source of cultural anxiety stems from the Arabic influences sweeping over Muslim communities in South-east Asia.

Trying to promote Malay culture as well as diversity through a group called Saiburi Looker, Mr Anas Pongprasert takes pride in his baju Melayu, more than in his ankle-length jubah, a robe commonly worn in Middle Eastern countries.

"Patani is under the influence of many cultures, like Siamese, Arab and other cultures," he says. "But we should not forget our own culture, or the foreign influence will make Malays disappear gradually."

Over in Yala, artists in the South Free Art Group try to protect local identity by composing images of languid kampungs and bobbing fishing boats that form the essence of Patani Malay life, when there are no explosions or gunfights.

In the inner parts of the city, tightly packed bollards sunk into pavements buffer shopfronts from the next car bomb.

They would be intimidating, if not for a recent municipal project to turn the concrete into canvas for gleeful murals showcasing southern wildlife and the odd cartoon cow.

PHOTO OPPORTUNITY

In the past when people saw these bollards, they felt like they were on a battlefield. Now when they see the paintings on the bollards, they say, 'Take selfie!'

ARTIST WAEARONG WAENO, on his painted bollards. A recent municipal project turned the concrete into canvas for gleeful murals.

Mr Waearong has his own creation. He guides us there one afternoon in a light drizzle, after passing the police checkpoint in our car without getting questioned.

Before a bustling 7-Eleven store stands a row of bollards.

Broad branches of a leafy tree reach across its concrete as a majestic hornbill perches in the shade, a dreamscape very distant from the bombs it is designed to block.

"In the past, when people saw these bollards, they felt like they were on a battlefield," he says. "Now when they see the paintings on the bollards, they say, 'Take selfie!'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2018, with the headline 'Life beyond checkpoints'. Subscribe