I arrived in the province of Narathiwat in Thailand on the 7th of August 2012.
The presence of the military in the south is visible the moment a traveler steps out of the airplane. The small airport has a short landing strip and AirAsia is the only flight available in and out of the province, besides the private and military-owned aircrafts. Soldiers, fully armed, guard the perimeter and the main entrance to the airfield.
Rural people live in small clusters of homes; the simple wooden architecture displays the humble lifestyle of Narathiwat, while the provincial town offers a slightly improved living standard surrounded by facilities offered by a modernized setting. Signs of poverty are visible from a glance at the small homes of many in rural and urban Narathiwat.
I visited an agriculture-based hamlet which supplements the nearby rubber plantation dotted with tall swaying coconut trees. There was a gathering of some sort with the village headman and local politicians. One can never escape the sight of soldiers and their alert, grim looks.
During such time, I spoke to a small band of young men, in their late-20s, dressed in white and brown shirts, simple flowing sarongs and some wearing skull caps which is a traditional headgear, frequently seen in the neighboring country Malaysia. We spoke in Malay, though people in Narathiwat spoke in an odd-sounding slang, a vocal mixture of Thai-like pronunciation and flow.
Some were curious about my presence, as many have not seen a Malaysian much less a foreign social worker in these parts. I explained, my purpose was to assess the lives of the people, especially marginalized groups, and the impact of the violence on their community.
Prolonged exposure to violent environment usually leads to a greater vulnerability especially among the poor, women and children. This has the same undesirable effect on people in the armed services. Despite the hardships, these young men displayed a laid-back outlook towards life. Income from farming and agriculture, marriage plans, family life and the accessible health care provisions were their priorities. As a 31-year old man said to me,
“We are not at war with the government, we have better things to think about. This is our home, our life.”
The drive back to the provincial town was uneventful, slowly driving through the numerous sentry posts and under scrutiny of the men in military fatigues, body armor and assault rifles. Safety and security was enforced by the presence of the soldiers but similar to Pattani and Yala, violence is unpredictable and common. At that point, my only concern was getting back to the hotel in one piece.
People called their town a Bandar which means city in the Malay-ethnic language. However based on observation of facilities and population, I would call the Bandar a large town. Nevertheless the town, Mueang Narathiwat is the capital of the province.
Rusted zinc roofs, faded paint, tarnished walls and small but crowded settlements of people living in small huts made from plywood and cheap plastic roofs. This was visible especially those living near and in the town’s fishing district while banks, internet cafes, sundry shops, small restaurants, mosques, temples and road-side food stalls lined the main roads. As in Bangkok, Narathiwat is a town of contradiction, where modern facilities greet the traditional and often poor folks.
Over the next few days, I met with the people, not the fast-talking politicians or authorities but the common man, woman and child, on the streets, at the fishing jetty, in the improvised dwellings and at the mosques. During the night, eating at road-side food stalls run by street vendors is a breach of safety protocol for relief workers, but I took the risk and succumbed to my fiendish taste for street food. Besides, the conversations (and grapevines) are often most thought-provoking than the ones you will find at a restaurant or cafe. Somewhat.
The people are frustrated with the indiscriminate violence, a 67-year-old Muslim man described as caused by “terrorists” and the unchecked human rights violation. He paused and spat on the pavement as he said this, much to my surprise. He is not the only one who shares that sentiment, nearly all the adults believe that violence is an unwanted import of radical groups and criminals from other provinces.
The famous conspiracy theory among the locals, said in whispering and hesitating tones, is that violence is funded by the middle east and from elements within Malaysia. Is there an objective to these violence? As a woman told me, “… merely to create more chaos.”
The international community and Thais from the other provinces see Narathiwat as a battleground, where the military machine fight an endless war with militants similar to Yala and Pattani. Some in Malaysia see this as justified insurrection against the onslaught of Thai Buddhists. What do I think? Nonsense, it is simple for Malaysian Muslims and others to make a generalization of ethic-related concerns, poverty and lump them into a self-righteous melting pot of resistance against the non-Islamic Institution.
My thoughts are candidly expressed in some of my previous posts. It is crucial for people to talk to the common folks about their lives, their hopes and their daily struggles. Subscribing to romanticism of resistance in Narathiwat is a failure to listen to the remarkable people who greet life and death in their beloved land, their home.
- Day Two: Narathiwat and Chaotic Memories
- A delightful afternoon with @melonbunnie
- Random thoughts in a town by the seaside
- Faith, religion and a way of life in Narathiwat [Thailand]
- Friends in Narathiwat
- Photos of a fishing village in Narathiwat