Thai soldiers patrol a market in Pattani.
Do you know about the trouble in Thailand? I ask the question because when I talk with friends and family in America, I find many people who know little to nothing about it. Even journalists who work at newspapers say their only knowledge is the occasional blurb that comes across the wires. It’s not a widely covered story. It’s called an Islamic insurgency, but it has the markings of war: shattered homes and darkened streets, fear and blood, anger and innocent lives lost. Every day, it’s something new. This morning’s news: a fruit vendor, his small son and daughter were killed in an ambush on the family pick-up truck.
A night watchman on a deserted sidewalk, where he guards a building belonging to his employer, staying in another town.
For four years, violence has engulfed Thailand’s largely Muslim provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. More than 3,500 people have died in bombings, shootings, knife attacks, beheadings and assassinations. Jerry and I visited Pattani last year, and ever since I have tried to keep tabs on the situation. I wonder about the people we met.
A Pattani police station with a wall of photos labeled, “picture collection of the dead in 2005.”
This is a region long rife with tension. It is more Muslim than Buddhist; more Malay than Thai. The predominant language is Yawi. Yet a sizeable Chinese population takes root here as well. As everywhere, the history goes back centuries. Before 1902, the region belonged to the independent sultanate of Patani, until Thailand annexed the land. A policy of assimilation angered many. Cultures and ideologies have clashed ever since in on-again, off-again conflict, and separatists have fought for an independent land.
This time (as in, the last four years) the attacks started with a few key incidents. But the situation has far surpassed tidy explanation or definition. In the South, everyone fears. Violence terrifies Buddhists and Muslims alike. Our guide, a kind young Muslim woman named Wilaiwan, said her family did not drive at night. Like most Pattani residents, they were wary. They lived their lives with ever-watchful eyes. â€œPeople who see the incidents are afraid to tell the police, so the bad people get away,” Wilaiwan said. “The difficult thing is we don’t know who is who.”
Pattani shops close early. Come nightfall, most streets are empty, with residents locked inside.
It wasn’t always this way. Not long ago, the street near Pattaniâ€™s Leng Chu Kiang Shrine thrived with Chinese tourists from across the region. â€œIn the past, this was the heart of Pattani,â€ said a forlorn shopkeeper who sold dried fish and foodstuffs near the shrine. â€œSince the violence, there are not as many tourists.â€ None at all that day. The Leng Chu Kiang Shrine stood empty on a dazzling avenue of Malay-style homes and Chinese shops, adorned with bright dragons and rainbow-colored walls. I pulled up a chair at a nearby tea shop, where four Chinese men invited me to talk. They sipped from their mid-morning mugs, lamenting the times. They couldnâ€™t even go for their daily jogs anymore, they told me, since insurgents had started shooting runners.
One of few street stalls open for dinner
At night, only a few street stalls and the road leading to the university remained open. All else closed early. I found myself interviewing residents and shopkeepers who, unbeknown to me, had locked us inside their homes and offices by 5 p.m. When they unlocked their doors to let us out, we found barren streets beneath a fading sun. Creepy. Eerie. Sad.
And what a shame, too. These lands along an empty coast boasted clear skies and the faint salty air of the ocean. Were it not for the violence, I would love to spend my time and explore. And eat. Great foodâ€”lots and lots of great Melayu foodâ€”a regionally distinct mix of Malay and Thai; of pungent fish contrasted with sweet elements, and a host of fruits and vegetables that thrive in the South.
But I don’t think an extended stay will happen anytime soon.
Wilaiwan took us on a tour of the local market, where soldiers patrolled. People stared at us. They asked questions. They were leery of our presence. â€œI am afraid to tell them you are American because I donâ€™t know what they think,” Wilaiwan told me later. â€œCan I speak frankly?â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t like George W. Bush. I donâ€™t like his policies. And people here? Not just â€˜donâ€™t like.â€™ They hate him.â€ Wilaiwan understood the difference between a president and his people, but she wasn’t sure others in Pattani did.
Throughout the war on terror, Jerry and I have traveled rather frequently through Asiaâ€™s Muslim areas, and our place of origin is unfailingly a conversation-stopper. â€œWhere are you from?â€ As soon as we say, â€œUSA,â€ smiles fade, faces drop and talk ceases. Jerry says he tries to do his part to improve Americaâ€™s overseas image. But it’s a difficult image to overcome. â€œYour president makes difficulty to American people who live around the world,â€ Wilaiwan said.
I haven’t heard from Wilaiwan in quite a while. I’ve tried emailing her, but she hasn’t responded to my most recent messages. I would like to think these scenes, pictured above, have improved in the intervening months. But a death toll several hundred higher and near-daily reports of further bombings and shootings make me think it isn’t so.