Last week a cook and a security guard were killed by a car bomb at the C.S. Pattani Hotel. I’ve stayed at the C.S. Pattani a number of times. It’s the kind of place the novelist Graham Greene would have acutely observed, its archaic Arabic façade and grand staircase ripe for a vignette of spooks and opportunists thickly in congress. Better still, the hotel is stuck in the middle of an insurgency – not in Iraq but in the Malay-speaking Southern border provinces of Thailand.
The conflict, known as the "Southern Fire" to the Thai, has claimed just over 3000 lives in the last four years. It is now one of the most violent conflicts in Australia’s neighbourhood – and the least talked about in the international media.
The C.S. Pattani Hotel is the one place in Thailand’s South where security is considered tight and bombs and assassin’s bullets are unlikely to reach. For that reason, anyone who goes to the South normally stays there. At any time one might find former prime ministers, ambassadors, Red Crescent officials and ambitious freelance journalists imbibing tea or discreetly drinking a beer.
In my stays I’ve met militant Malay nationalists who want a political solution to the conflict, peace-activists seeking reconciliation between Buddhist and Muslim communities, Imams of a fundamentalist bent who deplore violence, and widows and bereaved daughters whose husbands or fathers have been lost in the conflict.
The car-bombing, which claimed two lives and injured a dozen others, was a turning point, signalling that there is no safe ground in the area, not even for the elites who frequent C.S. Pattani. Many see it as a signal that the insurgency is about to get worse.
The border provinces of Thailand have been a frequent site of disturbance, repression and insurgency since they were formally annexed by Siam in a 1909 agreement with the British, who in return were given parts of the north of present day Malaysia.
In the face of nearly a century of Thai programs of cultural assimilation that verged on colonialism, the Malays of the South have maintained their own distinct identity and language. Many officials in the Thai State have finally begun to understand this fact, but at glacial pace and without comprehending the political implications that a second nation exists within Thailand.
No solution appears to be in sight – in part because few people understand what is actually happening – and few Thai nationalists are willing to even talk about autonomy, let along grant it to the region.
While many believe the Southern conflict is largely driven by nationalist politics, some want to paint the insurgency as primarily Islamist. Certainly, there is evidence for this. Moreover, terrorism experts speak of the extending tentacles of JI into the South, or suggest the potential internationalisation of the conflict, which may well mean a role for Al Qaeda. But it is worth bearing in mind that, as Dr Mike Smith noted a decade ago, terrorism experts "know a little about a lot of conflicts".
Serious scholars of the conflict are much more cautious in attempting to explain its nature and causes. It’s not hard to see why. Different insurgent groups come and go (at least in name); intelligence reports are cooked up, serve a purpose and then retired. Inexplicable acts of violence by the State are ignored while alleged insurgents are rounded up and forced to attend re-education camps to learn the value of national unity.
Then there is the dual system of justice. While some alleged insurgents face court and trial, not a single State official has faced criminal charges related to the 30 extra-judicial killings in the Krue Se Mosque in April 2004. After the reprehensible killing in October 2004 of 78 Muslim men, who died after they were stacked one on top of the other and transported for hours in military trucks, the Government claimed the victims died, in part, because they were fasting for Ramadan. The Thai State has also yet to open a proper inquiry into the mass graves found in Pattani where upwards of 300 corpses lie.
In contrast to the predictable statements issued by terrorism analysts, a new documentary film on the South by Thai filmmaker Ing K sheds much light. The film, Citizen Juling, has been described as a road trip into Thailand’s soul.
It follows the life of Juling, a Buddhist who went to live in the South to teach arts. She was brutally bashed and left comatose, allegedly by local Muslim women whose children Juling taught. Her story becomes the canvass upon which the whole "Southern Fire" is drawn.
In following the footsteps of Juling and those touched by her story, Citizen Juling does something no terrorism analysis can do. It brings into genuine dialogue the frustrations of Muslims and Buddhists alike, it offers insights into the pain of violent loss, and it reaches beyond the clichés of the War on Terror to tell a very human story of idealism and betrayal.
A powerful documentary that mixes the ordinary and revealing life of Malay Muslims in Thailand with a quietly probing study of violence and its odious ramifications, Citizen Juling may finally make the world take notice of what is happening in the South of Thailand.
La Trobe University and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) are jointly hosting a free screening of Citizen Juling in Melbourne on March 28. Click here for details. You can read a longer analysis on the South here.
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