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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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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That freezer full of tiger cubs in Thailand isn’t the end of the story

Interview with PRI’s the World June 02, 2016

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Luk Thep on PRI’s The World

Interview with PRI’s The World on the ‘Luk Thep’ (Child Angel) phenomena in Thailand

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The Mother of Thailand’s Doll Children

First published in Mashable April 19, 2016

Mananya Boonmi scrolls through the thousands of photos on her phone with the mile-wide smile of a proud mother. Every now and again she stops scrolling to show off a photo with one of her “children.”

“This was when he was 4,” she says as she hands over a picture of her holding Nong Pet (Diamond). “I’ve put a new body on him since then.” Motionless in her lap, Nong Pet sits bejeweled in a fine white dress, Boonmi happily caressing his arms.

Nong Pet is 5 years old, 2 feet tall and a ‘Luk Thep’ — literally, Child Angel — doll. He’s also just one doll of thousands in the latest Thai craze that recently enraptured, and then exasperated, large swathes of Thai people.

Believed to bring about good luck if pampered by their doting owners, the popularity in Luk Thep dolls seemingly reached its zenith in January. Stories abounded of airlines offering seats, and restaurants offering menus, specifically for the dolls. The oddity of seeing men and women carrying lifelike dolls soon caught the eye of the wider Thai community.

The ensuing media frenzy attracted a backlash of ridicule and warnings from people and government alike. In response, much of the Luk Thep community retreated away from the unforgiving public eye and closed ranks around others like themselves, many of whom are linked in some way to Mananya Boonmi.

The peak of the luk thep craze blanketed local newspapers in January 2016.
Boonmi, whom everyone simply calls Mama Ning, considers herself one of the earliest adopters of Luk Thep dolls.

She bought her first, Nong Ploy, 14 years ago at a nearby market for just 350 baht ($10). She explained that around five years ago while selling souvenirs and trinkets, she “sensed” Nong Ploy offering to help. Shocked by the experience, she stopped treating Ploy like a simple doll and instead like a real child, holding conversations, sharing food and buying new clothing. Shortly thereafter, her business boomed.

Since then, Mama Ning has grown and developed to the point where she has now created scores if not hundreds of her own Luk Thep, which she passes on to others in search of happiness, good fortune or stability.

Today they can fetch anywhere from 1,500 baht ($42) to tens of thousands of baht. “Look at those eyes, they cost 1,500 baht alone.” She says as she gestures to the hypnotic, preternatural features of one of her dolls. “From America.”

While Mama Ning’s setup sounds like a simple private business, money is the last thing on her mind when it comes to her Luk Thep.

“If I wanted, I could sell [them] on Facebook without any questions or any problems and become very rich.” Instead, she explains, she insists on meeting up with prospective “parents” to judge which Luk Thep is most suited to them and whether they are even worthy.

Around her house, dozens of Luk Thep dolls sit pristinely dressed along her sofas. While they are the most obviously striking adornments in her house, Mama Ning’s bright pink home exhibits much of what makes Thailand’s religious situation hard to pin down.

Ostensibly a majority Buddhist country, many of the rituals practiced, and trinkets owned, by Thailand’s Buddhist community have roots in Taoism, Hinduism and Animism. No hard and fast lines can be drawn between them, and superstitions and spirits are a major part of everyday life.

Above her front door dangles the 8-sided ‘Bagua’ mirror of Taoist cosmology. In one corner of her garden sit two lavish spirit houses common around homes and businesses alike in Thailand but with roots in Animism and Hinduism. Amulets, another religious fusion and also hugely popular in Thailand, adorn both herself and a number of her prized Luk Thep dolls.

A few days later we are invited to observe her annual ‘Wai Khru’ ceremony, a well-established tradition in Thailand whereby students can pay respect and show gratitude to their teachers. Wai Khru is typically a staple in the martial or performing arts, but on this day, the teacher is Mama Ning and the subject matter is Luk Thep.

Starting in the early morning, an outwardly Hindu affair stretches on under a blazing sun. In the morning, amber-robed Buddhist Monks pass into the building and briefly hold prayers for Mama Ning, her home and her students.

Once downstairs, Mama Ning is transformed, wearing a glorious salwar kameez and apparently possessed by Parvati — the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion. About 40 students have arrived, all with at least one Luk Thep in hand.

Pita, a 41 year-old relative newcomer to Luk Thep, watches the service from the shade of an awning along with her Luk Thep, Natalie. For Pita, the idea of owning a Luk Thep was never in doubt.

“I’ve wanted one for a long time and finally adopted Natalie in December,” she said.

Reasons for why people come to invest in a Luk Thep range from the economic to the social. Some, like Pita, say it helps to fill some void — she has a son but “has always wanted a daughter.”

Others, like 33 year-old Gade, say “some people think I’ve lost a child and my Luk Thep is a replacement, but it is simply not true.” Moreover, she adds with a tone of unequivocal sincerity, it was “not for good luck or anything like that, just to increase my family’s happiness.”

Gade holds Yuri, her family’s luk thep, while her father Karun holds her hand.
As proof, she points to her father, Karun, who sits quietly beside his daughter and speaks softly every now and again to his “granddaughter” Yuri.

“I used to drink and argue with my wife a lot,” Karun says. “But Yuri makes me feel happy. Since she has [entered my life], I’ve found she helps me deal with any issues I have.”

He remarks on Yuri’s love of the outdoors, which also forces him to leave the house more. “She loves to go to the temple and that’s great for me, for karma, and for merit.”

Gade nods respectfully as her father speaks.

“Some people think, ‘oh you should look after your real family before a Luk Thep,’ but I think you will find that those with Luk Thep treat their families far better.”

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