Red Shirts, Yellow Shirts, Same Difference

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

“There have been two explosions at the market. Could you pick us up?” asked my friend in a text message on May 24, 2014. Just a few seconds earlier, I heard several explosions that sounded like thunder. I looked out of the window thinking that it was about to rain, but the sky was clear and there was no lightning. Several years earlier, a twenty-five-kilogram bomb exploded approximately a kilometer away from my apartment. I felt the pressure from the blast in my ears that day. This time there was none of that. Nevertheless, when the lights in my apartment began to flicker, and then electricity was suddenly cut off, I knew that something terrible had happened. I rushed towards the pickup truck and drove towards the Pattani Central Mosque where my friends were waiting. Some people were still standing along the unlit streets on my way to the mosque. Even more absurd, groups of friends were sitting around tables at roadside stalls and enjoying their dinner in the dark. Is it time to panic? Or, be calm and pretend that everything is normal even though explosions occurred at thirteen locations around Pattani?

“Life quickly returns to normal,” said my friend Muhammad, a forty-something-year-old resident of Pattani, when I met him the next day. Life in many parts of the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat (collectively known in Thailand as the deep South) appears eerily “normal” for a region that has been engulfed by a decade of violence, including almost daily sniping and bombings. The deep South’s residents go about their daily activities as if without worry of the threat of violence. Against this backdrop of conflict in their immediate surroundings, many people whom I have met in the deep South feel that the political tugging that emerged in the national capital following the military’s ousting of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 seems far removed from their lives. They choose not to become preoccupied with it. In a contemplative moment, Muhammad says, “No matter who is in power, the outcome is the same for us. Ten years and I still can’t even smell peace.”

When asked for his opinion about the conflict between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts, Muhammad redirects the conversation closer to home: “I don’t trust the politicians. We can’t rely on them. We are just pawns in the politicians’ game. Many people here follow the news about the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts but do not participate directly in their politics.” Amran, another Pattani resident, says, “Although power has changed hands many times, it is always the same groups of people who are in control. Look at the leadership of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC). When the Democrats were in power, Panu Uthairat was the head of the SBPAC. When the Pheu Thai party won the elections, he was replaced by Thawee Sodsong. The military is supposedly neutral, yet they have now appointed Panu again.”

The frequent alternation in national, regional, and provincial leadership produces many policy changes that sometimes work to the detriment of the peace process in the deep South. Owing partly to this, many people in the deep South believe that nothing substantial in terms of peace-building will be achieved. There is a sense that the political factors that shape everyday life unfold in ways that are not highly dependent on national political trends. The normalcy in the deep South, then, is the result of a strategy that the region’s residents use to cope with the violence—they accept that the conflict between the parties involved in the violence, most visibly the separatists and the state, is beyond their control and instead focus on other issues in their daily lives.

Residents of the deep South employ the same strategy for managing life during the ongoing national conflict. “Life here is different. The recent coup caused panic in the other parts of the country. For us, military rule is the norm,” says Amran. To emphasize his point, Amran adds, “When the military government introduced a curfew, a group of soldiers came to the village to enforce it. Then, the security guards at the Department of Fisheries’ Research Centre nearby told them that the area was peaceful, and they should not worry. They did not come again after that. Just like that, so easy.”

Seeing that the actions of politicians do not benefit them in substantial ways, many of Pattani’s residents say that they prefer to focus on issues of livelihood. How has a decade of violence impacted development in the deep South? Despite persistent instability and a lack of substantial progress in the peace process, urban and commercial progress is visible. Commercial properties are mushrooming around Pattani. New seaside chalets in Yaring district serving local visitors indicate that there is even a burgeoning tourism industry. “We cannot say with certainty whether the development that we see is the result of money that has been invested (here) in order to achieve peace through economic progress. Likewise, we are not sure whether there would be more development if there is no violence here. Most of us have not become much richer or poorer because of the violence,” continues Muhammad. Nevertheless, development is noticeable and it is interesting and perhaps also exciting that many such developments are spearheaded by members of local communities and not major corporations. Paradoxically, this is a reason why the region’s persistent violence is sometimes seen to be a blessing by some members of the public in Pattani. The violence has kept many corporations out of the deep South while allowing locals to maintain their share of the local economy and benefit from its growth.

Thailand’s ongoing political problems have been described as a crisis of citizenship in which certain groups in contemporary Thai society attempt to achieve greater equality by leveling out discriminatory and exploitative practices. These are characterized by a nexus of regional, ethnic, and class distinctions (see other contributions in this volume). For many residents of the deep South, however, this rhetoric of the need to establish a more inclusive society is still inadequate. They believe that ethnicity remains a key pivot on which the wheel of politics in Thailand spins. As Malays and Muslims, they continue to feel alienated by a movement that is largely orchestrated by members of the population in the North and Northeast of Thailand. My friend Saleh offers an opinion that reflects the thoughts of many members of the Malay-dominated population of the Deep South:

To be a Thai person, one must be loyal to the King, be Buddhist, and practice Thai culture. This includes speaking in Thai. In the past, when a child spoke Malay in school, their teachers used to ridicule him. The situation may have improved over the years, but it has not gone away completely. In the end, we are still outsiders.