A few miles from Thailand’s sundrenched vacation destination beaches, one of Asia’s bloodiest conflicts is raging. Muslim separatists fight for independence and against an oppressive military dictatorship.
Av Nils Resare 30 september, 2015
The woman on the other side of the street looks calm, borderline apathetic. She has an unopened bottle of mineral water in front of her on the tile-topped concrete table outside of the karaoke bar she owns. She speaks in a low voice. Her story comes in spurts, in fragments—when the memories return.
In the street, a few feet away, are the remains of two wrecked motorcycles. Some parts are found as far away as 50 yards from the scene. In a pool of dried blood lay a lady’s shoe; it is tan with a bow above the peep-toe and a butterfly print on the inner sole. Inside the bar, everything is dark and empty aside from two half-full whiskey glasses on the counter.
Last night the woman, who prefers to remain unnamed and un-photographed sat right here, in front of her karaoke bar, talking on her cellphone. The sun was almost down, and the first patrons had begun walking through the doors on the popular bar-filled street. And then it happened. Blam! She fell backwards and the large windows burst into a rain of glass. For a long while, she couldn’t hear anything.
The bomb came from a parked motorcycle, just outside another karaoke bar across the street, about 15 yards from where the woman was sitting.
It was the first time the small city Padang Besar had become a target of the violence that so far has killed more than 6,000 people in southern Thailand. That particular night, seven bombs detonated at the same time in different cities.
This is party row, home to a long string of karaoke bars and other establishments. It is usually packed with people drinking alcohol and buying sex, as these karaoke bars that are also poorly-disguised brothels. Last night, the music was pumping as usual and in the bar across the street, the customers had just ordered whiskey refills. The prostitutes were flirting and performing risqué dances.
“It sounded like fireworks,” the woman at the concrete table says.
She was probably out of it for a while after the blast, but when she came to, there was blood everywhere. She knew one of the victims, the owner of the bombed bar. They had worked together in the past.
Now all the bodies have been removed and a few police officers are poking around in the rubble. A little ways down the street, the local press corps has built a temporary headquarters in a tent as shelter from the tropical rain.
The woman at the concrete table points at her forehead and says:
“I was hit here by a piece of a motorcycle.”
She is afraid now. She has only lived in Padang Besar for one year, but she is going to move.
“But I don’t know where I am going,” she says.
In the early 1900s Thailand occupied the independent provinces Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and Songkhla and incorporated them into its kingdom. Several organizations took up arms to liberate the southern regions from the rule in Bangkok, feeling oppressed by the central government.
It would take decades, all the way into the 1960s, before the fight for independence got real traction. Here in the south, the population was mostly made up of Muslims and Malaysians who sympathize more with Malaysia than the Buddhist Thailand. For many of them, the dream of the old princely province “Pattani” is still alive. Most people in this region speak Malaysian as their primary language, not Thai. But Malaysian is not an officially recognized language and is not allowed in school. Conflict between the Muslim separatists, the group called the Malay movement by the locals, and the Thai government, has flared up several times over the years. Sometimes it shows as peaceful demonstrations, other times in the form of violent attacks.
In April 2004, the violence escalated. Severely. After a number of attacks on government buildings and military checkpoints by the separatists, the Royal Thai Armed Forces struck back. A group of about 30 separatists took refuge into the Krue Se Mosque on the border of Pattani while sporadic gunfire lasted for nine hours. Then the army stormed the mosque.
On YouTube there is a surreptitiously filmed clip of the attack. The clip, which looks to be recorded by a cell phone, shows how the army rolls in with tanks and used mortars against the mosque.
The separatists didn’t die in the heavy artillery fire but were shot in the head, execution-style, one by one. More than one hundred separatists died that day.
The Thai government has banned all viewing of the clip and does its best to spread another, more positive, picture of what happened. But nobody in the southern regions will forget the massacre at Krue Se Mosque, known as “the incident” by the locals.
Despite the fact that eleven years has passed since the attack, those responsible have not been brought to justice. There was an independent investigation, which concluded that the army had out-gunned and used excessive violence against the separatists—but nothing ever came of it.
Meanwhile, the separatists are not innocent either, and their methods are brutal. They regularly blow up public establishments, murder Buddhist monks and shoot and kill teachers on their way to and from work. More than 100 teachers have been executed in recent years and organizations such as Human Rights Watch have demanded an end to the killings of civilians.
The bombings and murders have caused the Royal Thai Armed Forces to mobilize 60,000 troops in the south. There presence is everywhere. The conflict hotbed is located just 10-20 miles from the paradisiacal islands where Northern Europeans vacation every year. Still, the political unrest is unknown to most.
The Bangkok Airport is a scandal-riddled folly built on an unstable foundation. Enormous spherical arcs create powerful natural lighting in the arrival hall. As some form of concession to the client, the architect has been forced to accept a number of gaudy golden Buddhist art works, scattered here and there in the otherwise austere and modernist terminals.
The offices of the low-budget airline “Thai Smile Airways” are located upstairs. The woman behind a counter does her best to live up to the message of the brand and immediately starts chitchatting and giggling. In a blink of an eye, she has managed to sell me a cup of coffee bearing the airline logo. But when I want to buy a ticket to Pattani, she gets serious and almost looks offended.
“You can’t go there,” she says.
The situation has infected the southern regions. Many Bangkok residents are afraid and would never travel there—the south is associated with misery and violent death. Years of media reports and state propaganda have created hatred for the Muslim separatists. Despite its idyllic location by the warm, turquoise ocean and the tropical climate, the Pattani province is not a tourist destination to the people in Bangkok.
Peace negotiations between the separatists and the Thai government are happening behind locked doors in neighboring Malaysia. But so far no one believes that these negotiations would reduce the violence; the warring parties are still on opposite sides of the spectrum. But there is a glimpse of hope, as they are at least talking after years of silence.
After a little searching, I find a ticket to Hat Yai, a city near Pattai, and arrive by car in the middle of the Muslim Holiday, Ramadan. According to some, this is a time when the violence from the separatist movements intensifies. But there is nothing that supports that statistically. The attacks, which most often are cold-blooded murders or bombings, do not follow any particular pattern. The violence comes in waves—the only certainty is that the number of attacks has increased recently, but that depends on how you count and whom you ask.
I check in to the big hotel, CS, in central Pattani. Though it’s high-end standard, complete with swimming pool and a large restaurant, it’s no more expensive than the one-star hotels in Bangkok. And, there are plenty of rooms available.
“Jump!” a leather-faced drillmaster yells to the female recruit.
The woman looksdown the steep cliff, petrified, then takes a few careful steps toward the edge and tightly clutches the rope.
The recruits, dressed in black uniforms, are ready to repel down the cliff by rope, but the exercise isn’t going too well and the tone of the commander’s voice is getting more and more irritated. The recruits are hesitant, dithering and don’t quite manage to muster the battle cries they are ordered to yell when launching off the cliff.
This is a place where some of the soldiers charged with maintaining peace in the conflict-riddled southern regions are drilled. The regiment, which belongs to the Royal Thai Armed Forces 46th Ranger Battalion, is positioned in a well-manicured green area surrounded by tall tropical trees. Seven automatic rifles are propped up against a large block of stone.
In some of the buildings that are scattered around the lush area there are also detention rooms where they Army interrogates accused separatists. I’m not allowed to go near these. But they have no problem with letting a photographer, snap shots of the exercise with the recruits.
The Colonel assigned as our guide points out that there are almost as many women as there are men among the recruits. The women will, among other things, serve at checkpoints where the Army inspects cars and body searches suspicious individuals.
The female soldiers are less confrontational, therefore causing less problems with the local population, the Colonel adds. A recent tactic by the Thai Army is to win the “hearts and minds” of the people, to be a good and peaceful alternative—a tactic that grew from the disaster at the Krue Se Mosque in 2004.
One example: During the evening prayer at the Krue Se, which is just outside of Pattani, the Army has a kiosk outside where they distribute free tea and bread smothered in sweet condensed milk. The army does more elaborate things, too. In some cases the elderly have received free dental care and eye operations paid for by the army.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces, also called the military junta, have increased their defense budget tremendously, buying huge amounts of modern weapons—a great deal of which come from Sweden. In recent years, Thailand has become one of the biggest purchasers of Swedish weaponry in the world.
The conflict in the south has been debated a couple of times in Swedish parliament. Several members of parliament have argued that Thailand is a country far too unstable to handle high-tech Swedish missiles, grenade launchers and fighter planes. Sources within the junta have even said that the twelve JAS-39 Gripen planes lined up at an air base in the south very well could be used against the Muslim separatists.
The Colonel shows us into a large air-conditioned conference room, which is used by the top officers in the Royal Thai Armed Forces. It’s modern, with small microphones at every seat.
The Power Point presentation is long. A nationalistic pop song, recorded by the junta leader and self-appointed prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a coup d’ état in 2013, is looping in the background. Our guide, the Colonel, clicks us through the slides and unexpectedly begins talking about King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The aging Thai monarch is supposedly the brain behind the way the conflict in the south is handled, the Colonel says.
The King’s strategy is that the goal of peaceful coexistence is reached by meeting the needs of the population. This way the Army can uphold safety for all ethnic groups, not just the Buddhists. The Colonel also says that this method has already proven successful since the number of incidents has steadily decreased. According to him, the situation has improved.
I object to this and bring up some of serious bombings in the city of Yala. Several houses were completely destroyed and many were injured.
The Colonel’s response is as cryptic as it’s diplomatic. He is careful to not put the blame on anyone, stir up hatred, or point a finger at any one ethnic group.
“The incidents were carried out by persons who are thinking and acting differently than the state,” he says.
I ask what type of conflict is going on in Thailand. Would he call it a war?
“This is no war,” the Colonel says. “These people, who are of a different mindset than the state, they just want to instill fear. They are lacking modern weaponry, and if they have any weapons at all, they were stolen from the army.”
A steep wooden ladder leads us up to the combination living room/ bedroom. Bright sunshine sprinkles in through the cracks of the walls and roof. A simple wooden panel separates the private from the public. On the floor a pink fan whisks around the midday heat.
We are sitting on the floor and Mrs. Sitinor tells us about her husband. She wears an indigo blue hijab and a black dress. Eleven years have passed since her husband was arrested. He was captured the same day as the Krue Se Mosque attack, back in 2004, but in a different place. The husband was supposed to assist a friend in cutting down some trees. He was told to drive the car; someone else showed him the way. When they made a stop, they were attacked by gunfire and Mrs. Sitinor’s husband was hit. Then he was arrested and taken to an army hospital. He was the lone survivor.
Mrs. Sitinor’s husband was convicted of murder. Despite his two appeal attempts, he is still in prison—for life.
The chance that his case will be examined again is minimal. Since 2004, the southern provinces are under martial law, which enables police and military to carry out arbitrary arrests in order to control the separatists. Human rights are curtailed in a number of ways.
Reports from human rights organizations suggest that torture, for example, is routine in the interrogations of suspects. Cross Cultural Foundation, one of the human rights organizations, has reported about 100 cases and alerted the UN.
Mrs. Sitinor is convinced that her husband is innocent and that he did not receive a fair trial. She visits him every Monday and Thursday. They are allowed to talk.
“He is not a warrior. He was invited by a friend to drive the car, that’s all he did,” she says despondently.
After Mrs. Sitinor’s husband was imprisoned, the family fell on hard times. They were dependent on his income from the rubber plantation. Since he is labeled a terrorist, the family is not allowed any financial support by the state.
But after some time she was given a little help from a charity which specializes in helping the families of imprisoned separatists. Mrs. Sitinor could not make it without them.
She says her husband now looks healthy when she visits him; the Red Cross has looked after him. But Mrs. Sitinor knows that he’s been beaten in prison. She misses him every day. He’ll soon turn 45.
We drive down a road, pass a village and turn onto a gravel path, which leads to a school. It’s about 3 pm and school has just let out. The military and members of the civilian guard are here—just like they have been every school day, morning and night, for the past 10 years.
This school has been fortunate enough to escape attacks. It’s the threats of incidents that motivate the army’s presence. The commando soldiers carry modern American weapons, including M16s, which they proudly show off. One captain hands me a cartridge.
“Look, dumdum bullet. Make big holes,” he says and laughs.
The members of the civilian guard have simpler weapons and keep their distance.
First, the children are escorted home. Some students are picked up by their parents on mopeds, others walk—flanked by black uniformed soldiers with machine guns. The armed civilians stand guard by the main road.
After the students, it’s the teachers’ turns. Two of them, Aseeroh and Vlee-ana, sit at a table in the shade. We get a few minutes to talk while waiting for the children to be taken home safely. Aseeroh and Vlee-ana are Muslim and both wear hijabs. They are English teachers but their vocabulary is so poor that we have to use an interpreter to understand each other.
How does it feel to be escorted to and from work every day?
“It feels good. It makes us feel safe. It’s dangerous here,” Aseeroh says.
But nothing has ever happened here?
“No, not here, but in other places. And when other attacks happen, they close this school too,” she says.
Have you thought about switching jobs to something less dangerous?
“No, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. If I don’t do my job, the children do not get an education,” she says.
Out by the main road, three men from the neighboring village stand guard. They are part of the citizen guard, “the village defenders”. In total, they are 30 men who watch the school 24/7.
Najudi, who is 34 years old, has helped with the school’s safety for five years.
“I want to help maintain peace,” he says.
His regular job is at the rubber plantation and farming. For guarding the school, he gets a small compensation, which is enough to supply him with tea. The state pays out a larger fee to the village, which covers the efforts of the citizen guard. The men tell me that they have received a few months of weapons training, but they have never been forced to use it.
Like most inhabitants in this region, the members of “the village defenders” are Muslims.
In recent years, the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Ministry of the Interior have handed out weapons by the truckloads to the civilian population. Normally, the civilians get a lesson in weapons handling and a shorter training session before they are trusted with rifles in their homes.
The civilian guard has also been trusted with some responsibilities of the army. Among other things, they are in charge of roadblocks and they have been given authority to arrest and detain those they suspect are separatists.
These actions have been criticized by experts, who fear that it will lead to increased violence in the region. They also argue that it is hard for the army to assure the weapons end up in the right hands.
I ask Najudi, with the citizen’s guard, what he thinks about the separatists attacking Muslim teachers.
“I do not have an opinion on that,” he says, avoiding eye contact.
It is impossible to determine if the question was too candid, or if he actually doesn’t have an opinion in the matter.
We have been in the car for a long time now. We drive through the countryside and the grass along the roadside is burnt. We pass villages and small townships water buffaloes and children in school uniforms. We don’t know where we are going nor whom we are going to meet. The driver constantly checks the rearview mirror. Nobody can be following us.
It’s taken several days to negotiate a meeting with the separatists, or” the Malay movement,” which is what the locals think they should be called. The terms for the meeting are clear. No pictures, no recordings, no names. The army is on a witch hunt for separatists. Those who are captured are beaten and tortured.
The movement is divided into three factions that work closely together. There are about 1,000 individuals in the movement. Two of the leaders live in Sweden and one in Malaysia.
After about one hour, the car finally stops outside of an office building with a light grey façade.
We are greeted by a middle-aged man, who is neatly dressed wearing a brown embroidered hat. We are served soda in plastic cups and sit down in an almost bare room with shiny marble floors. The upholstered red vinyl chairs give off a hissing sound as we sit on them.
The man who greeted us tells us the fight became his calling after the massacre at the Krue Se Mosque in 2004. He does not give the impression of a fanatic, but rather resembles a determined teacher explains the state of things to his students.
According to data from the research institute Deep South Watch, the separatists only have about 20–30 percent of the population’s support. Many are denouncing the violence and even more people support the idea of some form of non-violent independence from Bangkok.
The separatists say otherwise. According to them, the movement is supported 100 percent by the people in the south. The land here belongs to its inhabitants and everyone wants to take it back from Thailand. The PR campaigns to win over the locals by the Thai Army are worthless, he says.
“The Army cannot change the way people think. The people of the south consider this land theirs.”
What is your strategy to win over the army and gain autonomy?
“Before, we used guns and attacked Thai soldiers. It didn’t do much. Now we are waging a ”city war” instead.
Do you gain sympathy for your cause that way, by blowing up houses and killing civilians?
“We have big support for this strategy. If the people didn’t support us, we couldn’t continue. Ever since the incident in 2004, the government has pushed us into a corner; they have set up roadblocks and checkpoints, and sent a lot of troops here. The people of the south don’t like it.
Who supports you financially?
“We collect money from the local population. We buy weapons from neighboring countries and we have collected some from the Thai Army after having killed their soldiers.”
Have you received support from ISIS?
“We have asked for their support in the past. They came here, but the personal chemistry did not work at all. We are not like them and we do not accept help or support from them. There are, however, other groups in Syria we would consider accepting support from.”
The man takes a sip of his orange-flavored soda and explains that the movement isn’t made up of Jihadists.
“Everyone should be able to live and thrive in Pattani, even those who are not Muslim. Before the Thai took over the south, there were Buddhists living in the region, just like they do in Malaysia. All religions should be able to coexist like they do in Malaysia and India.
But why do you kill Buddhist leaders and monks, then?
“That was last year, and those actions came more out of attacks of revenge because we had people murdered by the Army. But now we do not keep such a policy.”
And why do you murder teachers?
“The teachers we killed were trained by the army to be spies and intended to infiltrate the villages. This also involved Muslims, who worked for the Army. We do not kill teachers who are not spies.”
“We do not kill civilians. When we detonated 30 bombs in Yala, no victims were civilians. That was important to us.”
Will this conflict turn into a conventional war?
“I don’t know. In its current state, the movement is less equipped than the state. We do not have the resources to wage a full-scale war.
The arming of civilians by the Thai Army could be considered a threat against the movement. That could turn the people in the area against the separatists. But this doesn’t seem to worry the man with the brown embroidered hat. The people are on their side.
“When that happens, all we will do is collect the weapons from the civilians. That won’t be hard.”
Do you see any possibilities for a peaceful solution?
“That’s hard to say. That depends on the Thai state. As soon as they return our country to us, peace can prevail.”
What’s your view on the fact that Sweden is selling weapons to Thailand?
What would be the point of blowing up a karaoke bar?
The woman at the tile-topped concrete table thinks for a minute.
“Maybe they are after the police officers who have frequented my place, I don’t know.”
The glass shards from the blown out glass windows are cleaned up now, but she still hasn’t gotten any new panes. I walk around among motorcycle parts and rubble. Every day life has begun to return in Padang Besar. Several karaoke bars have opened again. It is business as usual.
The police investigators are methodically collecting evidence from the bombed building and surroundings. Soon they will remove the white-and-red striped tape and roadblocks. Nobody knows why it was a karaoke bar that was the target this time. Has the movement changed strategies? Why were civilians killed? Are they beginning to wage war against the extensive sex industry in Thailand? Nobody knows.
I ask the woman by the concrete table (the karaoke bar owner) what her feelings are toward the separatists.
“I do not have an opinion on that,” she says, avoiding eye contact.
It is impossible to determine if the question was too candid, or if she actually doesn’t have an opinion in the matter.
Stockholm, September 30, 2015