Welcome to the red zone. An emergency decree has just been extended, and the hostile deep south of Thailand remains under Martial law.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, are on the Thai side of the Thai-Malaysian border. In a majority Buddhist country, these three provinces are around 80% Muslim. For the past 5 years these 3 provinces have been the center of a conflict whereby, according to Songkhla University, over 12,500 violent incidents have left over 10,000 people have injured or killed. The far south of Thailand has been experiencing almost daily incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence including incidents attributed to armed local separatist groups.
Ethnic separatist insugency is taking place right to this very moment. There are a few causes as to how this conflict came about, as historically, some of it are based on a 200 year old "occupation" as well as the resettlement of the northeastern Thais in the 60's. Added to that, allegations of violent and senseless police brutality, crimes, and also impudence towards Islam. Compounded with the emergence of bars, drug trafficking and corruption further fueled the flames of animosity and tension in the region. Drug trafficking seems to be the most likely cause however for this insurgency.
Patani separatist groups, or the Patani United Liberation Organization(PULO) as it is known, emerged in 2001 with their use of intense and turbulent tactics to such a devastating effect. There were motions of the PULO having links with other terrorist organisations, similarly Al-Qaeda, and JI. Reports even suggest that some of their militants even received training in Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda centers are also based.
To give a better picture of the extent of the conflict, these incidents occurred during the week I was there:
A ten-man military patrol was ambushed in Narathiwat, involving a remote-controlled bomb and gunfire from an undetermined number of assailants.
A village defence volunteer was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Suspected Muslim insurgents killed a man and seriously wounded a paramilitary ranger in separate attacks in Yala and Narathiwat.
A soldier was seriously injured when a roadside bomb exploded in Narathiwat’s Jo-irong district.
Two police officers were wounded in a bombing near southern Thailand's Ruso district train station in the violence-impacted province of Narathiwat.
A ranger was killed and 28 other people, among them civilians, were injured in a car bomb explosion in Yala.
I’m greeted by military checkpoints every few kilometers. At every checkpoint, stacks of military sandbags and soldiers with automatic rifles check vehicles for bombs and weaponry. Photography isn’t allowed, as any information the insurgents obtain might be critical. Being the first and only Singaporean to venture into the conflict area, i didn't know what to expect. I'm so lucky that the soldiers didn't confiscate my camera, and allowed me to bring my photos home :)
Nightfall. The low drone of Islamic chant sounds throughout the city. I sit on a mat spread out along the sidewalk. A car screeching nearby makes me realize I’m a nervous wreck. My peripheral vision is heightened and I find myself in a constant state of alert.
Despite all the warnings from military personnel and Thai civilians, here I am in Narathiwat, set to head out into Yala and Pattani. I hope my photos bring awareness to the lives and torments of the people of the deep south.
Teachers are lined up in firing lines, and the region in Thailand’s south has been dubbed 'one of the most dangerous places in the world to teach'.
“In the morning when they go to school, the teachers never know whether they will come back in the evening”
- Bunsom Thongsriprai
2004 - After Muslim militants raided an army depot in Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and taking 300 weapons, the military went on the offensive against separatist groups, leading to an attack on the ancient Krue Sae Mosque, which killed 32. A further 78 people died from suffocation and injuries while being taken to prison.
2009 - Six unidentified assailants wearing ski masks opened fire Monday on both entrances of a mosque while about 100 Thai Muslims were attending evening prayers in the Cho Ai-rong district of Narathiwat province, killing 11 people.
Soldiers are killed almost daily, from incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence. Yet still, brave young soldiers continue to risk their lives.