UNLIKE ANY OTHER
A Journey Into Thailand's Separatist South Part III: In the Eye of the Storm of the Muslim Rebellion
I don’t know what I was expecting: a war zone, or perhaps a military stronghold. Instead, it strikes me that Pattani would be a tourist hot-spot were it not for its reputation.
The Pattani bus stand is a little out of town, swathed in greenery, which trembles slightly on the breeze, seemingly excited by the prospect of rain. I take a motorcycle taxi into the center of town, hanging off the back with my backpack and satchel bag, racing against the same prospect. Characteristically, my driver gets lost, parking out the front of the grand mosque, the largest in the country, in order to ask for directions. The stop serves as an unexpected sightseeing opportunity, not only for me, but also for the locals, who eye me curiously, as though they’ve never seen a tourist here before. It’s entirely possible they haven’t.
A couple of them wander over to say hello and to point us in the right direction. The direction in which they eventually do so doesn’t turn out to be that. I walk into the building that's supposed to be my hotel and the owner shakes her head: This is a massage parlor, she says, and a watering hole. Hush-hush, of course, though if I’m ever in need of whisky... She comes out and exchanges words with the driver, who, having realized his mistake, laughs.
The rains are coming quickly now, the clouds marshaling their forces. From the balcony of my hotel, the Rooms Residence near the provincial hospital, it all seems very fitting. As far as the southern Thai insurgency is concerned, Pattani is the eye of the storm.
In April 2017, Thailand's military government, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, rejected the terms of talks proposed by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of southern Thailand's largest insurgent groups. The government, which came to power in a 2014 coup against the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, put it plainly, in terms immediately familiar to anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock since Sept. 11, 2001. They refused to negotiate with terrorists. That the military has a dog in this fight—the insurgency gives it something to do—seemed not to rate much of a mention in the press. The result, in any case, was carnage: The following month, two bombs exploded at Pattani’s Big C supermarket, injuring more than 60. Police said it was a “miracle” that no one had been killed. The BRN, which was formed in 1963, claimed responsibility.
Nevertheless, I am here during a relative lull: Region-wide, the number of insurgency-related incidents has dropped from over 4000 in 2007 to an estimated 500 in 2017. Some have suggested the year-long period of national mourning for the former king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, has played a role in the quiet, though it’s difficult to know for sure. It’s always possible that everyone’s merely biding their time, regrouping for the next inevitable uptick. By August 2018, long after my departure from the region, unidentified gunmen will again be wreaking havoc throughout it, killing village defense volunteers, security personnel, and Buddhist civilians in a series of drive-bys and home invasions.
Yet Pattani is rather nicer than I expected. After the charming decrepitude of Sungai Kolok, and the withering blandness of Narathiwat, I don’t know what I was expecting: a war zone, probably, or perhaps a military stronghold. Instead, I am reminded a little of Hội An, the Disney-esque simulacrum of Vietnam’s glory days on that country’s central coast, only without several hundred thousand tourists around to ruin the experience for people like me, which is to say other, cooler tourists. It strikes me that Pattani would indeed be such a tourist hot-spot were it not for its reputation. I can easily imagine the restaurants along the Pattani River, fairy lights strung out between them through the trees, full of middle-aged American couples and German gap-year backpackers, drinking Singha and Chang and having a grand old time of it. That day, though, is still a long way off. It is clear from the looks I’m getting, as I walk down Samakhee Road, that the locals haven’t seen a gap-year backpacker for some time.
At the Benchama Rachuthit School, where joggers are doing laps around the grounds, the Phleng chāt Thai begins in earnest. I am surprised, and possibly a little relieved, to see the joggers stop and acknowledge the national anthem. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. Like Sungai Kolok and Narathiwat before it, Pattani has been militarized to within an inch of its life: Roadblocks stand at the head of every bridge, and military vehicles prowl the streets. The insurgency has been pushed out into the surrounding villages, as insurgencies the world over tend to be, the better to keep the urban center ticking. Any sense of risk or danger I am feeling is largely radiating outwards, from me, like the steam from the joggers’ bodies in the rapidly fading light. At Chan Phen restaurant, across the Bridge of Senses, near the so-called park district, I am once again surprised to find that it’s possible for me to order a beer.
It is brought to me by a 19-year-old Buddhist girl named Pear—”Like the fruit?” “Yes, like the fruit”—who, in addition to working here, is also her father’s sole carer.
“It is not a hard place to live,” she says. “The violence only happens in the city sometimes. Most of the time it happens outside. There are a lot of soldiers here,” she adds.
She would nevertheless like to leave. The city isn’t exactly abounding with opportunities for young women like herself. But that will be difficult in her current situation. Her father is suffering from terminal cancer.
“Looking after him is difficult, especially as I also need to work,” Pear says. “I cannot leave him and move to Bangkok, though I would like to move there one day.”
I ask if she ever feels troubled working in a bar. In August 2016, insurgents targeted a nearby karaoke place, not once, but twice, having waited for emergency responders to arrive, in what is known as a “double-tap” attack. What’s more, Chan Phen seems especially vulnerable. It’s on the river, open to the elements. There’s a walking path between the open-air dining room and the water, within easy lobbing distance for someone with a good arm, and an arterial road out the back, accessible to traffic. Cars and, especially, motorcycles are regularly used in this part of the world—the Big C attack comes to mind—as bombs.
Pear shakes her head and points to the far corner, where a group of Thai military types sit, at the end of their shift, surrounded by half-empty bottles of beer.
“Doesn’t that make you more worried?” I ask. “That they might be a target?”
“I can’t walk around being worried all day,” she says. “I have things to do.”
I am working up the liquid courage to go and have a chat with the fuzz—one is always reluctant to do so on a tourist visa—when a middle-aged man ambles over and sits down opposite me instead. He asks me where I’m from. “You don’t see too many tourists in Pattani,” he says.
I will only ever know this man as “Bob,” which is very clearly not his real name. He’s down from Bangkok to help local journalists establish an independent radio station, he says.
One can’t be quite sure what he means by this. On the one hand, he could be telling the truth. But then, independent media is not exactly unknown in the deep south. There’s the Narathiwat-based Southern Peace Media volunteer network, the InSouth group, and others, all of which are members of the Deep South Watch umbrella organization, which was established in 2006. Or, at least, they were. None of them have responded to any of my emails or Facebook messages, and a lot of their websites have been dead a long time. There are also a number of student organizations with their own media projects, though, again, I’ve not heard back from any of them. It’s possible that “Bob” is here to kick-start some long-dormant movement.
On the other hand, he might not be, and “independent” might mean something closer to “government propaganda.” It’s not difficult to see why the Thai government might want a greater media presence in the region. As the International Crisis Group’s 2017 report, Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace, made plain, though the insurgent struggle remains primarily nationalistic in nature, the threat of Islamization is real, with online media, in particular, a key front in the battle for hearts and minds:
In late November 2015, two ISIS propaganda videos were posted online carrying Thai-language subtitles. [...] On 28 November, a four-minute video titled “No Respite” from al-Hayat, the ISIS media wing, appeared on the Millah Ibrahim YouTube account, with Thai-language subtitles. Authorities blocked the video the following day, but it appeared on Pulse of the Islamic World, a Thai-language Facebook page, on 30 November, along with “From Inside Halab,” another video with Thai subtitles. In April 2016, an image posted to the Pulse of the Islamic World Facebook page showed a black ISIS flag superimposed on a map of southernmost Thailand. This image, of unknown origin, became a point of departure for an analysis suggesting that ISIS could exploit the insurgency.
Pear and her co-workers are shutting up shop by the time “Bob” and I finally get up to leave, the daughter of the owner rolling about on skates, describing semi-circles around us on the concrete as we make for the door. She wears a sky-blue school tie around her neck and a ribbon of the same color in her hair. I walk back to my hotel in darkness. It isn’t even eleven yet and the city is completely dead.
The rain breaks around midnight and continues through the next day. I spend it in my room, sending emails and tweeting, occasionally venturing out onto my balcony to experience the downpour first-hand. You can feel the humidity in your gut down here. I find that I am warming to the place: It’s the first one I’ve been to since crossing the border—indeed, since leaving Kuala Lumpur—that I’ve actually, actively, liked. Only its haunting emptiness depresses me, and that may have something to do with the weather.
“Bob” is spending the day in Yala, doing whatever it is he’s actually doing here. I was meant to be going to Yala today, too, but have decided to treat the weather as an omen. In any case, the fellow I was meant to be meeting there, the security analyst Don Pathan, is currently in Bangkok, and we’ve agreed to meet there instead. I go downstairs and ask if I can stay another night. There’s no one else currently staying in the hotel and the owner nearly kisses me. When “Bob” suggests I come out to meet him at CS Pattani Hotel for a drink—which, I will soon learn to my disgust, means tea, the hotel being dry—I agree.
The CS is where Lawrence Osborne stays when he comes to Pattani in The Wet and the Dry. (It’s also the first place he name-checks in the book that has been way outside my price range.)
“It too was car-bombed (in 2008, two hotel employees killed),” Osborne notes with characteristic nonchalance in those pages, “but restored with Malay decor and Malay piped music, and it now sits mostly empty at the end of cul-de-sac behind armed guards, sandbags and tired security cameras.”
The guards and cameras are still here this evening, but the sandbags have been replaced with concrete barriers, and the hotel is far from empty. Indeed, the place is jumping. There’s not a seat to be found in the ground-floor restaurant, and the coffee shop outside, on the hotel’s balcony, is doing a similarly roaring trade. “Bob” and I have to borrow a seat from someone else’s table in order to be able to sit together at our own, for which we have had to wait 10 minutes.
Talk about a reversal of fortune. Between Osborne’s visit and my own, the CS was bombed one more time for good measure, in 2012. That time—unsurprisingly, given the security measures Osborne describes as having been set up out the front—it was attacked at the back. “Half of the town of Pattani plunged into darkness for several hours as the explosive took out a transformer nearby,” Don Pathan wrote in an article at the time. Another two people were killed in the blast, which was again delivered by car.
“This isn’t what I expected,” I say. I don’t know whether I mean the hotel, or the city, or both, but in any case all are true.
“Pattani has changed,” he nods. “It’s much nicer now. I mean, look at this hotel!”
He isn’t wrong, though I’d kill one of the stray dogs sniffing outside the grounds to get my hands on a drink. Osborne mentioned a place around the corner...
“You have to remember,” “Bob” says, derailing this particular train of thought, “this is a very long-running conflict. Fourteen years or more now? If you lived here, Matthew, what would you do? Be scared the whole time? Not do anything? Never go out? Just in case?”
“People want to get on with their lives,” I say.
“They have no choice!” “Bob” says, and hits the table to punctuate the point. I still have no idea who he actually is.
“All I want in the world,” he says, “is to be able to bring my children down here. I have a son and a daughter, both very young. It’s such a lovely city,” he says, “and my wife refuses to come near it.”
He says that he and his team didn’t get much done in Yala. The rain prevented them from visiting all the places they needed to visit.
“Wouldn’t it be great, though, Matthew?” he asks. “If one day the people down here had a radio station of their own? A radio station that told them the truth?”
Well, it rather depends, “Bob,” I think. Whose truth are we talking about? I always feel a little uneasy when someone knows or suspects I’m a journalist in countries where I’m not supposed to be one.
The next afternoon, I take a songthaew out to the bus stand. The rain is still falling, heavier than yesterday, as though giving its all in the knowledge that it, too, will soon be on its way. I have to crouch in the middle of the tray to prevent the water coming in through the vehicle’s sides from drenching me and everything I own.
The rain hasn’t stopped by the time I reach Hat Yai, which is to say by the time I reach Thailand as I remember it. It hits me with all the force of one’s first visit to Khao San or Pattaya: the reality of Buddhist Thailand, solicitous Thailand, hedonistic Thailand. I’m staying in a cavernous guesthouse—it feels a bit like an abandoned hospital—on Niphat-U-Thit Road. Downstairs in the lobby, men drink beer in full view of the street and watch English Premier League football on television. The laminated A4 sheets advertising trains to Bangkok and flights to Phuket peel down from the walls in the humidity, making weird, slightly sexual sounds as they fall to the tiles. I was so keen to get out of Thailand’s deep south and now realize I wasn’t there long enough. One never is.