Interrupted normalcy of everyday lives in Thailand’s restive Deep South
Submitted on Mon, 31 Aug 2015 - 03:38 PM
Constant military search checkpoints are one example of an originally obtrusive element that has become common in everyday Deep South life.
These checkpoints block an entire lane on the road, so cars are funnelled into the one available lane. At these checkpoints there is a large sign detailing the search procedures: turn on the lights in the car and roll down the car windows, so that the officials can clearly see into the car.
If the passenger looks ethnically Thai or Chinese, the soldiers will wave them by without much searching. However, if the passenger is Muslim Malay, then they are subjected to questioning from the officials. Such questions include who they are, where they are from, where they are driving to and why, etc. This sort of questioning, of course, is done with the aim of catching “southern bandits,” a popular term used by mainstream Thai media when referring to the Muslim Malay militant.
Checkpoints block an entire lane so that cars have to pass through for searching. Photo by Muhammad Duraemae
Malays in the Deep South apply their humorous nature to make light of everyday situations, including checkpoints. A friend of the writer told her a story about when he was passing through the checkpoint at night. He was driving, and a friend was asleep in the passenger seat. When the military officer at the checkpoint asked, “How many people are in the car?,” he replied, “I’m driving alone.” Upon hearing this, the soldier went white as a sheet, staring into the car, before quickly waving the car by.
Another funny story he told the writer:
Military officer: Where are you going?
Malay driver: (with a serious, normal face like he goes there regularly) To Tae Hae Bong.
Military officer: I see, proceed.
In local Malay, Tae Hae means “to place or set,” while Bong means “bomb.”
Here’s another one.
Military officer: Where’re you heading?
Malay driver: (deadpan) To Baga Goloh.
Military officer: Alright, go ahead.
In local Malay, baga means “to burn,” and goloh means “school.”
Military officials stop every car, but will inspect more carefully cars driven by young Malay men. Photo by
This lighthearted pranking and joking is a temporary respite from the fact that these military checkpoints are there due to the decade-long violence in the area, as well as the discrimination against all ethnic Malays in the region as being “southern bandits” who place bombs and burn schools.
Negative ethnic stereotyping and discrimination is one of the most deeply-rooted issues of the Deep South. Although the policy banning schools from teaching in languages other than Central Thai, initiated by former Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, was repealed over 70 years ago, and at the present time the Thai state has started to promote the Melayu language and culture, de facto actions by national security officials seem to be stuck in time. Not only do security officers thoroughly search cars of only ethnic Malays, but they also arbitrarily gather and compile DNA information from ethnic Malays as a preventive measure against violence.
While peace talks between the insurgent movement and the Thai state move into technical, scholarly areas, the everyday lives of Deep South locals—including Malay Muslims, Thai-Chinese, and Buddhist Thais—continue, interrupted by daily discrimination and higher-ups’ exercises of power. Some local youths are speaking up about the need for peace and mutual understanding at the grassroots, everyday level, which can be promoted through local history.
Saiburi Looker: forging friendships in the danger zone
The last time Saiburi district in Pattani province appeared in headline news was on 25 July 2015, when a bomb exploded in a Chinese neighbourhood. This bomb resulted in the death of one soldier who was guarding a monk and the death of one monk. Severely wounded were a monk, two soldiers, and two locals. In 2009, another bomb exploded in the same district, harming Thai Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims, as well as security officers.
This 7-11 branch in Saiburi has put up bunker walls to protect against explosions in the area.
According to statistics compiled by the Deep South Watch, out of the 37 districts of the Deep South, or the districts located in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla, Saiburi ranks as the sixth most dangerous. Saiburi, which used to be a thriving port town that served the Malay Peninsula, has been made unrecognizable by the violent events. Most of the Thai-Chinese businesses in the area have moved out. The Thai-Chinese avoid Malay neighbourhoods and vice versa, creating an atmosphere of tension and distrust.
“The constant portrayal of Malay Muslims as ‘southern bandits’ in the news has caused even the people here to believe what they’re shown. People are consuming the mainstream media, turning to converse with their TVs and the Internet. But if Somsak would just turn and talk to Ma-ae, then we would understand each other more, lessening prejudices,” said Anas Pongprasert, a hot-blooded Malay youth from Saiburi district.
Anas Pongprasert at the Saiburi Looker headquarters in his own house
Anas co-founded Saiburi Looker in 2013 with the goal of restoring community relationships that have been destroyed in the past decade through violence. Saiburi Looker uses everyday objects and issues to bring
people closer together.
“We got some art students to draw in public the British Malaya-style buildings in the old part of town. The house owners saw the students, and opened their doors and came out to talk to the artists. The Chinese house owners opened their home to us, discussed with us for a long time, and brought us drinks. In the last decade or so, nothing like this has ever happened. After the drawing was finished, we displayed them in an exhibition, where even more people met to discuss.” recalled the 32-year-old Anas.
The Chinese neighbourhood in Saiburi’s old town
The drawing activity was the beginning of many other events held by Saiburi Looker, such as gathering local stories from the inhabitants in the British Malaya-style houses, art exhibitions, and publicizing these events on their Facebook page. Saiburi Looker, it seems, has initiated a fertile discussion ground between community members.
“Nowadays, we can go to Chinese people’s houses, and hold events in Chinese shrines because the Chinese people trust us,” said Anas.
Students from Yala Rajabhat University and Pattani campus of Prince of Songkla University participate in an activity of drawing old town buildings built in the British Malaya style. Photo from TEAOOR
Anas said that his activities focus on the Chinese community because ever since the unrest started in the area, the state often gives assistance mainly to Malay Muslims. The Chinese minority community, therefore, feels left out, overlooked, and wary, so many move out of the area. “Whenever the state wants to compensate for or aid affected victims, they focus on Melayu Muslims. I think this can cause the Chinese community to feel neglected.”
Students from Yala Rajabhat University and Pattani campus of Prince of Songkla University participate in an activity of drawing old town buildings built in the British Malaya style. Photo from TEAOOR
According to Anas, before the violence started in 2004, Chinese and Malay would co-exist without any problem whatsoever, because they respected each other’s differences. For example, the Chinese community there would refrain from using pig’s heads to sacrifice in ancestor worships or from keeping dogs as pets, and drank alcohol only within the confines of their own homes.
Another Saiburi Looker event that followed the building drawing event was a “Return Happiness to Saiburi” activity, the name being a parody of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s policies. The event was a vintage-themed fair with a colonial British Malaya era theme. During this era from the 18th until the 20th centuries, the British colonial powers wielded much influence in the Malay maritime area, and Saiburi was a town thriving both economically and culturally. During this era, English culture influenced and localized with Malay culture, creating the British Malaya-style buildings still standing in the old part of town today in Sai town.
Visitors to the “Return Happiness to Saiburi” event were invited to dress up in period costumes: a sarong and outer shirt for men, and a banong dress for women, for example.
The British Malaya-themed “Return Happiness to Saiburi” event
“The ‘Return Happiness to Saiburi event highlighted the cultural diversity of our city. This diversity was really clearly seen during the British Malaya period, or about 70 years ago. At that time, the Deep South was under British influence, such as in a modern lifestyle and democratic principles. People listened to the BBC radio from Malaysia, sent their kids to study in Penang, gave their children English names, and dressed in modern clothes. It doesn’t mean that we’re so proud of being westernized, but to show we used to be like this back then” explained Anas.
Unlike most of the local Malays that go to the traditional Islamic ponoh school or the modernized private Islamic schools, Anas went to a Thai school, then lived in Bangkok for 10 years, during which time he studied Political Science at Ramkhamhaeng University. He led a lifestyle just like any other Bangkokian teen until he got tired of life in the capital, where he was always bombarded with news of unrest back in his hometown. Feeling alienated, he came back to Pattani to get in touch with his roots again.
“I was always educated in the state system, so history lessons were chock full of nationalism. Then I realized that I knew nothing of my actual home. I knew of my nation, but not my motherland. Once I realized that, I felt cornered. My identity and sense of self had disappeared,” continued Anas.
At the “Return Happiness to Saiburi” event, staff and visitors dressed up in British Malaya-era garb.
Lately, a historical and cultural trend relating to all things Patani has been resurfacing. The term conveys a sense of nationalism and pride that the area used to be a prosperous maritime Islamic empire, before becoming a colony under Siam around 1800, and later divided into seven largely autonomous states, one of which is Saiburi.
Asked why he chose to focus on the history of Saiburi, instead of Patani, he replied, “A group of people try to tie together today’s situation with a history 300 years ago. But I think the problems in this area haven’t been going on for 300 years, but only around 70 years. I think history that is more recent to the present day is more ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ than a 300-year old one.”
“When this area was part of the Patani kingdom, it was multicultural and diverse, too. But present-day zealots motivated by nationalism look at only the Muslim Malay part of that old kingdom. They forget that they were, and are, also Buddhist Malays and Chinese,” continued Anas.
Pipitpakdee Mansion, built in 1885 and owned by the family of the Saiburi governor, portrays the wealth during the era when Saiburi was one of the main autonomous states in the region. In 1901, Saiburi became its own province before becoming a district of Pattani in 1932.
“If people only pick and choose the parts of history they want to suit their needs, then what they do is no different than propaganda. We should retell our history in a fair way that doesn’t include oppression of ‘another’
group of people. If we do that, then we’re no different than those who spread propaganda. We have to speak of our own negative points as well. It’s history. It’s something that already happened, and should be discussed openly.”
When asked about whether Saiburi Looker had any political suggestions or intentions in mind, Anas replied that at this point in time, the important focus was on fostering basic trust within the community and establishing a free public sphere. “It would be skipping steps for us to go up on a big stage and throw out technical terms before asking regular people what they want.”
The proud Saiburian finished off with, “The process of peace should start from local people coming together and talking to each other, shedding their suspicions, distrust, and barriers. Only then can we move on to larger-scale goals.”
Jun-guy Sae-giang, age 67
A Hokkien Chinese Saiburi local. She runs a construction materials shop in Saiburi.
“My family has been in Thailand for three generations. My grandparents sailed here by boat and landed at Bang Kao. They sold dried fish and exported it to Singapore before moving to Saiburi.”
“I have a lot of Muslim Malay friends. They’re always going in and out of the house. My mother taught us children some precepts from Islam. When she came from China, she didn’t have any religion, so when she came here she absorbed some from Islam.”
“I can speak Melayu. I use it when selling goods to Melayu customers. My mother taught me to speak polite Melayu to our customers. My mother can speak only Chinese and Melayu.”
“During Ramadan, my mother taught me to prepare sugar to make sweets for our Muslim friends for them to eat at night time, after their fast during the day.”
“Although there’s violence in the area, for my close Muslim friends, they will always be my close friends.”
“I have no intention of moving anywhere else, because this is my home.”
Waeng in Love: where violence nurtures nature
A sea of mist as the sun rises over the Hala-Bala Wildlife Reserve. The forests here are rich and lush, and nature enthusiasts often come here to take photos and watch the hornbills.
Weang district in Narathiwat Province is far from being modern and developed. The district’s first 7-11 branch opened here not long ago, and there are no gas stations or hotels. Unlike Saiburi, Waeng is zoned as a very low-violence district, like the other border districts. However, the locals here are still pressured by the surrounding violence.
Nirandorn Lokna, or Yee, and Sulaiman Chemae, or Lee, are two young men who love their home district, and try to present Waeng’s natural and cultural beauty to locals.
Sulaiman (sitting) and Nirandon in a photoshoot to portray Malay life in Waeng in the days of yore, when elephants were everyday companions. This was taken in Su-ngai Padi, a neighbouring district to Weang. Photo by Wan Fazri
Malays in the region are so used to violence and oppression that living with it has sadly become a part of their everyday life.
“My home has had so many violent events over the years. These events accumulate, build up in the feelings of the people here, making many people mentally ill and physically sick. I think it’s affecting me badly, too. Since I was a kid, I would walk up to the district office, where they would lay out the bodies of the people shot dead. At one point, there were bodies there every day. This sight became so common that I’m now used to it,” said Nirandorn. Nirandorn used to be a scriptwriter and director for films and lakorns, and an experienced one at that.
Both Nirandon and Sulaiman, therefore, have devoted themselves to promoting the natural and cultural beauty of Waeng and its neighbouring districts as a therapeutic balm to the violence of everyday life in the Deep South.
Another photo from Nirandon and Sulaiman’s photoshoot, this time, of the “Elephant Taxi” that existed in Waeng when it was a multi-ethnic, multicultural hub and thriving gold mining town, in the period before the Indochina War.
Nirandorn, who used to be the assistant director for Chatrichalerm Yukol, the director of the Naresuan epic films, produced a 12-minute short film called “Waeng in Love,” inspired by the book of the same name written by Chabaabaan. The novel tells of a Thai Buddhist girl growing up in Waeng 60 years ago.
The short film, set in the present day, tells the story of a Thai Buddhist girl and her relationships with Muslims, giving an overview of inter-religion relationships in the Deep South before violence erupted 11 years ago.
Not only does Nirandorn make short films, he also teaches local youths to make short films in his camps. The camps teach all the steps of filmmaking, including scriptwriting, filming, and editing. He wants youths to have a creative outlet for their views.
The pair have also produced an ad to promote tourism in the Deep South, sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Unlike other provinces’ tourism promotion ads that focus on iconic landmarks, Sulaiman chose to present “Patani” as a borderless area united through a common culture, and inviting viewers to discover for themselves the places to go.
Sulaiman has found that in their attempt to tell the stories of their home, they have suffered discrimination and prejudice as “outsiders.”
“On our journey in a dinky old car, we were travelling with two or three other crew members. Our filming equipment, clothes, and luggage filled the car. Military officers with guns at their waists, vests on their chests, helmets on their heads, and a big problem with us in their hearts stopped us at checkpoints tens of times. Of course, they’re “outsiders” too, since they’re working here. A couple times they searched the entire car (in a
haphazard fashion). We were asked questions that were ridiculing and sarcastic just because we look like this (We’re locals with roots here. Who’s the real outsider here, them or us?). We had to comply and answer their questions, showing them a piece of paper that said we were making a film for the TAT. The TAT, dammit! We had to confirm that we weren’t doing secret spy filming. We were also restricted from filming in some tourist attractions. (sigh) This happened when the caretaker of the site was a government official from somewhere else who was stationed there. This was so different than when we filmed in temples, Chinese shrines, and Chinese peoples’ houses. I just had to greet them, sawasdee, and then politely ask for permission and they would let me in with no problem. It was so relaxed that I could smoke while working. In short, there was no problem when conversing with locals, but the outsiders seemed to be the real problem … let us locals take care of our problems, let us tell our stories from our own points of view and feelings, please. We have a lot of interesting stories to tell, like this clip we produced that’s doing its job,” Sulaiman wrote, detailing the production process of making the short clip for the TAT.
Sulaiman also hosts activities to promote local music and sports which are in danger of disappearing. For example, Tari-e-na, Penjak Silat wrestling, and playing the Bano and Grue-toh drums. Playing the Bano and Grue-toh drums exists only in Waeng and Su-ngai Padi.
The Dao Tong Troupe demonstrates how to play the Grue-toh drum, which used to be very popular in Waeng District, Su-ngai Padi District, and Su-ngai Kolok District in Narathiwat Province.
The Dao Tong Troupe demonstrates how to play the Bano drum, which used to be very popular in Waeng District, Su-ngai Padi District, and Su-ngai Kolok District in Narathiwat Province.
“The Melayu culture is disappearing because the Thai state does not understand or care about preserving it seriously. This made me feel that we have to stand up and talk about our own cultures,” said the 32-year-old Sulaiman. “The state pours money into security issues while completely forgetting about arts and culture, and the cultural authorities are not locals. They don’t understand or have the same love for our cultures as we locals do. Whenever they hold cultural events, they turn out wonky, wrong, and culturally awkward. They just slap some money into holding the event but have absolutely no heart in it. The state should sponsor such events, yes, but the locals should be allowed to organize the events and have maximum participation.
Sulaiman (left) and the Grue-toh and Bano drum masters, both of whom are from the Dao Tong Troupe of Waeng
Nevertheless, Sulaiman sees a silver lining in the Deep South’s violence, which is that it draws more attention to the area’s cultures. “Whenever there’s an art contest and an entry by an ethnic Malay that shows their identity, then that entry gets more attention than it used to. Our identity has a louder voice, like a lotus flower rising above a blood-soaked landscape to bloom.”
Chokchai Anugul (Goji)
A Saiburi local and ethnic Hainanese, Chokchai owns the Neramit photo shop.
“This is the oldest photo shop in Saiburi; it’s older than 80 years. Running a photo shop used to be a cumbersome handicraft, but now it’s a lot easier and quicker with the use of computers.”
“I can only speak a few words of Chinese, but my Malay is good enough for everyday use. I learned Malay by listening to Malays speak, and remembering their words. Actually, I have more Malay friends than Thai ones. Malays are really honest people, and if they love somebody, it’s for real.”
“Over 80 per cent of my customers are Malay. Elderly Malay can’t speak Thai at all, so I have to speak Malay with them. Younger Malays can speak Thai.”
“Ever since the violence started, business has continued on as normal. There has been some wariness in the community toward certain groups, but with the people we know and are close to, everything has stayed the same.”
“I also take photos for hire, especially for the ponoh schools. I can take photos for an entire school. I have to travel to quite rural, out-of-the-way places. I try not to be afraid, though, because I think that I converse with people around here every day, so they know who I am, and they trust me.”
Goji’s best friend, a former principal at a religious school, visits him at his shop.
“There have been Chinese people who have moved out of the area. I can see why; it can be scary here. I think that it’s hard to live here if you’re always afraid.”
“Once a bomb exploded only 600 meters away from the shop, and three of my friends died. They were two Chinese, and a Thai-Chinese. I was really afraid at that time. There was no way of knowing if I would be next.”
“The operations here are faceless. We don’t know who’s in charge of the group, so we don’t know what direction the peace talks will go. [If the area becomes independent], we also don’t know who we will be governed by.”
“When I pass through checkpoints, the soldiers see that I’m Chinese and quickly wave me by. If I were to smuggle weapons, it would be very easy to do so.”
“I want this area to be peaceful, but it’ll probably be a while. I don’t know if that’ll happen in ten years.”
Muhammad Duraemae from the Deep South Watch’s Deep South Journalism School contributed to this report.
Translated into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich