Readers' Submissions

Southern Thailand’s Muslim Insurgency – A Primer

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • March 3rd, 2007
  • 25 min read




I want to set some ground rules in the opening paragraph because this is a potentially volatile subject and it is not my wish to inflame, anger, misrepresent, or pretend the views I’m about to express are anyone’s but my own. First, I normally stay far away from my professional life in the Stickman submissions for a variety of reasons and rarely break this rule. In this case I’m breaking the rule because if you’re even considering heading to the southern three provinces for any reason the information in this submission may save your life. Still, there will be some areas I’ll gloss over or intentionally leave out when including them would normally make sense, the reason for this is to maintain as much separation as possible from my professional life/work while still providing an informative and interesting read that might help keep you alive. Because of this please know and accept that because I won’t be supporting my arguments that these are my views and my views only so take them for what they’re worth knowing. I’m not interested in any debates on the subject. Also know that what I’ll be saying is what I truly believe and I wouldn’t say it if this wasn’t so. I’ve been “involved” with military and political intelligence as a profession for over two decades, this might help explain some of the content.

Insurgencies are of great interest to me and I’ve seen several up close and personal, so it was with this experience in mind when I first headed south over a year ago to get a first hand account of what drives Thailand’s insurgency and if possible if there are any “doable” solutions. Let me compare/contrast my style of investigation with mainstream journalists (in the south) as observed through my own eyes. When times are good mainstream journalists might be driven around the areas while interviewing people who have been pre-determined or selected for them. When times are bad they’ll never leave the hotel unless in the presence of a police/military “news convoy” to cover the scene of a recent event. Instead the people they interview are brought to the hotel and everything is done there. For purposes of this submission I’ll refer to the main hotel in Pattani where virtually all journalists stay as the “green zone.”

In contrast I drive myself from where I live and make the over 1000 km journey the hard way, stay in the same hotel and eat/chat with the “other guys”, but each and every day I “disappear” into the local communities of the southern three provinces to seek out my own interviews without the very helpful influence of “officials.” No one but my trusted assistants and local.. lets call them ‘informants” for lack of a better word.. know who and where I plan on going, and even then not until the last possible minute when they must know to do their job. I’m persistent. One important player in the insurgency took me 8 days to track down and then convince his inner circle his time would be well spent chatting with me. In the last 15 months I’ve been to the southern provinces about 8 times, each time for no less than a week. This submission will be about my last trip south.

What’s going on down there? Did this start with 9/11? Who’s causing all the problems? Is Thaskin involved? Is there a solution? All good questions so let me sum up in a paragraph that which would normally fill several hundred pages of a standard intel briefing. The “unrest” and problems down south have been going on for in excess of three decades. When the world is looking at an “Islamic/Muslim problem” in another part of the world, things pick up in the south to maximize exposure. I’m going to make three simple statements: 1. The vast majority of Muslims and Buddhists in the southern three provinces respect each other and are more than capable and willing to live side by side with great respect for reach other. 2. There are elements of radical Islam who believe all unbelievers “infidels” should be driven from their lands and in time the entire world. 3. Much outside money and influences have been involved with infecting the normally peaceful south to the ends of the radicals. I have information, personally obtained, supporting many of the methods, means, etc, that allows this to take place. Heck, I’ll even give you the solution to the insurgency in this same paragraph so you’ll know or be able to surmise how the radicals have used this solution to achieve their goals. The solution is to end poverty and poor education in the south and provide a viable economy and educational system to support it. Yes, this is the same solution that will work in most places. As you’ve probably noticed radical extremism has gained but a small and fragile foothold inside relatively well off western nations while in the poorer third world regions it’s a growth industry. This is the problem and solution in a nutshell. Perhaps in a later submission I’ll write more about the details which there are plenty of.

This particular trip wasn’t about the insurgency and I had no plans for investigation or interviews. This trip was about tracking down a rather famous kris master in Yala (which happens to be in the “red zone” of dangerous activities) and talking to him about his career and perhaps photograph him in action. I was prepared to spend several weeks there documenting his craft, more if necessary. On the same trip I also wanted to drop off some framed portraits at a few temples and other places I had captured on earlier trips and had promised to the individuals. The timing couldn’t have been worse, the day before we arrived 29 bombs went off in the Yala province and for the first time that I know of 3-4 western embassies issued warnings to their citizens living in Bangkok that Southern insurgents would be trying to set off bombs in Bangkok. There are normally many police and military checkpoints and a strong military/police presence, but this time it was 100x more intense in all possible ways. Still, much planning and resources had went into this trip so I decided to make the trip despite the threat level being significantly raised. With my framed pictures and necessary equipment thoughtfully packed and the SUV filled with diesel we headed south. A day and a half later we arrived at the hotel in the green zone and checked in as a married couple. It’s standard for me to travel with a female assistant posing as my wife so as not to offend the sensibilities of my local hosts. This has worked well in the past, but this time my assistant had changed which raised a few eyebrows in this Muslim owned and operated hotel. From previous visits they’re also aware of my professional activities so perhaps they took it all in stride.

The day we arrived I noticed big mirrors on sticks were stocked at the nearby Big C department store so I picked one up to use for it’s intended purpose so we wouldn’t have to bother the parking lot security guard (or trust him) to make the necessary checks. It didn’t take long talking with other journalists to learn they were quite happy to stay parked at the hotel and only venture out with organized locally planned convoys to “cover” select bombings. Police scanners and two way radios for foreigners are strictly prohibited but I saw several guys with them on their belts and earbuds plugged in. I had left mine at home through carelessness, not paying the attention I should have since the purpose of this trip was benign. After meeting a few old acquaintances and generally taking in the current conditions my assistant and I went to our room and after checking for listening devices (found on several prior trips) planned out the next few days where we’d deliver the portraits and if possible ask the subjects if anything new/different/important since our last talk had come to mind. Early the next morning we set out to do just that.

I’ll tell you about two of the subjects. One is the young monk who watched his teachers head chopped off by Islamic radicals while hiding under a table. I interviewed him in depth during our last visit and it was a hard interview to get. It was more difficult to imagine his horror and experiences. The second subject was the senior monk in the area often credited with talking down/averting civil war in the south because he is truly a man of peace. Both hadn’t granted interviews to western journalists before me, the latter hadn’t talked to any journalists period. Both were also very interesting personalities with some very interesting things to say. I was looking forward to revisiting the both of them and seeing if they liked their framed portraits or would be surprised that I kept my word and remembered to make and deliver them.

After clearing our vehicle with the mirror and watching the other journalists look on us with amazement or perhaps it was amusement as they ate breakfast on the outdoor patio against the parking area, we set out to see the older monk over 60 km’s away. It didn’t take long to notice the heightened security as we encountered security checkpoints and inspections all along our route. We went through no less than ten of them going, and perhaps more coming back. Today they were not only trying to prevent bombs and insurgents from coming into the area, but also to prevent them from leaving and heading towards Bangkok. This elder monk is a very sharp individual for his age, extremely quick witted and hugely intelligent and well informed. I didn’t expect to get in to see him right away because last time it took me days of work to get through his security network and be given his current location. However, we were promptly given his location the first place we asked and I soon found myself face to face with my interesting friend. I thought it was odd that we were shown into his private sleeping chambers, especially as my assistant was a woman, but I soon understood as he started pointing to the walls and ceiling with one hand while pointing at his ear with the other. He was telling me his private accommodations inside the temple were being bugged! He told me he didn’t know who I was and didn’t remember me and started drifting off the subject all over the place while his assistant looked at us to see if we understood. We did. I handed over the portrait and whispered in his assistants ear that I’d visit the next time I was in town and we left his chambers. On the way out we were invited to have lunch with the elder monk and we accepted, but his behavior continued and I was convinced we were just being asked to play along as his assistant told me he was sick and mentally scattered. Keep in mind that the first time I saw this man it took over a week to get through his security and have the chance to talk with him. After lunch we said our goodbyes, checked our vehicle with our mirror, and headed to the next stop.

Two more portraits delivered and the only one left on our list the young monk who had witnessed his teachers head being chopped off. Arriving at this temple we were told he’d been transferred last XMONTH which was the exact month he talked with me. All they could say is he was “transferred north” and nothing else was forthcoming. They were nice enough to promise to forward his portrait so our duties were done. We returned to the hotel by a different route and made plans for heading into the Yala stronghold province of Ramen the next day.

Our early AM departure was the same as the previous days and soon we were headed directly south. In Pattani it’s obviously a Muslim dominated town and headscarves and skullcaps for the men are standard. A mix of mosques and temples for everybody. 20 km outside of Pattani heading directly south into Yala I noticed that traditional Muslim dress was standard issue in addition to the headscarves and caps. We left the temples behind and noticed many more mosques. Despite the heavily tinted windows it was obvious our vehicle was drawing undue attention and we were noticed. The ever so common “Thai smile” gave way to hostile glares and sideways glances. It amused me when my Thai assistant muttered “BKKSW, we’re not in Kansas any more” and our laughter broke the tension. There was a lot of tension as we went through checkpoint after checkpoint.

About halfway there I noticed something disturbing. The checkpoints were no longer manned by Thai military/police with the familiar American made M16 rifles and standard uniforms, but by bearded individuals carrying AK’s with the occasional RPG within sight and wearing a different camo pattern on their uniforms. More, it became obvious to me that these guys were trained to a higher level of expertise, were generally older, and a lot more serious. They were the local militias. 20 km’s from our goal I saw a beautiful scenic I wanted to capture. To be honest, that morning had beautiful blue skies with perfect clouds floating over beautiful mountains and rice fields and I’d been wanting to stop and capture some landscapes for over an hour but didn’t think it prudent to take the risk. In fact, on this attempt we didn’t even break the cameras from the bags where normally I’d have one right up front with me to capture that special scene. We came across a quiet stretch of road between towns and I thought it would be ok to pull over and take some pictures, so pulling the car over to the side I set my emergency flashers and exited the car.

Immediately I noticed cars from both directions slowing down and the occupants glaring at us with an intensity I hadn’t seen EVER in Thailand. I decided to grab some pics and get out of there. Not even 2-3 minutes later a pickup truck pulled in front of me from the opposite side and a man in civilian clothes exited the truck and we could immediately see he was either military or police, was clean shaven, and was wearing a Buddhist amulet. He didn’t waste time and told us our lives were in immediate danger and would be please follow him. Dumping our gear in the back of the SUV we followed him into the next small town and he led us into a military compound. We were immediately surrounded by 5-6 soldiers and his superior came out and explained to us that the only patrols they could make were in private vehicles and civilian clothes and we were more than a bit lucky our savior had found us when he did. He asked our business and when we told him he informed us that the village we wanted to visit was 100% Muslim and was right in the middle of the red zone and he wouldn’t recommend we go there without a small army. I wasn’t sure if he was exaggerating, but I figured we’d head back to the hotel anyway and check out his information. I did offer to pay these gentlemen to escort us to the village and even with an offer of baht 10 k they wouldn’t do it. Two police vehicles escorted us all the way out of Yala.

After showers and ordering some sandwiches I hooked up my GPRS modem to do some research on what we had learned and my assistant said she was going down to the lobby for a fruit drink. She wasn’t gone even a few minutes when she came back into the room and told me military officials were knocking on doors on the top floor and demanding ID/passports, and asking many questions. Knowing they’d get to us soon I used the time to send out what information I knew so far about this to a friend via email and then disconnected my phone from the computer and made it look like I was processing images taken on the way down there. About 30 minutes later there came a knock on the door and the guys doing the questioning wore uniforms but without name tags or rank. I never carry a passport but do have national ID ( a drivers license) and they checked it out while asking a lot of questions about what we were doing there. We told them we came to talk to a kris master and were treated with much suspicion. They asked if they could look in our luggage and without waiting for an answer went through our bags. Two knives I had taken with me were discovered and we had to explain that I was taking them to show the kris master in case he was interested in the American version of his art. All in all this “detention” lasted almost three hours. It was a tense time but they finally left. Later I questioned the hotel management about who they were and they smiled and looked at me and said “who?” Ok then..

After this experience we headed over to the university campus in Pattani to look up a name I had been given. We found the person and was invited over to his/her home to share cake and tea. While there his/her friend came over who was very familiar with the area we needed to go and the dangers of the area. Frankly they both tried to talk us out of it but we had come a long way and if at all possible we wanted to at least step foot in the village and shake the kris masters hand. Before we left he gave us a phone number of the closest military post to the village and cautioned us once again on several points regarding getting there and what to look for. Back at the hotel we got our equipment ready for the next day and called the number, was given another number, and finally was put in touch with someone who had the power to help us. We agreed to meet on the road at a certain point at a agreed upon time the next day.

We left early the next morning but this time I kept a camera up front with me. When I got a chance I’d lift it up and snap a few pics of the roadblocks and checkpoints and other interesting sights. It was a tense two hours but we arrived at the coordinates given (with help from my Mia Noi (GPS)) and was asked to follow a car into the next town. We followed it right into a military compound where over 12 heavily armed soldiers were waiting for us with several vehicles. They were armed not only with the standard and very old M16’s (everyone else in the world has long upgraded to the M4 versions) but also heavier 308 caliber H&K G33’s, M60 machine guns, and several LAWS rockets in addition to full and modern body armor. A two star greeted us and showed us a rough drawing of the village and where everything was located, where we’d park, where he’d station his men, and told me we’d have less than an hour before we’d have to go because it was possible the locals would organize an attack if we stayed there too long. With a military vehicle in front and behind our SUV we headed the last few kilometers into the village. Very resentful and suspicious eyes followed us everywhere.

The kris master knew we were coming and had his entire family outside waiting for us. He was a very nice man, but at this time I won’t give his name or show his picture. Perhaps later. They offered us cold drinks and we got down to the interview and he took me through most everything. Business as you can imagine was very bad with only outside orders providing the income they needed to feed their large family. They lived very simply, especially considering this man is famous in his craft and widely known. His outdoor workshop was very modest and crudely equipped, I’ve seen many home garages with better and more equipment. While a half dozen soldiers took up posts around his property the rest of them played with the kids and talked with other family members as they were obviously friends who knew each other well. Sadly recent times don’t allow for visits so they were taking advantage of this opportunity to catch up.

You’d expect most rural villagers to be poor and leave a meager existence, but I was very surprised a man of this stature and fame would live in such austere environs. It was obvious recent times were hitting his family very hard. He asked me to sign a thick guest book and proudly told me of all the foreign knife makers who had visited him over the years and of all the famous people he’s made kris’s for including currently royalty. He showed me his shop and home which was all connected and overall very small. Then he brought out his sample kris’s including several he’d made in a special way and were splendid examples of the work of an artist at the pinnacle of his career. I probably could have enjoyed looking at these all day but a quick glance at the two star showed him tapping his watch face and making sure I understood time was short.

I asked the kris master if he wanted to see the Randall knives I had brought with me and they turned out to be a treat for the entire family AND the soldiers. All were very impressed, but as artwork they didn’t hold a candle to the wonderful kris’s sitting in front of me on the table. Even though I knew a standard kris takes from 1-2 months of work to complete and that this man and his family hadn’t been enjoying prosperous times I began to entertain thoughts of purchasing one or two of his samples. Asking him directly if he’d be willing to sell a few of his samples he said he would be happy to forego the standard ordering and waiting process if there were some samples I liked. He quoted some prices which I knew from research were about half of what he normally charges, perhaps because they were samples or maybe because they were hungry. I picked out two and handed him the money and then looking at the special ones from his private collection I asked him about the process of getting him to make me one of them. He went through the procedure and making sure I understood we started to pack up my photo gear and new kris’s and get ready to leave.

Before I left I asked to photograph his entire family in his workshop which they really enjoyed and our armed escorts also joined in some of the pictures and it was really a good time, even considering the guys on security duty were watching the nearby fields for signs of an armed response to us being there. We were almost ready to leave when the kris master picked up the special knife I had admired the most and coming to my car reached in and exchanged it for the lesser of the two samples we had purchased. I told him thank you and that I would always treasure this kris and I think he was comfortable that I would. With all the soldiers recalled to the vehicles we headed out of the village and 15 minutes later was back in the relative safety of the military compound.

We expressed our appreciation for their services and offered to buy them all lunch or make a gift of money which were both gracefully refused, and heading out of the compound we followed an unmarked car along a different route until we were well out of the area and safely headed back to the green zone. Its strange how safe the green zone seemed as we arrived despite it being right in the middle of heavy bombing and shooting territory. Arriving back at the hotel I’m not sure why but I put the kris’s under the seats and up in the seat springs of the passenger seat before heading to our room. I really wanted to take it back and examine it at my leisure in the comfort of my hotel room but after the “inspection” the night before decided against it.

As soon as we entered our room we could tell it had been searched again and my laptop was missing. I immediately went to the front desk and they smiled at me and told me they were “certain” they could find our laptop, that perhaps the maid had accidently removed it from the room.. Accidently unzipped my luggage and took it from under my clothes? About 45 minutes later the bellhop knocked on the door with a big smile and my laptop expecting a tip I’m sure. My laptop uses several layers of security including smart card access and “on-the-fly” encryption as well as SATA II HDD password protection and I always take my smart card with me, so I’m confident they didn’t get to square one with my laptop. I noticed a screw missing on a cover panel so perhaps they’d removed and copied my HDD? No matter, I doubt they could ever crack it and if they did they wouldn’t have found anything but some images I left for them because I’d already copied all my contact lists and other information over to a large capacity CF card which I’d kept in my pocket all day.

Later while eating among the others hotel guests on the outdoor patio we both noticed that no one went out of their way to talk with us like they did before. Oddly enough most of them looked upset and if they talked at all it was quietly and in whispers. I’ll admit to wondering what they went through and if they’ll risk future visits by reporting the harsh treatment they received? I’ve already decided to save the details of my experiences for a wrap up once everything dies down. There’s much to write about the southern insurgency, much I want to share. Still, I know if I do I’ll no longer have the same contacts tomorrow and I’ll lose the ability to work in the area in any important way.

After dinner we went back to our rooms and packed our bags and slipped out the emergency exit at 0200 and drove back to Bangkok non-stop. Over 1100 km in one stretch on Thai road ways is very tiring. Even though we went to the south this trip with only the art of kris making as a goal, it’s obvious much has changed since my last visits. More traditional Muslim clothes being worn, less traffic on the roads, fewer shops opened, a more hungry desperate look from both Buddhist and Muslim residents alike, and the famous Thai smile that normally welcomes you throughout Thailand was missing and was perhaps the most noticeable change. I’ve always been very careful concerning safety, but this time I had genuine reason to think we would be harmed. The crisis has deepened and I can’t help but compare Thailand’s south to the stories we’ve read about in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is just a short submission of less than 5000 words, yet I realize I’ve only touched on some subjects and totally avoided others. There is so much to write about concerning this subject and perhaps some day I’ll put together a multi-part summary, but for now I’m happy to give you a general “feeling” of what it’s like in the south and why it’s that way. Forgive me for being intentionally vague when necessary and for drifting through so much material in such a disjointed manner. Someday I’ll cover this subject much better.

Until then…

Stickman's thoughts:

A very interesting submission indeed, and a perspective few of us will get from elsewhere.