Southern Thailand has always been a favorite holiday getaway for Malaysians in search for good food, value-for-money shopping, and sometimes instant-love. Since January 2004, the Malaysian arrivals in Southern Thailand have slipped sharply. Today, hotels in Hat Yai, Thailand’s southern commercial capital, are almost empty of Malaysian tourists.
Reason: On Jan 4, 2004, a dozen religious fundamentalists raided a Thai armory, killed four Thai soldiers and torched 18 schools. That event marked the beginning of the Southern Fire (Fai Dtai ไฟใต้ ) , which to date, resulted in more than 1,000 people losing their lives. Why are innocent civilians and even Buddhist monks losing their lives?
I have always been very comfortable traveling in Southern Thailand, especially Hat Yai and Songkhla. Being able to speak Thai, I would always arranged for a rented-vehicle and a driver to move around the south.
I love visiting all the Buddhist Temples in Southern Thailand, such as the Wat Phra Phom, Wat Matchimawat, Wat Chiang Hai, Wat Hat Yai Nai and the Shrine of Chao Meh Lim Ko Neo. My last trip to Southern Thailand was in December 2003, and since then, I have not make a return visit. It is now almost too dangerous be an independent traveler in Southern Thailand.
I am shocked to read the latest accounts of last week’s brutal murder! I am surprised how two Thai Marines, Sub-Lieutenant Winai Nagabutr and Petty Officer Kamthorn Thong-iad, were brutally stabbed by masked men and ordinary villagers at Narathiwat’s Ban Tanyonglimo (Kampung Tanjung Lima).
What have driven ordinary Thai Muslims to have such strong hatred with their Thai Buddhist counterparts? Is this the work of a select few fundamentalist groups who have totally brain-washed the Thai Muslims? I am shocked to read the developments of terrorist groups in Southern Thailand. It is most frightening where religion is sometimes distorted to serve an invalid cause.
The majority of Thai Muslims are proud to be Thai. I recalled speaking to an elderly Southern Thai Muslim in early 1996. He said, ‘Thailand is our heart and soul. I am a Thai first, and a Muslim second. I am most proud that both my son and grandsons are in the army serving His Majesty King Bhumipol.’
What happened to people like this elderly Thai Muslim gentleman? I am sure the majority of Thai Muslims bear no hatred to the Thai Kingdom. They have utmost love and respect for King Bhumipol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit and Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who all make regular visits to the southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.
In fact, the royal family’s palace, the Thaksin Ratchaniwet Palace is located in the deep south of Narathiwat. Their Majesties have spearheaded numerous economic projects to boost economic growth in the south. The Southern Fire has saddened Their Majesties that they have repeatedly called for reconciliation among the Southerners.
Historically, there is little argument or basis over Southern Thailand’s self-rule or independence. Since the early 18th century, Southern Thailand has been in firmed control from Bangkok. Unlike the Malay States of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis; Patanni, Yala and Narathiwat do not have their own Malay Sultanates in the 19th century — these provinces are controlled directly via governors sent by Bangkok.
I may not be the right person to comment on Southern Thai politics, as I am not a Thai by citizenship, but I would like to highlight my thoughts as a student of Thai History. Having researched clearly on Southern Thailand, there is no question of Thai suzerainty. Even international documents of the 19th century such as the Original Correspondence of the Far Eastern Department, Straits Settlements Original Correspondence, and the Dispatches from United States Ministers to Siam and others, have all proclaimed Siam’s suzerainty in Southern Thailand.
The current Southern Fire should not be a question of political suzerainty, but how Bangkok can win the hearts and souls of the Southern Thai Muslims. Without doubt, it is time for Bangkok to come down hard on the troublemakers, but it should do this without alienating the majority of Muslim citizens.
As days becomes months and now even years, the economic conditions of Southern Thailand have worsens considerably. These days, both Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims cannot even walk out of their homes without worrying for their lives. Are the Southern Thais paying too-high-a-price for the Southern Fire? When can peace and tranquility return to South Thailand?