I’m sitting in a third-class train compartment. This is a situation I’ve been in a few times before. Old women hawking iced tea and mango slices traipse up and down the car, while a 12-year-old with a Dragon Ball Z backpack stares out the window. Across the aisle, a few school kids are giggling at me, the six-foot-plus white guy. This should be a familiar experience to anyone who’s traveled in Southeast Asia. The familiarity is quickly shattered when an AK-47 is being waved in my face, and I’m frantically showing a soldier I don’t have any weapons in my bag.
Among the countless global disputes, this remains one that is almost unknown in America. Three provinces – Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat – that jut southeast from Thailand into Malaysia have, for the past five years, been the staging ground of an armed conflict between the Thai government and the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), an almost entirely anonymous group dedicated to the formation of a separate Islamic state in these three provinces. Predominantly Muslim, predominantly ethnically Malay, and an independent sultanate until 1909, the so-called “Deep South” provinces have long been the poorest in Southern Thailand. The Thai government, with its massive tourist revenues, hasn’t exactly been keen to advertise its own miniature war.
I arrived in the city of Yala in the sweltering heat of midday. My adopted city of Hat Yai is a pretty generic place. It’s a city of 200,000 people with its KFC and Baskin-Robbins and Nike store rendered in concrete and plate glass. I’ve traveled 90 miles east and I’ve stepped into a Salman Rushdie novel. Green minarets pierce the perfectly blue sky and turbaned boys run along dusty railroad tracks. My sole contact in the city had left town, so I fended for myself as I made my way through the main business district looking for a hotel. Most of the places with “hotel” signs seemed rather confused when I asked for a room. A couple said they were full. Most seemed to be closed altogether. In Hat Yai, I’m used to being stared at. There aren’t many foreigners, so for a tall, awkward Midwestern kid a stare is sort of par for the course. The stare is often accompanied by a “hello!” from particularly audacious younger guys. In Yala, the stare turns into a full-on, jaw-dropped, what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here gawk.
Thousands of locals have been killed throughout the three provinces. Teachers – Muslim as well as Buddhist – have been targeted. Bombings have become a near-daily occurrence. Of particular note is a 2006 roadside attack likely intended for the motorcade of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. From 2005 to 2007, the bombing campaign also jumped the border into Songkhla Province, where I live. IEDs were deployed in front of one of my regular pubs and at a number of shopping centers I frequent. PULO has also made extensive use of beheadings, especially for migrant rubber-tappers from Thailand’s impoverished Northeast.
The city center is eerily quiet. Heavily armed soldiers stand at intersections, and the few people out seem to be primarily interested in shielding themselves from the sun. There’s a rather nice stock of rather beat-up Art Deco architecture, but otherwise, the city has a decidedly Soviet character. Its long boulevards are lined with grim, three- and four-story concrete blocks, and troop trucks cough smog up and down their lengths.
After settling into the decrepit, Nixon-era glory of the Yala Rama Hotel (which features nine stories of darkened hallways and cigarette-burned carpets), I went for a lengthy amble around town. My first stop is the Muslim market, a patch of mostly produce stalls strung out along a dusty midway. It feels nothing like a Thai market – there’s none of the vibrancy, none of the sense of communal life – and there seems to be relatively little buying and selling going on. Women in black hijabs guard their bags of and cashews and dates (a rarity everywhere else in Thailand) and shield themselves against the blistering afternoon sun. After about fifteen stalls, the midway transforms into a tangle of ruined stalls, burned wood, and trash blowing around in the wind, with dogs foraging in the refuse.
The region’s poverty is often mentioned as a catalyst for Islamism. Wedged between the relative wealth of Songkhla Province to the Northwest and even wealthier Malaysia to the South and East, the Muslim provinces seem stuck, neglected by the Central Thai government and separated from predominantly Malay Muslim government in Kuala Lumpur. Years of “Thaification” programs – developed by the Bangkok government to discourage use of regional languages, assimilate ethnic minorities into the Central Thai-dominated national culture, and promote Theravada Buddhist prayer in government schools – have served to alienate the local populace further. A taxi ride through the Muslim villages shows just how poor the locals seem to be. The road is lined with tin shacks encircled in barbed wire and sandbags, and any kind of commercial, industrial, or agricultural infrastructure is virtually nonexistent.
I met a handful of people in my few days in Yala – mostly Muslim, some Buddhist. Few Southerners speak English, and even Thai functions as a lingua franca rather than a common household tongue. In halting Thai, the Muslims I met emphasized that their city wasn’t a bad place, and how it mostly just got bad press from the Bangkok media. A tea shop owner took pains to tell me how the world would be better if Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists all cooperated. A taxi driver told me how, as a young man, he wanted to study in America, but his salary of 6000 baht (about $175) a month prevented it. The Buddhists I met were a bit less keen on their city. I told them it was nice, and they insisted that it was too dangerous. When I told them the main purpose of my visit was to see the 8th Century Buddha statues in the caves at Wat Khuhaphimuk, they became significantly more receptive. The notion of a tourist visiting a temple, so common in the rest of the country, seemed fairly foreign down here. Most people assumed that I was coming there as a pilgrim wanting to pay my respects to the dharma rather than as an ignorant American wanting to rubberneck at the symbols of their most deeply held beliefs.
Like many Americans, I had an extremely rosy view of Buddhism when I left. That view was reinforced the first month or so I was in the country. But over time, as my perspectives on the culture became more acute, I learned how goddamn hateful Buddhists can be. Though Buddhism itself professes the innate temporality and non-essentiality of being, the Thai government has used the religion as an excuse for extreme nationalism, military coup after military coup, brutal suppression of Leftist movements, insularity, xenophobia, exploitation of neighbor states, and the dismantling of democratic institutions. In regards to the Deep South, national prejudices have really emerged.
A reconciliation program was promoted by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun to give semi-autonomy to the region, promote the local dialect of Malay as a working language, and provide environmental, educational, and economic support, but it was met with stiff resistance from all over the political spectrum. Former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, one of the great Ã©minences grises of Thai politics, declared the proposal unacceptable, stating, “The country is Thai and the language is Thai,” according to Thai paper The Nation. Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who led the opposition to Prem’s Democrat Party, made a nearly identical statement, saying, according to the India-based Daily Excelsior, “No one can have autonomy within Thailand. This is Thailand. Nobody can separate even one square inch from the country” – this coming from the man who commissioned the development of the reconciliation program.
There are few experiences worse than waking up to a sunset. Nothing is more draining – waking up to fading light, unsure what time it is, barely aware of where you are. But on a warm Sunday evening in Yala, the effect was somehow softened by the call to evening prayer. I sat up, my ear cocked towards the open window. That’s one human voice, I thought. Reverberating through an entire city. At times, it seemed almost inhuman, transforming into a cry. And then, without a seeming conclusion, it dissipated, and Yala was quiet once again.
As I walked around town looking for dinner, the city seemed infinitely more sinister. The streets became completely lifeless. Stores shut early, and the few restaurants that stayed open after 7 seemed as bleak and lonely as a diner in an Edward Hopper painting. I walked up and down the length of the city. There were so many half-demolished (or maybe half-finished) buildings, only existing as concrete armatures beginning to be reclaimed by the jungle. I stopped at a 7-11 (there are more in Thailand than I ever saw in Iowa), only to find the shelves broken and nearly empty. A few thick-necked soldiers were buying big bottles of Beer Chang, and the transsexual cashier painted her nails, looking tired. Even the dogs seemed more vicious and territorial.
Within the country, the “situation”, as Thais euphemistically refer to it, gets quite a bit of press. The two primary English-language papers in the country, The Nation and the Bangkok Post, both devote a significant amount of space to the insurgency. In addition to the resistance to any kind of reconciliation, many Thais favor more extreme measures. The military has suggested the need for greater force and continuation of martial law in the region. Politicians have suggested a wall along the Thai-Malaysian border, and a Bangkok Post poll suggested that half of readers agree. The general attitude seems to be that the only solution is to not only defeat the insurgents, but also to fully assimilate any kind of cultural difference.
In Yala, the threat of violence was always there, but only once did I witness any kind of military action. On my last night in town, I was walking home from an excellent dinner of local mussels and green curry, washed down with many cups of jasmine tea. As I approached my hotel, I saw a flashing light in the street. Perplexed, I walked toward it, and saw that a blockade had been set up across the street. I started walking slowly, and an amphibious assault vehicle pulled in from around a corner. A soldier jumped out, gun in hand. As he stepped into the street, he signaled. In unified motion, ten or fifteen soldiers ran out of the vehicle, guns pointed, and stormed into a nearby shop.
We know relatively little about the actual persons perpetrating terrorist attacks in Thailand’s Far South. Captured combatants have said that they were completely kept in the dark about the power structure beyond their own cell. Recently, it was discovered that PULO is connected to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terrorist group responsible for the recent bombings in Jakarta, as well as a litany of attacks throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Jemaah Islamiyah is, in turn, reported to have connections to al-Qaeda. But considering the invisibility of the group, we cannot know how valid any of this information is. And any discoveries about its structure and identity will be of little comfort to the people of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces.
It wasn’t too long ago that a Muslim from Yala rose to become one of the nation’s most powerful members of parliament. For now, however, the twin forces of Thai racism and constant risk of violence have taken their toll. The lives of people in Thailand’s Deep South are ruled by a brutal certainty and an equally brutal uncertainty; their lives are controlled by the stasis of perennial poverty and the contingency and horror of insurgency.