The Deep South: The Numbness of Repeated Loss
Saya berita nok beri tahu
I have news to tell you
Dalae bongo berito hok Baru-baru
Breaking news from Ba ngo Subdistrict
Demo bedey ore dok tebae kayu
They shot people cutting wood
Buleh mikey kito anok Melayu
(Wondering) Perhaps because they were Malay
Sudoh bedey tinga bedey disitu
They shot them and left the guns there.
Where is the law
Di dalae negeri siyae
in this Siamese State?
This is an excerpt from the song, Menangis jadi darah, composed by Irfan Wo-je, a young Malay boy, which was shared widely on social media last January. It tells about the killing of three young men who had gone to cut wood up on Ta-we mountain in Bo ngo Subdistrict, Ra-ngae District, Narathiwat Province, at the end of 2019.
The state gave out information that it was a clash between paramilitary Rangers and RKK armed forces. Later, the Human Rights Protection Committee, appointed by the Fourth Army Area Commander, concluded the soldiers mistook the dead men for terrorists and they were killed as they were running away. However, the families of the deceased insisted that all the young men possessed nothing but tools for cutting wood and chainsaws.
Images of the deceased were circulated on social media, showing that all of them were shot in the head; two of them sitting crossed-leg on the ground, leaning forward.
The end of public interest in this case was probably the order transferring the Commander of the 45th Ranger Forces Regiment out of the area, and the Commander of the Fourth Army Area issued an apology, along with a compensation payment of 500,000 baht for each death.
If one counts the theft of guns from Pi Leng army camp on January 4, 2004 as the starting point of 15 years (January 2004 – June 2020), the area of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla have witnessed at least 20,323 violent incidents, which resulted in at least 6,997 deaths and 13,143 casualties, 61% of which were civilians or “soft targets”.
This is just one incident in the violence that keeps repeating in an area that is culturally different, remote and peripheral. This created among the general public a feeling of numbness and otherness. It did not lead to a sense of community. What remains are the memories and pain of the families and friends of the same place and ethnicity.
The Red Barrels: Memories of the Wounds that Nobody Takes Responsibility for
Going north from the Tawe mountain range, across Songkhla province, to Phatthalung Province and turning the clock back to around 1970’s, the fight between the Thai state and the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was intensifying. This area had the highest losses caused by political violence, both in terms of quantity and form. The song, Red Barrels is one reflection of the loss.
They say (life in) Patthalung is easy
I think it’s truly dangerous
No matter which way we go, it’s scary
If they get angry with us, even a little, we die
They catch you and put you in a barrel
Pour petrol on you and light it
Charges of communism they think up
They catch our brothers and put them into an oven and burn them
They paint them red
Red Barrels is the title of a song composed by folk singer Saeng Thammada (Saengthammada Kitisatieanporn), a member of the Chon Yut band, and a former revolutionary artist in the Banthat mountain range. He used the melody of Khang Khuen Duean Ngai by the Suntharaphon band which was popular at the time and incorporated new lyrics reflecting the state of brutality in the south of the country. Today, Red Barrels is still available on YouTube and other social media channels.
In the book, On the Way to Banthat Mountain: the Chronicle of the Struggle with the Armed Forces of the People (2001), some of the details of the red barrel cases are recorded in the first part of the book. A former female comrade from Phatthalung said,
“I recall that in 1965 I had just turned 7 years old. I grew up in a rather progressive family in Na Kok village. The people who were active in the village were comrades. Back then, there was no army to avoid. The military and police were spreading propaganda that the communists were cruel and barbaric. They showed movies demonizing the communists to the villagers.
“One day, I was at my aunt’s. I had just found out that someone who was a comrade had fled the soldiers and come to our place. He was someone the villagers liked. I did not know what communists were but the person the soldiers wanted was “Mr. Khiao”. The soldiers came in many GMC vehicles. Each of them camouflaged themselves with tree branches. It didn’t matter whose house it was, they searched them all. Mr. Ket (Mr. Khiao) was sitting in my aunt’s elevated house when the soldiers found him. The soldiers called on him to give himself up and admit that he was a communist, but he did not. They spent over two hours trying to convince him and said that they would shoot into the house. Mr. Ket was afraid that the house owner would be in danger, so decided to jump down from the house. As soon as he touched the ground, he had no chance to run, as hundreds of the soldiers’ guns fired into him until his body was torn to pieces.
“The soldiers talked among themselves that they had shot dead the communist. I have never believed the government since then. The villagers no longer believed that the communists were cruel.”
The Starting Point of the Red Barrels Incident
It was 1971. A company of soldiers was stationed in the garden of my house. They called it Ko Lum Camp. They fired artillery, brought people in to kill them, took people up in planes and kicked them out, and caught people to burn them in the red barrels. There were arrests of villagers from Lam Nai, Khuan Khanun, Pa Phayom and Bang Kaeo villages who were brought to Ko Lum Camp, men, women, children, and the elderly. The first was called Mr. Win who was taken to be killed. He was the first corpse in the village. His relatives were anxiously searching for him. They later found 2-3 corpses at a Muslim village called Put. The Muslims had buried them. Once they were exhumed, it was impossible to identify who was who and whether they had been tortured or shot. The men, if they did not escape to the jungle, were brought in and killed.
This record concluded that there were as many as 3,008 deaths from cases of being kicked off planes and burned in barrels, citing as the source a military officer with lieutenant colonel rank in the 4th Army Area, whose hometown was in Phatthalung Province; however, a political military officer from the 4th Army Area denied this figure, while explaining that 3,008 people referred to the total number of deaths from Phatthalung, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Surat Thani provinces combined, and not red barrel cases alone.
Thairath newspaper on 5 February 1975 published news about the Red Barrels Incident.
On 4 February 1975, Colonel Hanphong Sitthi-anon, Assistant Director of the Administration and Coordination Section of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), admitted cases where there were true reports that the officials under the Communist Suppression Operations Command, currently named ISOC, had committed a massacre of approximately 300 villagers in several districts in Phatthalung Province by pouring gasoline over them and setting fire to them, known in the news as burning in the red barrels.
After the CPT in the south had managed to recruit more members and allies and expand their movement into an armed group, the government, in response, adopted a harsh suppression policy, and dispatched security units to be stationed in the southern region.
Amidst these security activities, a large number of villagers were detained and taken for interrogation to operations areas of the security forces . In 1972, a significant number of villagers who had been taken to several military camps for interrogation went missing. When asked about the disappearances, the authorities explained that they had already released them to go home. Afterwards, there began to be rumours about the “red barrels” spreading all over Phatthalung and surrounding provinces.
On the 13 February 1975, the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT) and the Anti-Dictatorship National Joint Front organized a public debate at Sanam Luang and issued a statement about the Red Barrels case calling on the government to immediately dissolve ISOC to stop officials from indiscriminately killing people and to provide compensation to the families of the victims.
On the 15 February 1975, villagers from Phatthalung Province, together with Mr. Phinij Jarusombat, the Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs of the SCT, met with General Kris Sivara, the Commander in Chief of the Army. General Kris admitted that the red barrels cases had really taken place and announced his resignation from the position of Director of ISOC on the following day.
It seems as though the case of the red barrels had reached a preliminary conclusion at this point.
Screenshots from A documentary titled Yon-Roi, Ton Thang Daeng (Tracing Back, the Red Barrels Episode) which was broadcast on the ITV channel.
Apart from the book, we have discovered a documentary titled Yon-Roi, Ton Thang Daeng (Tracing Back, the Red Barrels Episode), which was broadcast on the ITV channel by Thepchai Yong (the date and time of broadcast are unclear). The film conducted interviews with people present at the scene as well as discharged military officers who were also present at the scene.
The documentary shows that in 1970 four joint army companies from the Senanarong Camp set up the first base in Ban Tha Chiat, Ton District, Phatthalung Province. The reporter interviewed one former enlisted soldier, who was stationed there. He gave details that the camp had a command unit called a Small Unit, which patrolled the areas of Phatthalung, Satun, Trang, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla in order to track down and eliminate communists on a blacklist. One unit was directly responsible for killing. They shot people and returned immediately, then soldiers like him went in to clear the scene. They later established camps in Ban Phut and Ban Saphan Muai, making 3 in Phatthalung.
Chaelam Wasuthep was one of the small group of people who managed to escape from the camp at Ban Phut. He testified that he was believed to be a member of the Communist Party. He was convinced that if he was arrested, he would be killed for certain. He just did not know by what method. So, Chaelam decided to escape. He said that he did not do it to save his life, but so that he would die quickly. He did not want to be tortured. He succeeded in escaping but he got caught again. Luckily, his relative who was a police officer bailed him out and saved him from death. However, his misfortune continued because when Chaelam had managed to escape for the second time, the authorities went to look for him at his house and detained his wife at the Ban Phut camp. He never heard from his wife again.
Jedot Khamnurak, a former military officer who used to be involved in the communist crackdown, recounted what had happened. He said that in the investigation process the suspect was made to sit on a chair, and the executioner sat behind. The colonel was in front asking questions. He asked, the other answered, sometimes to the point, sometimes not. If he just raised his eyebrow once (the signal), the executioner would beat him and take him to be hanged to death. Then the body was stuffed into a red barrel, gasoline was poured on it, and it was set alight.
Na Sai – Na Hin Kong: The Forgotten Truth
Na Sai and Na Hin Gong are the names of villages in the northeast. They suffered losses from the burning of houses and forced evacuation during the war against the communists. They were familiar names to the ears of the comrades and the villagers in the Phu Phan Mountain area, and are being forgotten with time.
Chaiwat Suravichai was a student leader during the 14 October 1973 incident and a journalist in the mass media, who later joined fight with the CPT. He created a pocket book containing images and a chronology titled Het Koet Thi Ban Na Sai (What Happened at Ban Na Sai) (1974). This recounted the burning of the village in January 1974.
The image from the book titled "Het Koet Thi Ban Na Sai" (What Happened at Ban Na Sai) published in 1974
Regarding the number of houses burned down, the state claimed there were only 20, but in fact the number was 106. The villagers’ belongings were looted and there were executions of many villagers, including women and children (Mr. San (50 years old), Mrs. Sai (40 years old), and Aem Mattharat (6 years old) were killed and their bodies burned along with their homes).
For Ban Na Hin Kong, far less data is available. At present, it is located in Kok Tum Subdistrict, Dong Luang District, Mukdahan Province (at the time of the incident it was in Na Kae District, Nakhon Phanom Province). According to the testimony of the villagers, the burning actually happened at the end of 1973. The report Ban Na … Jak Sai Pen Hin Kong (Ban Na … from Sand to Piles of Stones) by Thawan Wongsuphap in Prachachat magazine on 23 May 1974, states that on the 14 October 1973 the CPT announced Ban Na Hin Kong was in its area of influence. They were able to hold it for only 18 days before the Thai army attacked and successfully reclaimed the area. The authorities set fire to up to 57 houses and rice barns from a total of 71.
Win Raekchuen, a 55-year-old Ban Na Hin Kong villager, recounted that he was 8 years old when his house was burned. But there was no help whatsoever. They had to move to Khao Wong District. On the day they had to move, there were confrontations from 5 a.m. Luckily, several houses in that area had underground shelters between them because clashes were common and there were planes dropping bombs. Ban Na Hin Kong villagers were evacuated to a temporary camp in Khao Wong District, which was located near a fresh market. Where they lived had a cement floor, corrugated metal roof, and no walls. Each family must sort out their own space. There wasn’t even food. They had to go to beg food from local villagers, who were Phu Thai. Later, they moved to a Nikhom Sang Ton Eng (self-built settlement).
Win spoke of the atmosphere at the time and the reason why their houses had to be burned down:
“There were no prisons at the time. Anyone could kill anyone. Soldiers killed villagers. Comrades killed suspected spies. No one ever accepted responsibility for any killings. They blamed others. At the time very many people were killed. Many died without knowing who killed them. Some of the bodies were never found.
“The soldiers didn’t want the communists to come and eat with the villagers, didn’t want the villagers to have any relations with the communists, didn’t want the villagers to miss their homes and come back to them. That’s why they burned our houses.
“But if there weren’t any communists, the soldiers would have treated us even worse. Before, when the soldiers came to our village, when they called out our names and we didn’t answer, they would beat or kick us. If they didn’t like your face, they slapped you. Later there were communists, there wasn’t so much of this stuff.”
Wat Kunbunma (left) and Win Raekchuen (right)
Wat Kunbunma, aka Comrade Chaloem, a former revolutionary of Ban Na Hin Kong village, aged 72, told us “When the houses were burned down, I had already left for the jungle. I left for the jungle when I was 25. That was in 1972 but they burned our village in 1973.”
Wat explained that the reason why they had to go into the jungle (he uses the phrase ‘left for the jungle’) with the communists, was because at the time there were activists from the CPT mobilizing in the area where Wat had lived since 1968. When the CPT became more active, the Thai state began to set up Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC) camps in nearby villages. The behaviour of the VDC towards the villagers was to look down on and be insulting to them and not be friendly. Most villagers in Ban Na Hin Kong were Bru. They tended to be looked down upon by the VDC as racially inferior, dirty, stupid, uneducated and uncivilized.
Although Wat couldn’t say who or which agency were the ones who burned down Ban Na Hin Kong as he had already gone into the jungle, he could still remember that before Ban Na Hin Kong was burned down, Ban Pak Chong, another Bru community about three kilometres north of Ban Na Hin Kong village, was also burned down. This case was not recorded in any form of media so there are only the stories from the memories passed down among community.
Apart from the burning, Wat also talked about the violence that happened Ban Pak Chong. Soldiers brutally executed young men in the village by cutting off their heads.
We then went to Ban Pak Chong and talked to Mongkhon Chaokhao, aged 59. He is Deputy President of Kok Tum Municipal Council, Dong Luang District, Mukdahan Province. He told us that his family lost one house, one cow, one rice barn, and one brother.
“They did all sorts of things so that we could not stay. We were threatened, kicked and whipped. More than 40 houses were burned down, some completely, some partially. Our cow was killed by a shell fired from the other side of the ditch; so was our neighbour’s buffalo.”
Mongkhon’s older brother, Matcha Chaokhao, aged 18 at the time, was one of the villagers who were arrested by the soldiers.
“That day I was sitting with my brother when the soldiers came with a list of names. My brother went with them voluntarily. The soldiers had been setting up camp in the area for several days. When the soldiers left we waited to go and look for my brother. When we found the body, it was already decayed.”
Mongkhon said that after the death of his brother, 90% of the teenagers in the villages went into the jungle to join the CPT. He himself and his family were driven out of the area to Kham Soi settlement, Mukdahan Province, about 100 kilometres away from Ban Pak Chong. They lived there for almost eight years before Mongkhon moved back to the old village in 1982.
Thanat Chaokhao, aged 48, is the son of Mr. Kap Chaokhao, the former Head of Ban Pak Chong in 1973 when the village was burned down. Thanat was only two years old so he could not remember. But, his father or villagers who were there at the time later told him about it when he grew up.
“At that time there were no local elections for village head like today. Instead it was like they were appointed by the boss (the District Chief or Deputy District Chief). They would pick someone who could read and write as village head. The old village head began to see the signs of violence, so he resigned. So they chose Kap as the head instead.
“At that time my father couldn’t eat or sleep for two to three months. When the bosses (referring to soldiers) came up from Khao Wong District, my father had to be there to greet them. There was a dress code for my father; he had to wear an olive green jacket like those of the soldiers.
When asked about the death of Matcha, Mongkhon’s older brother, and his friends in the village, Thanat said that Matcha was the same as the code name of a CPT member in another community. When the soldiers encircled the village and called out the names on the list, Matcha was arrested and eventually killed. Thanat also said that the body that was found left in the jungle had the head, hands and feet cut off but his family could tell that it was Matcha because of the clothes he wore.
Ban Song Village: The killings with no songs to remember them
The violence of the 1960s covered a very wide area, so it is impossible to have a record of every single incident. But in many places, even though there is no official record, there are still the oral histories of people in the communities.
There is a story that a group of six teenage boys in Ban Song, Kut Pla Khao Subdistrict, Khao Wong District, Kalasin Province, were shot dead in the paddy field. Villagers there say they went out to collect toddy palm and were shot.
In Ban Song, we met Chaidi Setrit, aka Comrade Surop, a brother of one of the dead in this group, and Chop Setrit, aka Comrade Prachon, his relative. The two elderly men helped each other to sort out the incident as well as the names of those who died.
They both insisted that the killings of the young men did take place in the village, with an ambush that shot the 6 youths when they were leaving the village through the paddy fields. Chaidi is the elder brother of Thonsan Setrit, one of those killed, and listed the names of the 4 who died: Somphon Setrit, Thonsan Setrit, Roem Phothisom and Men Thipsing. The other two, Phueak Mithamma (now dead) and Chan Kutrasaeng, were injured but managed to flee.
The shooting took place under a palm tree in the paddy field of Suanphan Thipsing’s family, which is situated near the Phu Phan mountain range. Suanphan himself is the younger brother of Men Thipsing, one of those killed.
Suanphan Thipsing (left) said the shooting took place under a palm tree in his family's paddy field which is situated near the Phu Phan mountain range.
No one could recall the year in which the incident took place. But Chop Setrit linked it to the time that he received the news of the deaths of the young men while he was studying in China in 1967-8, so he deduced that it probably happened at that time.
What we also learnt is that out of the six boys that went out the get toddy palm, only two had any connection with setting up the Communist Party (of Thailand) and that the forces that ambushed and executed the group were Volunteer Defense Corps, who were villagers who came from the same neighbourhood.
The deaths of the four boys from such a remote area never made the news. No complaints were filed. There has been no accountability nor compensation from the state. There have not been even any police reports. There were only simple religious funeral ceremonies. And that is considered to be the end.
Remembering Kuan Ka Long: Forced Relocations from the Northeast to the South
Kuan Ka Long Ramluek (Remembering Kuan-Ga-Long) is a song composed and sung by Nuphan Kotwong aka Phloeng Nalak, the son of villagers with no university education and a member of the CPT, who wrote the song the express his own feelings of bitterness and pain at being threatened by the state.
…I sing this lament
I want to recall pictures of the past
That have not faded from memory
Close to dawn on December 2nd 1966
The pictures that we remember are still fresh
The shimmering comet in the east
Was the symbol of being sent far away…
“…On a train
Heading to Kuan Ka Long
Passing through forests and wooded hills,
Reaching the coast of the indigo sea
The gibbons howl
Dizzy with grief all the time
The loud roars of a leopard
Grieving to break my heart
Nuphan Kotwong aka Phloeng Nalak who composed the song titled Kuan Ka Long Ramluek (Remembering Kuan-Ga-Long).
We met Phloeng Nalak at his home in Pathum Thani Province. He is a small man in his 70s but looks younger than his age. He speaks frankly, tells you everything, and drinks heavily. He and his wife earn their living selling cheap clothes at local flea markets.
Phloeng told us that he first joined the revolutionary movement when he was 11 years old. This was perhaps because he grew up in a family which was the first group where the core CPT came to work in the area. Prachuap Rueangrat, also called Lung Siam, of the Political Affairs Unit and former Party Secretary-General, came to contact villagers in Ban Na Rai Yai, Senangkhanikhom District, Amnat Charoen Province, and married Phloeng’s aunt.
Phloeng’s father was in the first leadership cadre. So he had had the opportunity to study the theoretical ideas of the Communist Party since he was a child. Also the state of relationships between the villagers and the state officials after 1961 was not good. Police officers and the Assistant District Officers acted like the bosses over the people.
“I saw oppression and exploitation. I saw people taken advantage of by subdistrict and village heads who had been appointed by the state. The police were another good example. They were the hands and feet of the state. The police in the Sarit era were barbaric. They arrested people and kicked them off the cliffs so that nobody could see the bodies. They shot people indiscriminately. A villager couldn’t even cough. Crazy people were shot. You only had to be a suspect. They set themselves up as a kangaroo court.”
The ideological work and establishment of the Party at that time were somewhat blunt and transparent. Lung Siam had a radio which could receive news from foreign countries, which was a tool is his work with the masses to have news that would interest the villagers. Before the relocation of the villagers from Ban Na Rai Yai, there was one official from the authorities who disguised himself as a school teacher in the village. One day this spy from the authorities was killed. Soon after that the soldiers came and took control of the village and forced some of the villagers of Ban Na Rai Yai and Ban Phon Thong – altogether about 57 households or roughly 200 people -- to move to Kuan Ka Long settlement, Satun Province.
“They tricked us into believing that if we moved, the land was good and they would arrange for the lives of the villagers to be better. But their intention was to force us to move away from our families so that we could no longer deliver food and water to our comrades. Troops were brought to encircle the whole village so that we could no longer contact those in the jungle.”
Phloeng said that at that time the area of Kuan Ka Long was still not settled. It was forest. The authorities used tractors to level the land so that we could live there, build temporary houses from wood and corrugated sheets. Later, the authorities allocated an average of 2-3 rai of land to each family to make a living.
The situation of living in Satun was that initially, food was distributed. But later it wasn’t. The villagers who had been relocated earned an income for their families by cutting firewood from the forest to supply the railway because at that time the railway still used steam locomotives with firewood as the energy source. As the situation quietened, the people who been relocated one by one started to move back to where they originally came from, splitting up and sneaking away from the village to get on a train at the station. It took almost two years for almost all of the villagers to move back to Ban Phon Thong and Ban Na Rai Yai. Almost all of them in the end went into jungle. Only 2-3 families still remain today in the settlement they built themselves at Kuan Ka Long.
Society with No Lessons Learned
The war against the communists ended long ago over but the facts about the violence of the time are still not clear.
We do not know the exact number of lives lost, particularly of villagers living in remote areas. Even the losses that happened in the middle of the city such as the events of Oct 14, Oct 6, May 1992, and May 2010, still remain obscure and the facts have not been proven.
There has been no punishment for those responsible for these events, so it is hard for Thai society to learn lessons in order to prevent violence in the future.