Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thailand, the Other Side

Yala, yesterday.

I have been doing some proper work while I've been sunning myself in southeast Asia. Honest. Here's a couple of pieces that have appeared in thefirstpost, all about politics and terrorism and stuff.

Crikey, I must be getting middle-aged.

Thailand's Forgotten War

As I arrive in the sultry little town of Yala, it looks just like any other provincial Thai capital. The songthaew drivers snooze in the noonday sun; the pavement cafes are doing a good trade in noodles and fishballs.

But it doesn't take long for me to see that Yala is different. Down the street comes a lorryload of conspicuously armed Thai soldiers. The local market is virtually deserted. Customers emerging from a restaurant glance anxiously around, then they slip home. The ambience of the town is sinister, gloomy, and deeply apprehensive.

And for a good reason. Because Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, a trio of tiny Thai provinces on the frontier with Malaysia, constitute yet another one of Islam's "bloody borders". Since 2004, Muslim secessionists in this region have been fighting the Bangkok government. And they've killed 2000 people in the process - almost as many as died in the entire Ulster Troubles.

Back in the 18th century these Muslim lands were semi-independent sultanates, paying mere lip-service to the Siamese king. Then in 1907, a complex Anglo-Thai agreement saw the area ceded to Bangkok outright. Through the twentieth century this led to sporadic friction with Thailand's Buddhist majority, even some fighting. But it's only in the last few years that this rebellion has gained real savagery and force. And this savagery is intensifying.

Recent weeks have seen dozens of schoolteachers, monks, farmers, and rubber tappers shot, on the streets, in markets, or in their own homes. At least fifteen people have been decapitated; often the heads are left nearby - booby trapped. Bombings are frequent: explosions can occur in teashops, karaoke bars, schoolyards, banks, police stations, even motorcycle showrooms. Snipers execute local officials on a weekly basis, before melting into the bush.

The bloody carnage reached a crescendo last weekend - the Chinese New Year - when 35 different bombings and innumerable arson attacks and ambushes were reported across the "Deep South". Some bombs were defused, some not. Nine people died and 53 were injured in the wave of violence. The whole region was plunged into darkness when one bomb took out the power grid.

When the insurgency began in 2004 the Bangkok authorities sought to blame local youths and criminal gangs, supposedly fuelled on yabba (potent local amphetamines). However, as the rebellion has grown in size and sophistication, the authorities have changed tack: perceiving sinister links with overseas Islamist movements, in Indonesia and the Philippines. More than one expert sees the influence of al-Qaeda. Officials now estimate there could be as many as 15,000 rebel fighters, when originally they guessed at 500.

What no one really knows, however, is exactly who these insurgents are. Or what they really want. The terrorists are self evidently Muslim, yet most of their victims are Muslims. They obviously have links with Malaysia yet they speak their own separate Malay language - Yawi - and sometimes seem to shun Kuala Lumpur as much as they despise Bangkok. The Thai government can therefore, perhaps, be forgiven its schizophrenic response, which is sometimes draconian, sometimes emollient. How do you properly deal with such an enigmatic, nihilistic enemy?

Whatever the answer, the violence makes this part of Thailand as bizarre as it is depressing. The palm fronds still wave over the white-sand beaches, but this tropical paradise harbours a very nasty serpent. After one nervous day in Yala province I am happy to fly out. As I head for the check-in desk, a Thai squaddie talks to me.

'You go Bangkok?'

I nod a Yes. He wishes me a good journey. Then he turns and looks at the sullen streets beyond the airport window. 'I stay here,' he says, very quietly. This may be the Land of Smiles, but his expression is infinitely sad.

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