THE LONG-RUNNING unrest in the southernmost Narathiwat border province is showing signs of easing but restoring confidence and economic progress poses major challenges.
Security authorities believe if the economic situation of the local people can be improved, the incidence of violence will go down. The province, which borders Malaysia, is struggling to become the attraction it once was.
There has been progress on the security side. Narathiwat’s Cho Airong district was declared the first pilot safe zone in the strife-torn deep South in April following peace talks between Thai authorities and MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation of six insurgent groups in the restive South. The zone was seen as another step towards ending the insurgency that erupted in the Muslim-majority region in 2004 and has left thousands dead.
Efforts are being made to boost the province’s economic prospects. Narathiwat’s Sungai Kolok, the main gateway between Thailand and Malaysia, is being developed as an international border-trade city under the government’s “Triangle of Stability, Prosperity, and Sustainability” scheme to create model cities.
Approved in 2016, the project was aimed at transforming the sensitive red-zone areas in the restive South into an economic “Golden Triangle”. The other two cities under the scheme were Nong Chik district in Pattani province, which will be developed as an agriculture industry city, and Betong in Yala province, which will become a sustainable development city.
Last month, a state of emergency in Sungai Kolok was lifted.
A decade ago, Sungai Kolok was renowned as an economic and border tourism centre where Malaysians liked to spend their holidays, lured by the entertainment venues and shopping. But those days are long gone.
Sungai Kolok’s once-famous nightlife venues have lost their attraction. When the sun goes down, and darkness envelops the city, it is eerily quiet.
Currently, 78,456 people live in Sungai Kolok, making up about 10 per cent of the overall population of Narathiwat. The district’s border trade value last year was Bt4.28 billion, up 35 per cent from the previous year.
Thai merchants nowadays cross the major border checkpoint in Sungai Kolok to enter Kelantan, the Malaysian border city, to sell food and household goods as the neighbours now have more purchasing power than before.
Sungai Kolok resident Sapina Asmae, left, rents a stall in Rantau Panjang, a town in Kelantan, Malaysia, for selling beverage and sausages. She pays the rent for Bt900 a year.
The residents of Sungai Kolok and Kelantan are allowed to cross over to the other side for work or leisure, and return on the same day with border passes.
“In the past, every man wanted to visit Kolok but now the attractiveness has gone. Kolok is no longer the same. It has lost its charm,” Maj-General Sompol Pankul, commander of Narathiwat Task Force, said.
The lack of new development projects and the violent conflict are cited as major reasons why this destination has lost its appeal to Malaysians.
The sources said that in comparison, Kelantan had seen rapid development over the years. There are more attractions there than on the Thai side of the border so their people are staying away.
Sompol said the insurgency situation in Narathiwat had seen a big improvement and the number of violent incidents has continued to drop.
“Over the past two weeks, there have been no violent attacks. The lack of violence has now become ‘abnormal’ in the eyes of local people,” said Sompol, who has spent 12 years of his career in the three restive southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani.
The commander, however, voiced concerns that attempts were being made by the insurgents to plant wrong beliefs in children and incite hatred, but the authorities were keeping a close watch and were trying to steer the youth on the right educational path.
Sompol said there had been 22 acts of violence in Narathiwat from October 1 last year until July 25 and 98 suspects had been arrested.
The last major incidents took place in the heart of Sungai Kolok on April 9 when there were three bomb attacks that caused a little damage, but they were motivated by causes other than the southern insurgency, according to the authorities.
The insurgents have changed their pattern of attacks, Sompol said.
These days, they do not shoot but use a “hit-and-run” strategy, or what they call “five-minute thief”. For example, they tend to plant a bomb at ATM machines, which takes only five to 10 minutes, and escape easily.
The volunteer spirit
The province still bears scars of the years-long unrest. In Muang district, one can still see remnants of four three-storey shophouses that were damaged in a petrol-bomb attack more than 10 years ago. It lies abandoned with a sign that the site is up for sale.
Numerous checkpoints operate day and night, manned by armed soldiers. They are a normal sight in both the highways and streets of Muang and Sungai Kolok to prevent attacks in the most heavily populated areas.
A security checkpoint on the Muang district highway in Narathiwat province at night.
Security agencies are also encouraging civic society or volunteers to take part in the surveillance.
Anyanee Deuramae, 40, is with the Volunteer Defence Corps, known in Thai as Or Sor or Kong Asa Raksa Dindaen. During the day, she works as a clerical officer but at night she joins securities forces at the all-night checkpoint in Muang district four times a month.
“I have been with them for six years. I’m not afraid. I want to be the eyes and ears [for authorities],” she told The Nation as she prepared for duty at the “Jumroon Nara” checkpoint.
Every Or Sor, or the so-called “people warriors”, get training in how to use arms and fighting.
Sompol said in the next three years, the local Or Sor would be trained as “defensive warriors” to help restore peace and order in the restive South.
Sompol believes the violence in the deep South will end soon.
“We are almost reaching our goal to build sustainable peace and order after spending more than Bt100 billion fighting the violence. Now we are in the process of transformation towards sustainable development,” he said.
“When local people can resume their normal life, go out in the evening or join festivals, that’s what I call ‘peace returns’,” he said.
“If you came here in 2006, you would have found the streets empty, because no one dared to leave their homes,” he said.
But now they go out as normal, which means they are confident in the ability of the authority to solve the problem, he said.
However, he said a decline in violent incidents was not indicative of peace, as in many cases it is difficult for authorities to distinguish whether the attacks stemmed from personal conflicts or the insurgency.
There are still “complicating dangers” in the deep South from narcotics trade and the smuggling of goods and petrol, he added.
“I think these activities facilitate the [insurgency] movement to get money for staging attacks,” he added.
“If we can solve the bread and butter issues or inject money into the villages and build a strong community, the unrest will end,” he said.
Maj-General Sompol Pankul, commander of Narathiwat Task Force
An economic challenge
While security authorities are trying hard to strengthen the local community in fighting the insurgents to restore peace, improving the life of the natives so they can live in economic comfort remains a challenge.
Sungai Kolok authorities had proposed several development projects to achieve the goal of becoming an international border-trade city, including setting up a tax-free zone for both Thais and foreign tourists, construction of an agricultural products market centre, and installation of new technology to improve the speed and security of Thai-Malaysia border immigration.
Suchada Phannara, the mayor of Sungai Kolok, admitted that the plan had made very slow progress over the past two years because there were too many obstacles in the regulations.
She urged Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to invoke his absolute power under Article 44 to provide funding for development and appoint the private sector to manage the fund.
“Nowadays, Sungai Kolok has become just a ‘transit’ city. Tourists do not stay here overnight but instead opt to stay in Hat Yai, [Songkhla province], from where they can connect to other cities by flights and trains and there is much more to see than here,” Suchada said.
“To be a model city, we need to create or have something that will be very special. If we can develop a new tourist attraction for people to take photos with and to check in on social media, it will become a new landmark that Malaysia will never have,” she said. The mayor suggested that the government buy a 25-rai (4-hectare) plot of land where a low-income Baan Ua-arthorn housing project has been abandoned, demolish the houses, and develop a new tourist attraction.
Preecha Nuannoy, the district chief of Sungai Kolok, left, and Suchada Phannara, the mayor of Sungai Kolok, centre.
Artisan Puvapiparttanavong, head of Sungai Kolok Customs House, said since a new government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had come to power in Malaysia, there had been an increase in the number of Malaysians visiting Thailand.
“In the near future, our tourism industry should be revived. But our authorities need to help restore their confidence by showing them that they will be safe,” he said.