Category Archives: Religion

Thailand begins a year of mourning after the death of its beloved King

First published with LA Times 14 October, 2016

Thailand awoke Friday to grief and uncertainty as it began a one-year official mourning period after the death of the country’s beloved monarch of 70 years.

The highly revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died Thursday at age 88 after years of illness and was considered a rare unifying figure in the country’s recent tumultuous history.

A national holiday was declared as leading newspapers and news websites published in monochrome, movies and concerts were rescheduled and all television channels were airing the same tributes to the late king, the world’s longest-ruling current monarch.

State officials and other civil servants were told to maintain an official mourning period of one year. The government asked Thais to avoid wearing bright colors or hold any festive events for 30 days.

The king’s body was moved Friday from Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok to the Grand Palace for a royal bathing ceremony. Lining the procession route, thousands of Thai mourners clad in simple black or white clothing waited patiently beginning in the early morning to pay their respects.

Among those partaking in the bathing ceremony was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the only son of the late king, who was expected to take over the throne from his father.

But no date has been set for a coronation. The leader of Thailand’s ruling junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, told reporters that the crown prince had decided to delay his enthronement to “take time to express sadness with the people nationwide for the time being.”

The delay meant that Thailand was without a king for the first time in 70 years. The head of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulaninda, will act as regent.

Prem and the crown prince have had an acrimonious relationship over the years, sparking further speculation about the king’s succession — talk of which remains a taboo subject due to vaguely worded laws that prohibit any discussion seen as insulting to the monarchy.

Yet in quiet conversations and online forums, the thrice-divorced Vajiralongkorn is widely seen as a playboy ill at ease with the highly public role his Massachusetts-born father played for decades.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders advocacy group released a statement calling on the junta “not to restrict reporting, and not to crack down on all those, including journalists and internet users, who comment on King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death … and its consequences.”

Thai officials were still grappling with the impact of the king’s death on the country’s economy, 10% of which comes from tourism. The Thai stock market rose more than 4% in morning trading in a sign of confidence in the economy.

Though some establishments in Bangkok closed early after news of the king’s death, in the northern city of Chiang Mai, many businesses were operating as usual. Along the narrow streets, hawkers beckoned throngs of tourists while bars and shops remained open and as brightly lit as the day before.

Some Thais found more personal ways to express their grief.

“I wore black not because of Prayuth [asking it of the people] but because I wanted to show my grief myself,” said Tong, who manages a wine bar in the old square and goes by only one name.

“The king was like my father. I wanted to cry.”

Tong said that although she agreed with the call to avoid loud music during the 30-day mourning period, many neighboring bars were avoiding the more severe prohibitions expected of them in order to continue attracting tourists.

“We rely on them,” she said. “If they come and we are all quiet or closed for long, I think then it’s also not good.

“So we go to our own wats [temples] and pray in private.”

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Bridging the language divide in Thailand’s strife-torn deep south

First published with the Guardian 24 August, 2016

For Ismail Jamaat, a science teacher at Tanjung primary school, going to work can feel like entering a war zone. During the past decade, his government school has endured three firebomb attacks. In 2013, Ismail, along with scores of schoolchildren, witnessed 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.

Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence
Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence.

The segregated nature of education 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% 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 a 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.

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% of the deep south population, into the classroom.

Written in Jawi, 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% of the children were scoring 70% or higher in areas of bilingual comprehension, compared with just 18% 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 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.

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
Thailand is 93% Buddhist but in the Deep South four in five of the 1.8 million people living there identify as Muslim.

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,” she said.

But it did not take long for Hareena to realise the benefits of the new system. “You can see [the students] are understanding better now,” she said.

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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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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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.

Resistance

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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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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What Really Happened at Thailand’s Tiger Temple?

First published with Al Jazeera 05 June, 2016

Kanchanaburi, Thailand – Tucked away among the swelling vistas of west Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province, Tanya Erzinclioglu paced around the periphery of Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno temple with her colleagues. Every now and again, she anxiously glanced at her phone, taking calls or checking for updates.

“I have no idea what’s happening,” she said repeatedly to herself.

Tanya’s mornings typically involved being inside the temple grounds where she helped to feed and observe some 137 tigers who were under her partial care. It had been her routine for six years and, from the passion with which she speaks about it, it seems to be where her heart lies.

But on the morning of Monday, May 30, more than 500 officers, wildlife officials, vets and police were waiting patiently outside the main entrance to the place better known as Thailand’s “Tiger Temple”. By the main road, a few officers sheltered from the heat under a nine-metre-high yawning tiger head sculpture.

It started as an impasse, but within six days, all 137 tigers would be taken in an unprecedented raid, which also unearthed dead tiger cubs, a dead bear and various animal horns.

Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) was finally acting after years of allegations by multiple NGOs.

Tiger Temple has long been a staple attraction for tourists and backpackers looking for the perfect photo-op. A romantic picture was painted of ochre-clad monks and endangered tigers living together in a relationship of numinous unity. The message: “You too can partake in the harmony” – for a price.

With an entrance fee of anything from 600 baht ($17) to 5,000 baht ($140) per person, millions of dollars have flowed into the temple over the years.

More than 500 officers, wildlife officials, vets and police were present at the raid. Tranquilizer guns were prepared to sedate the tigers before relocation [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

Funding allocations

During the raid, a two-page DNP declaration was handed out to members of the press. It explained that, legally, every tiger in the country is a “national asset” and Tiger Temple has a long history of “exploiting the property of the government for personal gain without permission from the government”.

“We knew that the temple was using the tigers for money,” DNP Deputy District General Adisorn Noochdumrong told Al Jazeera. “By law, they cannot do that.”

Tanya, however, insisted that at least some of that money had gone into improving the living conditions of the tigers – an issue paramount to her and many of her colleagues. In particular, she highlighted the temple’s pride and joy: its almost five-hectare “Tiger Island” enclosure.

Completed in 2011 at an estimated cost of 90 million baht, (slightly more than $2.5m) the 28 enclosures in Tiger Island meant that, for the first time, the tigers were able to experience outside spaces, albeit on a rotating schedule.

The open areas are strikingly different from other tiger zoos in the country. At the frenetic Sriracha Zoo, activities include tiger shows that seem to, in part, include having the cats jump through flaming hoops.

When ex-DNP director general Damrong Pidech visited the Tiger Temple in 2012, he actually praised the tiger’s living conditions, telling the Bangkok Post: “Frankly speaking, their living conditions are better than those in state-owned zoos.”

But, for years, multiple NGOs have expressed concerns over the temple management’s activities, alluding to corruption and even the illegal trade of tigers.

Corruption allegations

One of the most incriminating examples can be found in a 2015 report by the NGO Cee4Life.

The report contains a detailed investigation documenting events leading up to the disappearance of three tigers in December 2014, which were thought to have been sold into the illegal wildlife trade. Secretly taped audio and video recordings put forward a case suggesting that the temple’s abbot had been involved, breaking both Thai and international law.

What resulted was a seeming disconnect between the apparently superior living conditions of the tigers and suggestions of a murky history of opaque operations and illegal activities; a disconnect between staff who seem to genuinely care for the animals and a minority in the upper echelons of the temple who have been accused of not sharing their concern.

Adisorn said that the DNP has for years pleaded with the Tiger Temple monks and management to address their “illegal” or “hazardous” activities, such as the close contact permitted between tigers and tourists.

“We wanted to talk first, and [get] the temple to do what we asked them to do,” explained Adisorn. “We asked them to separate male and female [tigers],” he said, adding that they also highlighted the controversial practice of informal and unlicensed breeding – and subsequent inbreeding. “We knew they were trying to [increase numbers].”

When the temple’s management rebuffed their requests, Adisorn said they were left with no choice but to raid the grounds and relocate the tigers to their own facilities.

After slight delays on the first day of the raid, the DNP teams soon organised themselves into an efficient chain, managing the removal of all 137 tigers, averaging more than 20 a day.

NGOs have for years expressed concern over activities of the temple’s management. Wildlife officers checked the tigers’ wellbeing before moving them out [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

Raid and extraction

Panee, one of the DNP vets working in Tiger Island, explained that it was “risky work, but so far the tigers are healthy”.

She added, however, that some inevitable complications had occurred. “A few tigers are reacting not so [well to the sedatives], but we are [closely] watching them,” she explained, holding up a vial containing the sedative used on the tigers so that they could be transported.

But as the raid progressed over the week, it soon became clear that Adisorn and his DNP team were extracting far more than just the tigers.

“We had always planned to raid every building, but I didn’t want it [to be] common knowledge,” said Adisorn, suggesting that any potential contraband on the grounds might have been removed prior to the raid. “I told [the Tiger Temple] we were only coming for the tigers.”

By the second day of the temple raid, the majority of monks had already left. As it became clear, an investigation into activities was starting in earnest, any monks still within the grounds refused to comment and Al Jazeera was instead led to Adisorn of the DNP.

On the third and fourth day of the raid, 40 frozen tiger cub carcasses were pulled out of the temple’s freezer, while in another building, 20 cubs were discovered preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

The local and international reaction was intense. The UN’s environment programme released a statement, saying these cubs represented “only a tiny proportion of the enormous extent of an illegal trade in wildlife”.

Reacting to the numerous findings, Teunchai Noochdumrong, the director of Thailand’s Wildlife Conservation Office and Adisorn’s wife, told reporters: “I am quite shocked. We have all heard concerns and allegations about this temple. I would never have thought they would be so blatant.”

However, according to Tanya, these finds were actually the easiest to account for.

“These were the policy of Dr Somchai [Visasmongkolchai, a former vet at the temple] since 2010,” she explained. “The DNP has been in our freezer loads of times in the past. Why are they acting surprised?”

She pointed out that months before the raid, the official Tiger Temple Facebook page had addressed the policy in an open post, which claimed they were keeping carcasses as proof they were not being sold on.

Tiger pelts and protected rosewood

What eventually really shook Tanya’s faith, and that of her colleagues, however, were the far less dramatic discoveries from those spaces to which she and the majority of the staff were never allowed access: specifically, the monks’ housing.

After a raid on their buildings, the DNP eventually emerged with a haul including a hacksaw, vice, and materials needed to make and sell “deer antler supplement”.

On trucks outside the temple’s main building, they loaded a vast amount of flat timber suspected to be protected Siamese rosewood. And earlier that morning, a truck with two temple staff and a monk was stopped at the main entrance while trying to leave.

RELATED Gallery: The end of Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple

Hidden in the car were two tiger pelts, hundreds of vials containing tiger skin, and dozens of tiger fangs. Adisorn said those caught in the truck had referred the DNP to the abbot for any explanations.

Tanya said she had been driving past just as the DNP was showcasing these findings.

“I didn’t see [the tiger pelt] at first, but then I leaned around and saw this grotesque thing hanging over their hands,” she said. “Then I saw the second one. I felt sick.

“Bad things have happened in the past, but the temple showed us [in 2015] that they have moved on and that’s why I stayed,” she explained.

Now, Tanya said she is left with mixed emotions about abandoning all the work she has done so far. “Maybe that was the most naive thing ever, but it was real.”

With the Tiger Temple closed indefinitely and a heaving body of evidence being presented to the police, Adisorn is keen to show that the DNP is following protocol to ensure justice is served.

Authorities are ‘discussing the possibility of creating a new sanctuary’, said Adisorn. Tanya has long been a caretaker for the tigers and worries they’ll be neglected [Amanda Mustard/Al Jazeera]

New sanctuary for relocated tigers

“We are discussing the possibility of creating a new sanctuary for the tigers along with some other animals,” he said, aware that there are fears the relocated tigers will suffer neglect.

Although he acknowledged that the DNP facilities are far from ideal, he promised it “will take care of them.

“We have been contacted by [the animal welfare charity] Four Paws, and they want to help to manage the tiger sanctuary with the DNP,” he explained.

For Tanya and the others at the temple who are still reeling from the discoveries, the welfare of the tigers remains one of their biggest considerations.

“The main thing we have ever fought for has been to have better lives for the tigers,” said Tanya. Her colleague nods, explaining that they have formed relationships with the animals over six or seven years and have no plans to stop seeing the tigers.

They will maintain the pressure on the DNP to improve the conditions within the DNP facilities, they explained.

“If no one is pushing and pushing, then there is no spotlight to make sure those conditions are improved,” said Tanya. She worries that as international attention fades, so will the outlook for the tigers she has spent years caring for.

But she hopes her worst fears will not come to pass. “In two weeks’ time, if anyone asks, ‘Hey, do you remember when the Tiger Temple was raided?’ They’ll just say ‘Oh yeah, it was the best thing ever, the best thing to happen to those tigers’. Meanwhile, they’ll all be stuck rotting in tiny cages.”

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