NARATHIWAT – The South of Thailand may not be as menacing or as ominous as places like Kabul and Iraq, but that does not mean that danger and violence is not an everyday reality for the people who live there.
Rebel groups will rarely target the civilian population, but collateral damage is all too real a threat for the people of Thailand’s three southern border provinces. This is especially true for civil servants – locals that carry out the government’s work in an area that is desperately fighting for autonomy.
For simply doing your job as a government worker, you can end up being dragged out of your car and shot in the neck.
But this is what happens. During the course of filming there were at least three violent clashes between the military and separatist rebels.
The threat is so strong that the government has organized a semi militia of sorts, arming groups of civilians with pistols and shotguns. Shotguns I might add, can’t be the best weapon for self-defense. I was taught to shoot both types of gun during filming, and the sheer force of firing the shotgun has put me off guns for life.
All this danger is stark contrast to the deceptive beauty of the region. There are pristine beaches, beautiful temples, ancient mosques but none of the usual tourist rabble. If it weren’t for the car bombs and drive-by shootings, southern Thailand would be a tourist’s paradise.
But there are no tourists. Neither Thais nor foreigners visit southern Thailand because of its fearsome reputation.
There are many misunderstandings about southern Thailand. Phrases like ‘Muslim insurgency’ and ‘Islamic terrorists’ get flung around all too easily. It’s far simpler to label the situation as a religious conflict because that’s what people are familiar with. But that is what is hindering the path to peace.
To understand the conflict in the Deep South we need to recognize that it is an ethnic conflict over sovereignty of land between the Thai state and the locals. The locals just happen to be Muslim.
Regardless, religion remains the focus point of the authorities’ efforts to end the violence. Just last week, Thai government schools have been discussing a ban on women wearing hijabs in school – a policy that will further go to alienate Thai-Muslims without addressing the real issues plaguing the south.
Despite living in the Muslim majority south, where they should have developed a better understanding of the situation, local Thai-Buddhists are not exempt from stereotyping the enemy.
During the episode, I meet an armed volunteer group that patrols local villages. The group is made up exclusively of Thai-Buddhists, and when I asked them why, they explained that they could not trust Muslims.
I found this a real shame. Buddhists and Muslims are not enemies. This decades-long conflict is an issue of sovereignty. The Kingdom of Pattani that covered the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat will likely never be re-established, but some level of autonomy could be reached if there is an end to the demonetization of Muslims and a better understanding of the true grievances of the people that live there.
Perhaps then everyone can enjoy this beach-filled paradise, and we can stop referring to it as a danger zone.
Arglit Boonyai is a foreign correspondent and the host of Danger Zone. Watch his journey to Southern Thailand on Channel NewsAsia, Apr 28, at 8pm SG/HK.