The cell phone rang, vibrated with urgency, awakening me from my nap. Past midnight, my hand on the device, eager to shut the noise.
These past few nights, I’ve not been able to sleep well, for some reason or another, much less an uninterrupted nap. I can’t help but feel the gnawing anxiety of something at the edge of reason.
Nevertheless I was raring to answer the call. Recognised the displayed number. Salbiah (pseudonym, due to safety reasons), a 20-something year old woman living in Narathiwat who speaks fluent Jawi, Melayu, Thai and English.
“Assalamu alaikum, abang? abang Zash?”
(Abang, a seniority reference when one speaks to an older man or an older brother, while Adik is for a young sister or a woman who is younger than you)
“Wa’alaikum salaam, adik.”
I looked at my watch, barely seeing the time in the gloom.
“Are you alright?”
Such a question was not unusual as Salbiah rarely calls me, and simply because she lives in a conflict-torn province, where human rights and peace does not exist.
“Adik?” I asked, prodding noting the odd-tone in her Arabic greeting.
“I’m scared.” she said, then paused.
“Are you in danger?” I asked.
My fingers on the keyboard, awakening the laptop from its hibernation, eager to track her location and to make calls to people who might be able to help her — people living in her town, as I was in Bangkok and unable to offer any physical help.
“Tell me where you are.”
“No, no. Not that, abang. I am not in danger.” She explained.
I sat down behind the small table, the light from the laptop screen forcing my eyes to squint. The mouse laid untouched.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“I’m scared, abang, I’m scared. My life is not getting anywhere, you know kan. I’ve not received any answer from the institute, and I think I didn’t get the job.”
— In December, Salbiah applied for a job as a teacher.
Partly nodding to myself, then scanned my room for my usual nicotine fix. A kretek is needed, as telephone counselling duty usually takes a toll without the usual kretek aroma.
Salbiah, like many young people in the ThaiSouth, whether in Narathiwat, Yala or Pattani, face severe challenges in employment of their choice, immediate access to healthcare, housing, poverty and the deaths that follows from the constant violent clashes between nationalistic “Pattani-Melayu” militants and Thai “Siam” security forces.
A conflict which Thais from beyond the borders of the south remain ignorant or simply don’t care.
The Phone Connects
Almost an hour later after the weeping stopped and temporarily her apprehension subdued, we ended the call.
The sweat trailing down my face and chest. It was a terribly humid night, which reminded me of my many visits to the south, where the weather was equally harsh as the poverty among the rural folks. Tossed the phone on the sofa. Memories threatened to swamp my mind, a reminiscence of clashing emotions.
I have, if one can disregard my usual profanity, a soft spot for marginalized communities, and the people down south struggled to maintain their lives, and a sense of decency, on top of the violence in their region. I wonder, how many people who claim to wield great influence and brilliant education in Bangkok actually cared about the southern oppression.
After I gathered my thoughts, the phone was back in my hand, and impatient fingers tapping the number. I won’t give up, I won’t stand by while concerns of the individuals of less importance, as seen by society, are left to their own design, to crawl into societal apathy.
Tackling these minor challenges may not be the role of high-profile Thai social activists or perhaps beneath the station of some corrupt district officer.
The phone connects to the person I wanted to speak. A weary voice answered. Good, I thought, you’re there. Time for me to stimulate the social structure to move. I smiled.