The Thai Army Thought I Was a Terrorist
The Thai government rarely opposes researchers studying the conflict in the country’s violent south. My friends Don Pathan, a freelance journalist, and Duncan McCargo, a professor at the University of Leeds, reported no problems traveling there despite the raging insurgency that has claimed thousands of casualties.
Michael K. Jerryston, author of Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand and professor at Youngstown State University, explains in his book how southerners sympathetic to the Malay Muslim rebels had threatened him — but that the government and its supporters never had.
My time in southern Thailand was different. For two weeks, I roamed the southern provinces Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, interviewing observers of and participants in the conflict, including policemen, soldiers and other counterinsurgents.
Given how gracious and polite policemen such as Maj. Gen. Krissakorn Pleethanyawong and soldiers such as Col. Pramote Pram-in had been during our meetings, it surprised me to hear that the Thai government investigated my credentials as a student before I had even departed the country. The military suspected that I, a 19-year-old atheist who spoke neither Malay nor Thai, might be aiding rebels who themselves had little or no history of recruiting foreign fighters and volunteers.
Tuwaedaneeya Tuwaemae-ngae, who heads the Academy of Greater Patani for Peace and Development, invited me and my interpreter to a countryside madrasa that the Thai government had closed soon after the insurgency restarted 2004. The military had claimed that the madrasa was training rebels, and the director, though denying the claim, fled southern Thailand for Malaysia, leaving his wife and son as caretakers of the remaining property.
Tuwaemae-ngae’s story sounded bizarre. The madrasa looked as though rebels could have trained there, so I wondered whether the Thai government might have been correct — for once. The departed director had named his school Jihad Witthaya Pondok, explaining some of the suspicions.
“Jihad can mean any kind of struggle, not just violent struggle,” Balyan Wae-manor, the director’s son, told me in a meeting. Tuwaemae-ngae nodded. Many Muslims have made this point. In Islamic and modern history, however, jihad has often meant a revolutionary, violent war against Muslims’ persecutors. Many Malays and Muslims inside and outside of Thailand have called for military jihad against what they characterize as an elitist government controlled by Buddhist Thais.
We toured the madrasa, Tuwaemae-ngae ranting that the Thai monarchy, which as a constitutional monarchy merely influences the Thai government rather than ruling the country, had somehow caused the insurgency by preventing democracy from taking root in Thailand.
I questioned his opinion. Whatever the status of Thailand’s ever-changing military dictatorships and provisional governments, the insurgency in the south had resulted from decades of ethnic conflict and religious intolerance, not from the meddling of the monarchy. It has mattered little to the insurgency whether civilians or soldiers were ruling the country.
“Would you like lunch?” Wae-manor asked us.
We ate in silence, me speaking no Thai, Tuwaemae-ngae speaking no English and my interpreter deboning a fish as I failed to use chopsticks and pretended to enjoy the food.
Wae-manor and his family were meeting with delegates from the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, which has helped the Thai government maintain its limited authority in provinces along the Malay–Thai border and others regions affected by the insurgency.
The delegates greeted me and my interpreter, and I forgot about them.
Two days later, my interpreter contacted me on Facebook.
She explained that a Westerner visiting a madrasa — where the Thai government alleged rebels to have trained — seemed to worry SBPAC, which warned Wae-manor against inviting more Westerners to Jihad Witthaya Pondok. He then posted on Facebook that I was just a university researcher and student, and my interpreter had seen the post.
I thought little of SBPAC’s concerns. Only a few days before, SBPAC officials had met me in Pattani for an interview. “Could me visiting the madrasa really be that big a surprise to them?” I asked my interpreter. “I’ve traveled all over the South. This should be nothing new.”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’m worried.”
We later went on a ride-along with Thai policemen, including a major general who led all the policemen in Pattani. They mentioned nothing about my visit to the madrasa.
The next day, my last in Pattani, I met Prof. Srisompob Jitpiromsri at the local campus of Prince of Songkla University. He heads Deep South Watch, which monitors the conflict in the south and was hosting me there. Jitpiromsri hadn’t recognized me when I’d met him days earlier — despite me emailing him more than a dozen times over three months — yet this time he remembered me all too well. “The military is interested in you,” he said. “A soldier called me yesterday.”
SBPAC had mentioned me to the military, and the military had mentioned me to Jitpiromsri. How the military knew of my relationship to him, no one knew. A local commander had sought to confirm with the DSW that I was a student, not a foreign insurgent.
I pondered what could have happened. The military had been diligent enough to track my contacts and meetings with nongovernment organizations all the way to my host but had, as far as I could tell, refrained from noting my meetings with members of the military, including ranking officers. The Thai government had failed to stop me but succeeded in annoying me.
I was ready to leave the country, and an investigation by the Thai military seemed the best goodbye.
However gracious and polite my military and police interviewees had been, they all repeated that NGOs defended or supported the rebels. This claim seems dubious and simplistic.
“Ultimately, the rebels want to help the people, and the NGOs are helping the people, so the rebels aren’t going to stop the NGOs,” my friend the freelancer told me. “The rebels know that the humanitarians and members of civil society do good work.”
If speaking to the son of a man accused of a crime had labelled me a potential rebel and all my contacts potential collaborators, the NGOs to whom I had spoken likely faced much worse from the policemen and soldiers who patrol most of Pattani’s streets.
On our last day, my interpreter and I visited a checkpoint in Pattani’s city center to photograph soldiers there. The soldiers proved enthusiastic, posing with their assault rifles.
“I think it’s good you’re leaving now,” my interpreter said. “The soldiers won’t always be this friendly, and Pattani won’t always be this quiet.”