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Analysis: Thailand shields tourist trade after blasts

First published with Al Jazeera 16 August, 2016

Bangkok – A series of bomb blasts that killed four people and wounded dozens in tourist towns across Thailand last week shattered the country’s carefully crafted image of laid back beaches and gilded Buddhist temples.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but authorities have been quick to deny any involvement by separatists waging a violent campaign in the country’s far southern provinces.

For some analysts, however, the official rejection of separatist involvement is more about protecting Thailand’s booming tourism sector, which accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s GDP, than adopting a considered approach to the investigation.

“The evidence and the rhetoric are completely disconnected,” Anders Engvall, a research fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics, told Al Jazeera.

Engvall, who has conducted research on the Southern Thailand rebellion for more than a decade, said that regardless of evidence, Thai authorities were likely to deny any link with the violence that has plagued the south of the country for more than a decade.

“Even if you have Thai courts sentencing southern separatists for doing something, [the military] will still say they are not involved,” he said.

The southern region, which the country annexed more than a century ago and which borders neighbouring Malaysia, has been battered by 12 years of violence as Malay Muslim rebels seek greater autonomy in a Buddhist-majority country.

Near daily shootings and roadside bombs in the area have killed more than 6,500 people since 2004, most of them civilians.

Yet, police officials say the bombings and arson attacks that hit some of the country’s best known tourist resorts on Thursday and Friday, including Hua Hin, Phuket, Phang Nga and Surat Thani, were orchestrated by a single perpetrator.

“I can assure you that these current attacks aren’t linked to incidents that have occurred in the Deep South of Thailand,” Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, told reporters days after the attacks.

On Monday, assistant national police chief Suchart Theerasawat said that, while the bombs used in the attacks “were related and similar to those found in insurgent attacks in the Deep South”, it was too early to conclude there was any link.

A reflexive exclusion of southern separatist groups from the investigation was also motivated by efforts to contain perceptions of the deadly, yet localised, southern conflict, Engvall said.

“The Thai authorities have been very eager to avoid any type of international involvement in the conflict so they do everything possible to prevent UN or Western nations from getting involved in any way,” he said.

Bloody conflict

In 2004, tension in the so-called Deep South between the majority Malay, Muslim population and their Buddhist countrymen, erupted into bloody conflict.

Bombings, shootings and arson attacks are regular events in the three-most affected provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, as well as parts of Songkhla province.

The violence has mostly been confined to the three provinces, and no attack outside the region of the scale and complexity of August 11-12 has ever been linked to armed groups.

Engvall, however, said a recent vote for a new military-drafted constitution, within the context of floundering peace talks with the separatists in the south, could have acted as a catalyst for more audacious attacks.

“They [the separatists] have gone on for 12 years in isolation with little success. In the first 10 days of August, they did 50 of exactly the same type of attacks in the Deep South and no one cared,” Engvall said.

“They have a motive to go outside and aim further north to achieve their political aims.”

The potential push north comes after military statements that the referendum on the constitution, which gives the army more power in how the country is governed, had passed peacefully.

Other Deep South watchers said similarities in the modus operandi of last week’s attacks with those of the fighters were another reason to consider separatist groups.

Of particular interest to analysts was the use of so-called “double tap” explosions, where two bombs in close proximity explode one after another to target emergency workers responding to the first – an established tactic of Deep South separatists.

Instead, officials are laying blame for the attacks on a vaguely defined network conspiring to commit “local sabotage” – phrasing which seems to focus on enemies of the military government who are likely to be aggrieved by the referendum results.

It also indirectly focuses attention on the country’s “Red Shirt” political movement, and those loyal to popular former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thaksin was removed by a military coup in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, was removed by the Constitutional Court of Thailand in 2014. The military launched a coup soon after.

While not explicitly named, the Red Shirts have rebuffed the implicit accusations, one leader even threatening defamation lawsuits to anyone trying to link them to last week’s attacks.

Addressing the nation on Friday night, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander who now rules Thailand, asked for patience and calm in the investigation.

He discouraged speculation about the possible identity of the attackers before speaking of “bad people” who had been taking action against his government since before the August 7 referendum.

The remarks, again, firmly placed last week’s attack in the context of domestic politics and not the southern insurgency.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said there was a need to wait for more substantial evidence before making any conclusions about the tourist town attacks.

But, he conceded, that “there’s a built-in bias to put it to a domestic political problem”.

“Either way we are likely to see more violence, not less,” he said.


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Thailand votes in favour of military-backed constitution

First published with the Guardian 7 August 2016

Thailand has overwhelmingly voted to accept a new military-backed constitution, despite fears among critics that it will undermine the power of the next elected government. The Election Commission of Thailand released its “unofficial” results just hours after the polls closed on Sunday.

With 90% of the votes counted, about 61% of voters had backed the new charter – the country’s 20th constitution since 1932. A 55% turnout fell well short of the 80% the commission had forecast, falling short even of the 57% who voted in the country’s last referendum in 2007.

Wantana Kasetsalee, a Thai parliamentary officer overseeing a polling station in Bangkok’s Ekkamai neighbourhood, told the Guardian there were fewer voters at her station than previous elections, yet she never doubted the outcome, and laughed when asked which way she voted. “Yes! Of course yes, [this constitution is] more useful for the people.”

The commission said the unofficial tally meant some 27.6 million Thais had voted atmore than 95,000 polling stations.

Having taken power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had presented the referendum as a major step on its roadmap to “fully functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next government to fight against corruption, while ensuring that the current programme of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning its influence would remain well past its interim tenure.

The NCPO, which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014, has stifled the media and banned political gatherings. Ahead of the referendum, political rallies and open discussion about the constitution were banned, and criticism of the draft was made punishable by 10 years in jail. The targeted suppression of no vote campaigners resulted in what Amnesty International called “excessive, unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions.”

On Sunday morning, in the Phaya Thai district of central Bangkok, the interim premier and leader of the NCPO, Prayuth Chan-ocha, cast his ballot before urging the country’s 50 million-strong electorate to follow his lead. “This is about the future of Thailand … let’s create a landslide [turnout] and make history.”

One woman in the crowd interrupted Prayuth, shouting: “Can you manage the country? Can you protect the country?” She was then quickly taken away by security.

Yingcheep Atchanont, a member of the ad-hoc Referendum Watch Network, told the Guardian that while it had concerns, no major voting irregularities had been witnessed by the group. “We have [received] a lot of reports, but they are mostly small things.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the passing of the constitution “reinforces the trend, not just in Thailand but worldwide, in the popular disenfranchisement with politicians, money politics, corruption”, highlighting both the failures of the old political parties in motivating their supporters, and the NCPO’s spotlight on corruption.

“The military has been astute to capitalise and exploit this popular will against the political class. They’ve had effective propaganda in demonising politicians as being corrupt and corruption being the root of Thailand’s problems,” he said.

Approval for the charter also transfers to an approval of the military junta. “Before [the NCPO] had no popular mandate – they took power by force, and since then they’ve been running on empty,” Thitinan said. “This time, they will claim some legitimacy and go full steam ahead. The danger now is that they will be overconfident.”

Prayuth has promised elections in 2017.

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Thailand constitutional referendum: all your questions answered

First published with the Guardian 3 August, 2016

What’s happening?

On Sunday, 7 August 40.4 million eligible voters in Thailand will head to the polls in a referendum for a new constitution. More than 200,000 police officers will be deployed at 94,000 polling stations on the day.

What is the voting for?

Voters will be asked two questions requiring simple yes-no answers:

Do you accept the draft constitution?

Should the Upper House of Parliament be permitted to join the Lower House in selecting a Prime Minister?

Why has the draft constitution proven so controversial?

Having taken power after a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has presented a constitutional referendum as a major step on their roadmap to “fully-functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next Government to fight against corruption while ensuring the NCPO’s current program of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning their influence would remain well past their interim tenure.

Among the most controversial provisions is the NCPO appointment of the 250 seats of the Upper House in the next government. Within a bicameral parliament, an NCPO appointed upper house would mean a military-backed delegation are guaranteed a critical role in the next term. Critics say this could open the door for an unelected, military-backed Prime Minister.

What’s the context?

Since Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the country of 67 million has swept through nineteen different constitutions.

When ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, Thailand entered a tumultuous political period of coups d’etat and elections, shaped along colour-coded lines of allegiance and protest. On one side are the so-called ‘red-shirt’ supporters, who are typically rural, working class groups and mostly back the Shinawatras. On the other side are the ‘yellow-shirts’, typically more urban, middle-class and firmly against the Shinawatras and their proxies.

In 2014 when demonstrations against Thaksin’s sister, then-premier Yingluck, led to her ouster in another military coup, the NCPO has been in charge of guiding the country back to the next democratic elections.

Who are the major players?

Thailand’s military-installed prime minister Prayuth , the man who spearheaded the military coup against Yingluck in 2014, the NCPO, the National Legislative Assembly and, to a lesser extent, former ‘yellow-shirt’ groups have all been pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Two former prime ministers, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, have publicly rejected the charter. ‘Red-shirt’ associated groups have also rejected the draft, while a number of student activist groups have been publicly campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

How has campaigning been going?

Officially, campaigning for the referendum has been banned. The reality, however, has been a targeted suppression of ‘No’ campaigners.

On 21 July, a Red-shirt TV station was closed for 30 days, while over the past month, scores of activists and at least one journalist has been arrested under Article 61 of the controversial Referendum Act. The Act forbids any media from spreading “false information” which might influence voters, but also bans the spreading of “violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive” information by any individual. Critics claim the imprecise, broad wording of the Act permits the targeting of ‘No’ campaigners.

The UN and multiple ambassadors have expressed concern of the clamp-down.

What is the likely outcome?

Thailand’s polls have proven to be as fickle as most, with the majority having the results looking tight with a small majority for the ‘Yes’ camp. However, the same polls also claim a large majority remain undecided.

With exit polling by media effectively banned, the exact results of the elections will have to wait until official announcements are made, up to three days after the event. However, it is expected a general idea of the result should be clear within hours of the polls closing.

What happens next?

A ‘Yes’ vote would allow the military-backed NCPO to claim legitimacy and prepare for elections slated irrespective of outcome for mid-2017. However, in the event of a rejected charter the NCPO would be obliged to offer another option, which could take months. When questioned about the possibility of a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, Prime Minister Prayuth quipped that he would simply write another one himself.

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Thailand Referendum: fears over fair vote as military cracks down on dissent

First published in the Guardian 3 August, 2016

Human rights groups have voiced concern about an upcoming constitutional referendum in Thailand, saying a ban on campaigning and a crackdown on dissent are preventing Thais from making an informed choice and potentially handing an advantage to the military.

More than 40 million voters will head to the polls on 7 August to give their verdict on proposed changes to the constitution that will, if approved, give increased power to the ruling military junta.

However, in the run-up to the vote, the junta passed a new law forbidding campaigning on the issue and also launched a crackdown on activists and the media.

Last month, Amnesty International warned that the Thailand’s controversial Referendum Act, which enshrined a possible 10-year jail sentences for anyone who defies it, was “unjustifiably restricting rights in advance of the referendum”.

More than 20 ambassadors from Europe, US and Canada also issued a public statement last month expressing joint concern about the ruling National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) suppressive actions.

Article 61 of Thailand’s Referendum Act has been specifically targeted for harsh criticism from human rights groups, with its severe penalties applying vaguely to “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth.”

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, told the Guardian that such an atmosphere “does not allow Thai voters to make an informed choice.”

In place of open, public debate, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has instead relied on promulgating summaries of the draft provisions on TV, radio, online and in leaflets.

While they are supposed to be neutral and independent summarisations, Sunai said: “I had the chance to read the publication and it is clearly biased. It is along the lines of NCPO propaganda…In a way the ECT ends up being part of the [vote yes] campaign, while on the other hand we see almost daily suppression of the No vote.”

For Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of local news site Prachatai, the vague remit of the ban on campaigning has hindered her staff members’ ability to effectively report on the constitution.

“Compared to previous votes, this is much different,” she told the Guardian, highlighting a growing sense of fear and self-censorship amongst both reporters and their subjects.

One month ago, Prachatai felt the full weight of the Referendum Act when one of their journalists was arrested and charged while covering the Vote No campaign of the anti-junta New Democracy Movement.

“We are hoping they drop the charge.” Chiranuch said.

Two weeks ago, Peace TV, a TV station supporting the ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, was banned from broadcasting for 30 days, thereby missing the immediate build up and aftermath of the referendum.

Despite the strict new laws, some activists are determined to oppose the new constitution.

Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the New Democracy Movement, told the Guardian he is actively campaigning against the constitution, despite the risks.

“The draft process has had no civilian involvement.” He said, referencing the ruling military NCPO appointed drafting committee.

“The main thing it represents is the NCPO, the main thing it will do is prolong the power of the NCPO.”

As a result of distributing leaflets opposing the constitution, Rangsiman and more than a dozen of his activist friends have already found themselves in violation of the Referendum Act and are now facing possible 10-year long prison sentences.

Criticism of the NCPO’s expansive suppression of dissent has been a growing concern since the junta and its leader, prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, came into power shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra’s removal in the 2014 military coup.

However, with the long-vaunted constitutional referendum approaching, the NCPO hope a victory deliver a mandate to kick-start their “roadmap to democracy”.

Yet where criticism has been permitted, it has been focused unremittingly on the content of the constitution itself.

Upon the draft charter’s public release in late March, a number of provisions immediately alarmed observers across political divides. Both Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and their opposition Democrat party have publicly rejected the charter, citing articles which would weaken the elected lower house of parliament while extending the influence of the military.

The junta, meanwhile, has voiced a belief that the draft would provide the country with the means to operate with more stability, while combatting the endemic corruption that plagues the country’s politics.

“[The constitution] essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity,” Sunai said, highlighting the NCPO’s ability to appoint all 250 seats of the Upper House of Thailand’s Parliament. “With [those provisions], it doesn’t matter what else it says about the promotion and protection of human rights because that would not supersede the actions of the NCPO.”

Yet for Rangsiman and the NDM activists, the content of the constitution is almost besides the point. “To be honest, most people are not deciding on the content of the constitution,” he told the Guardian.

“What they are doing is they look at Prayuth and decide ‘Do I like what he is doing, or not?’ That is what this is about.”



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Can Language Classes Deter Violence?

First published with IRIN 26 July, 2016

For Ismail Jamaat, a science teacher at Tanjung primary school, going to work can feel like entering a war zone. Over the past decade, his government school has three times endured firebomb attacks. In 2013, Ismail, along with scores of schoolchildren, had to witness the murder of his friend and colleague Cholathee Charoenchol by masked gunmen in the school cafeteria.

Tanjung is one of more than 1,200 government schools in Thailand’s so called ‘Deep South’, where a deadly sectarian conflict between ethnic Malay Muslims and their Thai Buddhist countrymen has left more than 6,500 dead since 2004. With nearly 200 teachers assassinated and 300 government schools razed over the past decade, education in the region is a critical issue.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence

Its segregated nature also taps into the deep-rooted grievances that fuel the conflict. Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the Deep South identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall.

“When you have this feeling that government schools belong to the Thai, and [Islamic schools] are for Patani [the ethnic Malay Muslim population], then what do you think happens?” Ismail asked rhetorically.

He is not alone in believing that the consistent attacks on government schools and their staff are, at least in part, down to the growing divide in the Deep South’s education policy, one in which the perception of threatened Patani identity has stretched to incorporate the language of the classroom.

In an exhaustive 2012 report into the conflict in southern Thailand, the International Crisis Group highlighted the “marginalisation of [Deep South] culture, history, religion and language” as a major force fuelling the violence.

The education policy has long embittered the majority Patani-Malay speaking community of Thailand’s four southernmost provinces. As well as consistently producing some of the poorest literacy scores in the country, families in the south see the enforced Thai-language curriculum as an attempt to further marginalise a key facet of their own identity: their own language.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Lessons in Arabic at Banbuengnamsai primary school, a participant in the pilot programme

Mixing it up

Suwilai Premsrirat, a professor of linguistics at Thailand’s Mahidol University, hopes the pilot programme she launched 10 years ago will provide the long-term solution. The idea itself is simple: integrate the Patani-Malay languages, spoken (at least at home) by 83 percent of the Deep South population, into the classroom.

Written in an alphabet based on Arabic script, Patani-Malay languages are completely different from Standard Thai. And unlike in Malaysia, nobody in Thailand is required to learn Standard Malay, making the gulf between Thai and Patani-Malay speakers even wider.

With nearly a decade’s worth of research from 16 schools, the results from Premsrirat’s programme, which finished in March, are encouraging. “We consider it a success,” she told IRIN. “We want to make it [clear] we respect [Patani-Malay language and culture].”

By Grade 1 (age six to seven), the research showed that on average (across the schools) 58 percent of the children were scoring 70 percent or higher in areas of bilingual comprehension, compared with just 18 percent scoring similar marks in control schools.


By intermingling the various dialects, languages and scripts of the Deep South, Suwilai found herself at the heart of the region’s identity conflict. Immediately, she encountered problems from both Muslim communities and the central government.

“Some [in the Muslim communities] think this is a way to destroy their Islamic identity,” Suwilai said, referring to the use of Thai characters for Patani-Malay words in kindergarten.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Thai government, which originally asked Suwilai to research a programme, became sceptical of her approach once Arabic script was introduced to the curriculum. She recalled an irate call from a man she believed was from the Ministry of Education. “I got a phone call… he talked a lot, complaining and saying ‘this is not a good idea’.”

But Suwilai and her team are determined to use the promising research to lobby officials so the programme is rolled out more broadly. “They cannot deny the results,” she said.

For the professor, the biggest obstacle will be whether the capricious politics of Bangkok can remain stable long enough for her team to make their case.

The ruling military junta in Thailand has promised elections in 2017 but the country is being torn apart by a bitter political schism. On one side are the royalist elite, Bangkok’s bourgeoisie, the judiciary and the military, while on the other are loyalists of two former premiers (siblings Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra) from an emerging provincial middle class, supported by the working class, rural voters, and the police.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the Deep South identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall

Missed opportunity?

If the politicians and the military are not careful, Suwilai worries that the usual machinations in Bangkok will mean a big opportunity is missed to address the ills of the Deep South.

Less than an hour’s drive from Tanjung School sits Banbuengnamsai primary school. Palm trees sway outside the windows while in one class a child nervously reads her text out loud to her schoolmates, who occasionally giggle at any mistake. At first glance, it looks like any other government school in rural Thailand.

But as one of the first schools to accept the pilot programme curriculum, the difference with Banbuengnamsai lies in the classroom. In one class the children practise their handwriting, but instead of Thai, the script is Arabic. Above the whiteboard, a photo of the Thai flag is flanked on one side by the obligatory portrait of the Thai King, but on the other by a photo of the Ka’ba, the holiest site in Islam.

Mrs Hareena, a teacher at the school for 11 years, said the change was a shock, at least initially.

“At first, I felt so strange to include [Patani-Malay]! Before, we just taught Thai.”

But it didn’t take long for Hareena to realise the benefits of the new system. “You can see [the students] are understanding better now,” she told IRIN.

Now that the programme is officially over, none of the 16 schools from the pilot are obliged to continue with the curriculum, but Hareena is adamant that they should.

“I want to continue from this point on… We should all continue on.”

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Wife of anti-monarchist British journalist detained in Thailand

First published in the Guardian 22 July, 2016

The Thai wife of a British journalist has been detained by police after her husband, an anti-monarchist, shared unflattering pictures of the country’s crown prince on social media and wrote about the royal succession.

Detectives said the photos shared by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Bangkok-based Reuters correspondent who has been banned from the country since 2011 and now lives in Edinburgh, were fake and violated the kingdom’s royal defamation law.

His wife, Noppawan Bunluesilp, was visiting relatives in Bangkok, was detained by police and had electronic items seized. She was accompanied to the city’s crime suppression division by her father and three-year-old son and questioned before being released.

Marshall, who is the author of a banned book about the monarchy, told the Guardian that while he had criticised the royal family and Thailand’s draconian defamation law, he has always ensured Noppawan was never involved.

“I have always been very careful to protect my wife and her family from any consequences of my journalism,” he said via Skype from Hong Kong, where he is on business.

Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws provide for sentences of up to 15 years in jail for anyone found guilty of insulting, threatening, or defaming any of the leading members of the royal family.

According to Marshall, a Facebook post about an “imminent” royal succession and his sharing of a German tabloid’s striking photos, apparently of the crown prince, were probably “the trigger” for his wife’s detention.

According to Agence France-Presse, the commander of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau, Thitirat Nongharnpitak, told reporters the pictures were doctored, saying “the culprit is Andrew MacGregor Marshall who has violated lèse-majesté laws for several years.”

On Friday morning, the webpage remained blocked in Thailand.

Human rights observers believe that protection for free speech in Thailand has deteriorated rapidly since the military coup in 2014.

A recent UN review said lèse-majesté had been employed excessively to silence critics and curb free speech.

Last year, the New York Times found several critical articles on Thailand removed from international editions printed in the kingdom. And this week Thai subscribers to the Economist magazine were told by email that the latest issue, which features an article on the royal succession, would not be distributed owing to “the sensitive content … and the resulting potential risk”.

Marshall said this free speech crackdown was the reason he considered his wife and son’s return to the kingdom potentially problematic, yet the police raid still shocked him. “It’s one thing to be aware of [the risks], but to suddenly discover more than 20 police are raiding your wife’s family home is horrible.”

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South Thailand’s Battle Against the Trauma of Conflict

First published with Al Jazeera 25 June, 2016

Narathiwat, Thailand – Cholathee Charoenchol, a 51-year-old teacher at Tanjung primary school in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province, waited patiently in his cafeteria on January 23, 2013. It was lunchtime, and the young pupils were slowly trickling in from class.

Between 30 to 40 children, including his six-year-old daughter, had already made their way to their tables when masked gunmen burst through the cafeteria doors. One of them walked up to Cholathee and shot him in the head at point-blank range.

Amid the ensuing screams, the gunmen fled, and the schoolchildren sprinted from the school grounds. Nearly every one of the school’s 290 children heard the gunshots; many were left severely traumatised.

In 2004, the simmering sectarian tensions in Thailand’s “deep south” – an area making up the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and four districts of neighbouring Songkhla –  erupted into violence.

The majority of the Muslim, ethnic Malay population of Thailand’s deep south have long-held strained relations with the rest of their overwhelmingly Buddhist countrymen. More than 6,000 people have been killed over the past decade.

With the conflict now entering its 12th year, this latest round of ethnic and religious violence is forcing more than a million people to live out their lives under the spectre of car bombs, assassinations, heavy military presence and death.

With over a decade of low-intensity but unceasing violence, psychologists say it is no longer the dead but the living who really concern them, with their invisible scars of trauma growing with every passing year, threatening the mental wellbeing of an entire generation.

“In Pattani now, they are no longer shocked. If there’s a bomb, people will just say, ‘OK, there was a bomb. How many dead? How many injured?’ That’s it,” says Dr Pechdau Tohmeena, director of the Regional Mental Health Centre in the Southern Provinces branch of Thailand.

For Dr Tohmeena, the desensitised facade to violence in the deep south is a typical, and completely acceptable, reaction to a setting of prolonged violence.

A sign outside of a military checkpoint that states: ‘I just want the south to be peaceful; stop already, with all your violence’ [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

“Twelve years is a long time, and the general population have modified themselves just in order to stay [sane] in this situation,” she explains.

Trauma and depression

The focus for the mental health workers in the deep south has been on finding, documenting and helping the ever-expanding group of people most acutely affected by traumatic events, such as witnesses to violence, as well as those made orphans, widows as well as the physically disabled.

In the first decade of the conflict, an estimated 3,000 women were widowed, while 5,686 children were made orphans, according to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

Addressing the stresses, anxieties and general mental conditions brought on by these tragedies is “of the utmost priority”, says Dr Tohmeena.

Off a major road just a few miles outside Pattani, 47-year-old Wan Chai pulls himself slowly from his bed and on to his wheelchair. In 2005, while out driving his car, he suddenly found himself under a hail of gunfire. He survived, but one of the bullets entered the right side of his chest and smashed into his spinal cord, forcing him to face a paraplegic future.

Soon after, his marriage fell apart and his wife moved away, taking their daughter with her. Wan was devastated.

“I always dream of seeing my daughter again,” he says.

Nasruddin, a coordinator at the Pattani Medical Health Centre, explains Wan’s situation at the time: “He was very depressed afterwards … He was actually suicidal for a time.”

With no work and no family, a high prevalence of depression among the newly physically disabled is very common, expalins Nasruddin. “For many, they don’t know what they are going through, so they suffer without any help,” he adds.

Wan Chai, who was shot while driving by unidentified gunmen 12 years ago, leaving him paralysed [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

The stigma and general lack of understanding of mental health is, for Dr Tohmeena and others, a major obstacle facing psychiatric health workers in the deep south.

“There is still a stigma [attached] to mental health,” says Dr Hartinee, a psychologist at Bacho hospital in Narathiwat district.

“People think it is OK to cry only for a funeral; but we have to show them that after seeing a deadly attack or having a friend killed, it is totally normal to have trouble sleeping, to cry a lot, not be hungry or have nightmares,” Dr Hartinee explains. “Then they can come see us.”

The stigma of mental health

Thailand is a country without a history of seeking out psychological treatment, says Dr Tohmeena. “Typically, a mental health problem is translated as ‘craziness’,” she says. But the doctor is keen to point out, however, that a lot of ground has been made over the past 12 years.

“Originally, we were very under-prepared,” she says. “In 2004, there was only one psychiatrist posted to cover Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.”

In response to the dearth in personnel, Dr Tohmeena was relocated from Bangkok to her native Pattani by the director general of the Department of Mental Health in late 2004.

“I was tasked with building the first mental health office in the deep south,” she says. “Within four years, we had 74 trained psychologists posted around the region.”

After the murder of Chonlathee Charoencho at this school, Dr Hartinee, right, deployed swift and thorough mental-health support to the children, families and teachers [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

Even with the extra help, most psychiatric centres are still understaffed, forcing those involved into more resourceful methods of work.

Dr Hartinee considers her department one of the best examples of success despite limited manpower. She highlights efforts in training a network of people throughout their different community groups.

“We have security people, religious leaders, village elders, health volunteers and teachers. We tell them how to behave and what to look for in someone who may be suffering,” she says.

In turn, she explains, this network can then further spread a general awareness and understanding of mental health, while providing Dr Hartinee’s team some insight into where to go and whom to help.

Today, mental-health workers highlight their outreach programmes, mobile clinics, and network building as major reasons why they have some 70 percent coverage, according to Dr Tohmeena’s estimates.

For Dr Tohmeena, Dr Hartinee and their colleagues, to succeed in better helping these “at risk” groups, while changing the general understanding of mental health, would be to make significant inroads into mitigating a potential mental health disaster.

According to the Violence Related Mental Health Surveillance (VMS) database, which records mental health issues resulting from the ongoing violence, some 11,772 adults have exhibited mental-health issues since 2008, while nearly 1,200 children have been affected since 2010.

These numbers are actually thought to be conservative by Dr Tohmeena, who makes the point that the data excludes those who never make their plight known, as well as those unrecorded for any reason.

“You can imagine [the numbers] are much higher,” she adds.

Additionally, Dr Tohmeena notes that only 10 percent of the children orphaned are included in the VMS database, and thus, are not screened by mental health officers. She worries that PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – which she already thinks is severely underreported in general, “is even worse for children”.

Grade 6 pupils at Tanjung School raise their hands when asked who was in the canteen and saw the murder of their teacher, Chonlathee Charoenchol, in 2013 [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

Long-term effects 

A little over three years after Cholathee’s death, Dr Hartinee returned to Tanjung school. She was part of the response team who came immediately after the murder to help screen every pupil from the school. In the first month, some 90 pupils were identified as suffering from some mental-health issues, but today, all is well, she says.

Dr Hartinee greets students from the doorway of the Grade 6 classroom. After a nod from the teacher, she steps in and asks the class with a smile: “Who remembers what happened in the cafeteria three years ago?”

What follows is a peculiarly open dialogue between Dr Hartinee and the class of 11-year-olds about the murder of Cholathee.

“Who was in the cafeteria?” she asks as a few hands are raised. “Who ran to the field?” A few hands drop. “Who jumped into the pond?” Laughter while a few children raise their hands. Eventually, one boy is pointed out as having actually been splattered with blood during the attack.

“And how do you feel about it today?” asks Dr Hartinee.

“I’m fine,” responds the boy. “But I’m afraid of blood.”

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