Caught in the crossfire
Church picks up the pieces of Thailand's southern insurgency
A state of civil war has existed for years with more than 4,000 killed since 2006 (Photograph © Michael Coyne)
May 10, 2011
Communities in Southern Thailand have been caught in the crossfire of a bitter war between Thai government forces and Muslim separatist insurgents for more than a decade.
The reign of violence, which has quietly stacked up thousands of bodies since it escalated in 2001, has hampered daily life for ordinary people living on both sides of the Buddhist-Muslim religious divide which characterizes the conflict.
The Catholic Church has found a role here as mediator. The interfaith activities of the Diocese Social Action Centre (DISAC) of Surat Thani are helping to repair relationships between alienated Thai Muslims and the national government, and to set up income generating programs across Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces.
DISAC is running several capacity building initiatives in the region with the help of European Union (EU) funding and support from the Catholic Church. Communities in the area are now benefiting from various projects which are simultaneously generating additional income for residents and addressing social issues arising from the conflict.
The Muslim community complains of discrimination, saying that it cannot get help from the government which favours Buddhist Thais. This is the starting point for Father Suwat, director of DISAC, who is spearheading the social initiatives in the area.
Discussing his objectives, Father Suwat said; “We aim to bridge the gap between the government and the community.” His organisation is working closely with community leaders to achieve this, offering training on how to approach government bodies for project funding.
“The key challenge is changing the mentality of people within the community who feel discriminated against and alienated by the system. We are teaching them the system because they do not know how to approach the government for help,” Father Suwat added.
However, even simple dealings with the government do present security risks to these communities. While they are rarely targeted by insurgent violence which is directed at Thai security forces, it is important for them to retain a position of neutrality. Accepting money from the Thai authorities in some sensitive areas of Narathiwat can be construed as government alignment, to be met with violent reprisal from insurgent forces.
So far the DISAC projects in Gorlum sub-district, Pattani province, and Yupho sub-district, Yala province, have encountered no such problem. However, it is a concern which illustrates how innocent people are gripped by fear in a conflict where you cannot trust your neighbours.
“We are indirectly affected by the conflict. We are scared to ask either side for help in case the community becomes the victim of violence or oppression,” said the Iman (community leader) in Katong Village, Gorlum sub-district, Pattani province.
But it is a remote risk that the people here are prepared to take, and attaining start-up capital is the first step of many as they strive to rebuild their lives and rekindle community spirit.
People of the south have been modestly schooled and need help, to manage funds appropriately, and training, to produce locally marketable products such as traditional Thai sweets, chachuk (local tea) and vegetables, as well as offering skilled services like motorbike and mobile phone repairs.
Villagers in Don Mali Temple, the only Buddhist community in Gorlum sub district, said they could not initiate and run these projects without support from the Catholic Church because they do not have knowledge or skills to do it alone.
While these vocational schemes provide valuable additional income to families in the area, easing the burden of day-to-day living expenses, residents also speak of a revived sense of community and elevated morale.
This sense of unity has not only been eroded by the on-going conflict, but also by some of the social issues which are loosely connected.
Unemployment among young Muslim men in the South is a product of cultural norms and a poor education which steers many disaffected youngsters to drug abuse, crime and often terrorist associations.
DISAC youth programs are thus of paramount importance in stemming the conflict and improving the lives of communities trapped in its midst.
Ismae Bune, 24, leads a youth farming project in Koubesrila village, Gorlum sub-district, involving five other young Muslim men aged 20-24.
Like many in the region, Bune spent the last two years unemployed. This is not necessarily through lack of opportunity, but as a consequence of cultural affliction. It is normal for Muslim men in the south of Thailand to spend their days drinking chachuk while the women work the fields and keep homes in order.
However, after two idle years Bune decided to use his time more constructively. He now manages a DISAC-sponsored farming project on a small plot of land donated by the local community and aims to change the attitudes of local people by encouraging them to use their time purposefully and productively.
Bune hopes that it will occupy their minds, helping them steer clear of drugs. The emerging community leader has personally known of 50 peers who take recreational drugs, a problem which he sees is undermining unity within the community and fuelling petty crime in the area. He ultimately hopes to commercialise the project to generate income for him and his partners, turning it into more than just a hobby.
These projects are reaching various levels of maturity and while it is hard to measure their success, inroads are being made.
Father Suwat said there is still much work to be done following a recent inspection of the initiatives in the South; “We cannot say they are successful as we need more time for this ongoing work. DISAC has been greeted well by the government and the local communities who are beginning to trust us. This is a good starting point and we think that in the second and third years, these projects will show success and act as a good model for progress in the region.”