Thai Muslim remembers 1977 bomb attack as king visited troubled south

Hayim Mohammed Tolema (right) and a woman pose with a portrait of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej outside a mosque in Yala, Thailand on Oct 20, 2016.
Hayim Mohammed Tolema (right) and a woman pose with a portrait of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej outside a mosque in Yala, Thailand on Oct 20, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

YALA, Thailand (REUTERS) - Hayim Mohammed Tolema was 12 years old when Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej came to visit his southern province and a bomb planted by Muslim separatists went off nearby, wounding dozens.

People all over Thailand are mourning King Bhumibol, who died at the age of 88 on Thursday (Oct 13) last week after 70 years on the throne.

In the predominantly Muslim south, which has for decades been plagued by violence by Muslim separatists opposed to the Thai state, people are also grieving, and some remembered the day, 39 years ago, that the king visited.

"When I saw him I was speechless, I was so close," said Tolema, now 51 and an imam at the Balor village mosque in Muslim-majority Yala province.

Tolema said he could not sleep the night before, after his father told him the king was coming.

He went with his father to a park to catch a glimpse of the monarch and Queen Sirikit along with thousands of others.

Forty-seven people were wounded in the Sept 22, 1977, blast, according to newspapers at the time.

Tolema says he remembers everything - the blast, the panic and the calm king reassuring his people. "I still can't believe he's gone," he said.

King Bhumibol spent decades working to improve the lives of the poor in parts of Thailand plagued by communist insurgents and Muslim separatists.

The communists were defeated long ago but violence in the Muslim-majority south has increased since 2004, with more than 6,500 people killed since then, according to a monitoring group.

Flags at government buildings in Yala, like the rest of the country, are flying at half mast.

But while portraits of the king have been put up across the country, there are few on display in Yala, in accordance with Muslim tradition of not depicting people.

"Just because we do not put up pictures of him or wear black all the time does not mean we do not hurt inside," Tolema said.

Yala, along with Narathiwat and Pattani are the only Muslim-majority provinces in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

"Muslims are also very sad but they are expressing it in their own way in accordance with their religion," said Yuthanam Petchmuang, an army deputy spokesman.

Tolema says he teaches his congregation about the work the king initiated in healthcare and agriculture, and about how he tried to heal community rifts. "My father said to me years after that visit, the king was like no other government official because he is the only one who tried to make our lives better."