We normally learn about the stories of distant people and places by reading or listening – a literary understanding of the world that spread with the expansion of formal education and print-capitalism. But during the Age of Discovery, Europeans’ curiosity about exotic lands and their strange natives grew stronger than words could satisfy, giving rise to picture books.
“Kingdom’s Edge” by photojournalist Richard Humphries follows in this long tradition, revealing the underlying plight and sorrow of the Malay Muslims of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces through a collection of masterful and poignant photographs.
The book is divided into three parts, each contrasting colourful and vibrant landscapes with the dark and sometimes deadly circumstances of the people who live in them.
The inclusion of a map of Narathiwat, Patani and Yala gives a geographical overview – three provinces wedged together up against the border with Northern Malaysia. But it also offers insight into why they are ethnically and religiously closer to Malaysia than to Thailand.
Part I of the book presents pictures of lives and cultures interacting together, building their communities and struggling to maintain normality and sanity as forces beyond their control tear at the fabric of their peaceful and sometimes joyful society. Muslim women emerge from the mosque dressed in the classical finery of Manohra dance. Above the road hangs a large picture of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, overlooking the land. In contrast are the pictures of a train station where a bomb has suspended services, and of a school burned down leaving only the Thai flag hanging from the pole in front. The dark theme continues in images of police checkpoints and patrols by militia and the Navy, whose heavily armed presence contrasts starkly with the fertile and pristine landscape.
Part II demonstrates the everyday co-existence of Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims in the South, by focusing in on their symbols of belief and reverence.
On the wall of a Muslim’s teashop in Narathiwat town, “Islamic prayers and an image of the Kaaba in Mecca hang alongside an image of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej”. The two symbols of faith and obedience share the same space, embodying the life of the community. The co-existence of Thai and Malay culture and daily life is spontaneous and peaceful, despite the differences, and overlaps in the mental arenas of belief and self-awareness.
Part III crystalises the heightened contradictions of the deep South by turning our gaze on scenes of celebration and ceremony that jar with their wider social setting.
In one picture a Thai boy scout carries a portrait of King Bhumibol during a children’s day parade through Narathiwat town. In the next, we see a Narathiwat graduation ceremony for village defence volunteers – whose course featured reconnaissance, information warfare and vehicle patrols, and culminated with a live-fire exercise. Beside it, a Buddhist monk collects morning alms under armed military protection.
This last section bears witness to the violence and brutality afflicting both Malay and Thai citizens and testing the ties between them. The recent attempts on both sides of the deadly conflict to restart negotiations have come too early – and under an unstable government – to offer hope of progress.
In the final picture the Sai Buri River winds peacefully beneath lush green trees through the village of Si Sakhon in Pattani, betraying the reality yet also reminding us that peace does flow under the surface of conflict.
“Kingdom’s Edge” carefully surveys the deep divisions in the far South, but its masterful aesthetic encompasses a far richer and more nuanced world than the one we are accustomed to seeing on television or online.
By Richard Humphries
Published by Richard Humphries Photography
Available at kingdomsedge.org, 35 pounds (Bt1,500)