Thailand's Silent South
Southern Thailand. Just the words conjure up images of sandy, palm-lined beaches. Mango trees. Go-go bars. Tourists sipping the popular Chang beer. But that is a different southern Thailand.
The southern Thailand I am referring to is another world altogether—a place with a different culture, a different religion, even a different language. Not to mention the shootings, bombings and beheadings. This is a place where shadowy insurgents are fighting for an independent Islamic republic in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani that constituted an independent sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1902. The majority of the population, 70 to 88 percent (depending on which of the three provinces,) is of ethnic Malay descent.
This is my third time visiting this southern Thailand and when my plane touches down in Narathiwat, before my feet even hit the tarmac, I'm ready to run. I'm anxious, ready to start photographing. I'll admit it, I like to go fast, to get things done.
But when working in Thailand's southern Muslim provinces, fast usually isn't an option. Rushing forward will usually just run you headfirst into a wall. In the south you will find a lot of these walls, metaphorical of course, constructed not of brick and mortar but of fear and suspicion. And these walls are quite thick. After all, they have been under construction for over three years. That is, if you are only taking into account the most recent wave of violence.
January 4th marks the third anniversary of the insurgency, my reason for returning to the south. Specifically, it is the anniversary of a raid by Muslim militants on a weapons depot in Narathiwat Province. The event served as a catalyst for a huge upsurge in violence in Thailand's three Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
I also wanted to do a story on the increasing number of attacks on teachers. In Narathiwat it is immediately apparent that the overall mood is very different from my previous visits, the most recent of which was in April 2006. People are more fearful, more cautious. When I meet with friends and other contacts, they seem so much more world-weary, agitated, guarded.
The overall sense of fear is almost numbing, surreal. One consequence is that people are extremely suspicious of outsiders, including journalists. A lot of people don't even trust their neighbors, let alone foreigners. And if trust isn't the issue, the fear of reprisals is. It's common sense, really. Keep quiet and you're fine. Open your mouth to the press, maybe you'll get shot.
But with every visit to the south I've found that my wall-breaching abilities improve. Proceed slowly with your chisel and small cracks in those walls will start to open up allowing just enough room for an element of trust to be passed through to the person on the other side. So, this is how it must be. Tap tap, chisel chisel. "Please trust me." Move forward, but slowly. Still, the south can be a frustrating place.
Often before I can even think about making any images it is necessary to sit down and open up a dialogue with the subject and just let the conversation run as far as it can whether I'm talking to an imam, a teacher, a soldier or a widow whose husband has been killed. I've noticed that my camera spends a considerably larger amount of time in the camera bag in the south—a sharp contrast to the way I normally work, camera out and ready at all times. But sometimes, I suppose, you make a photograph as much with your words as you do with your eyes and that hunk of plastic and metal you have slung around your neck.
Although confusing and sometimes difficult to cover, there is one thing for sure about the story unfolding in southern Thailand: it is an increasingly violent tale. Over the past three years almost 2,000 people have been killed by the Thai Military or unknown Muslim insurgents. These days the majority of killings are shootings carried out by groups of young Muslim boys, ages roughly 17 to 25. Usually they ride up behind their victims on motorbikes and gun them down but they also attack people in their homes, in rubber plantations, at schools. They attack Buddhists, Muslims, their neighbors, their teachers. Sometimes they cut off the heads afterward. Or burn the bodies. Their goal is fear to shock people into silence and submission. So far they have been very successful.
Even if you do take things slowly, people are reluctant to talk about a number of key topics. Absolutely nobody claims to know anything about the juwae—the young Muslim men who carry out the majority of the killings. And if you bring it up, the subject will probably be changed. Or you will be offered some cakes and tea to plug your question-spewing mouth.
In a way, this tendency to feign ignorance reminds me of those old silent black-and-white foreign films, where the VHS copy is usually so old and warped you can't read the intertitles. The actors and actresses in these films go wordlessly about their lives, diligently ignoring the presence of the masked villain, who grins maniacally at the audience. Meanwhile, because of the lack of dialogue, the people watching all this have absolutely no idea what the story is really about.
Whenever I would broach the subject of the juwae, invariably I got the same response: "We don't know who they are." Yet, on occasion, the person I was talking to would let something slip, a comment about someone they know who is part of one of the numerous insurgent groups or maybe they will even say that they saw an attacker's face. But when you call them on their slip, they usually quickly change the subject. Or they offer more tea and cake.
Eventually I came to expect the rising sense of frustration that comes with trying to talk with locals about the juwae, but whatever feelings I have about the conflict, they are only an abstraction compared to what the local population has been forced to come to grips with on a daily basis.
As the insurgency turns three years of age, intelligence reports warn that militants are poised to step up attacks and despite peaceful overtures from Bangkok, Thailand's new military-backed government is no closer than their predecessors to identifying the shadowy leadership responsible for the continued attacks. The Thai military recently announced that they will be deploying an additional 3,000 paratroopers to the south and have upped this year's defense budget to $43 billion, an increase over the previous year of 34 percent.
One morning I take a train to the village of La Lo where three teachers have been killed in the span of five months. The first school I visit is Ban Buerang where a Buddhist fourth-grade teacher was gunned down in front of his 28 students in July 2006. Of late, insurgents have increased attacks on Buddhist teachers who they see as a symbol of the Thai government. Since the insurgency began in January 2004, insurgents have killed 63 educators as well as nearly 2,000 other people in almost daily shootings and periodic bombings. More than half of these victims were moderate Muslims.
I arrive at about 7:45 a.m. by motorbike and at that time the teachers, who are escorted to and from school each day by the military, have not yet arrived. I try to take a few photographs of the children milling about on the playground, but they seem very afraid of me. Unlike children in the city centers they don't run up to pose when they see the camera but rather, they shuffle away quickly, averting their gaze. One boy probably no older than 5 years old begins crying and shuddering uncontrollably upon seeing me, perhaps mistaking my camera for a gun.
The only visible adult at the school is a cook, a young Muslim woman of about 25. I try to explain to her in Thai that I am a journalist and that I am there to talk to some teachers at the school but she doesn't seem to understand me either because she doesn't speak Thai (Yawi is actually the first language of most people living in the south) or because my Thai is actually worse than I thought.
A few minutes later, when the school's English teacher arrives, he confides to me that the cook told him that she was frightened by my surprise visit, which is why she refused to talk to me.
And that is the south, its people boxed in by those walls of fear.
My phone rings—it's my fixer in Yala. Two Buddhist teachers have just been found shot near a school near town, their bodies torched inside their car. Two more dead to add to the tally and thus begins another year of the insurgency.
© Will Baxter
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