Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thailand's Insurgency

I've mentioned before the trouble that Thailand has in its southern provinces. Many of them have been under martial law for quite some time now. On the news almost nightly, and filling the front pages of newspapers weekly you can find pictures of bombed and burned out vehicles, shot up military buses, video of women and children victimized in a motorcycle bombing outside of a convenience store, etc.

I've mentioned before also that I think much of the violence stems from many people calling for Buddhism to be written into the Thai constitution as the official religion of the Kingdom. I'm sure this pisses some of the heavy Muslim southern provinces off and might add to the violence.

The soi I live on has a very heavy Muslim population, perhaps the largest density of Thai Muslims in Bangkok. The Buddhist majority in my soi and the Muslims appear to get along just fine here. They go to school together, they patronize each other's businesses, they ride buses and trains together. It seems like there's no conflict when it comes to the two religions here in the city.

Being a westerner, I haven't been made to feel like I am ever in danger, threatened, uncomfortable or otherwise out of my element. There is a great Muslim family who lives down the hall from us with a young baby boy, probably 18 months old, walking and just chubby and cute. They are just neighbors to me, they only dress differently, that's the only reason I know they are Muslim.

My barber is Muslim, in fact I think it is a Muslim owned and run barber shop. Barber chat has brought out the fact that I am American. In the 20 minutes a month that I am under the sheers and shaving blade of the young twenty-something Muslim barber, topics such as George Bush, War, Muslim religion, Christianity, Buddhism, Barack Obama and your run of the mill,"Building Relationships of Trust" small talk come up, usually in a Thai-English conbobilation of awkwardness. When he is feeling brave he might belt out some English such as "Bush no good man" or "You like Muslim?" or "You Christian?" or "Obama!" followed by a spirited thumbs up or "Girlfriend Beauty" referring to Pae who always accompanies me to make sure they don't misunderstand me and shave off my eyebrows.

This week, in Thai, he asked me if I went home for Christmas. I casually answered "No". At that very moment, I should have asked him where he went for Christmas too, but I guess I've gotten enough of his questions about Muslims and Buddhists and Christians that I didn't even have to "watch what I said". Normally I would splurt something stupid out like "Where did you go for Christmas?" or "What did you get your children for Christmas gifts?" to my Muslim barber. This time it didn't even occur to me to reciprocate his inquiry as to my holiday celebration. I had made such a mistake at a Korean funeral about ten years ago. The Korean word for "Hello" directly translates to "Are you at peace" and "How have you been" becomes "Have you passed the time well". So yeah, I saw this group of mourners, bowed and basically started a conversation with "Whassup dude! How's it hangin'?" at least to the people around me, I might as well have said that to him.

I was grateful for my barber's curiosity (even if it was small talk) as to my celebrating one my faith's most important holidays, and I am glad that I didn't act ignorantly and ask him a stupid, again, ignorant question that painted me as an, again, ignorant Westerner. Next hair cut I think I'll ask him which mosque he goes to and if he's had the opportunity to complete the Hajj pilgrimage yet in his life. I should get the vocabulary under my belt first though, or I'll feel like an idiot trying to charades out "Mecca", "walking around in circles", "throwing little stones at pillars", etc, as he's snipping and shaving and crinkling his brow in lost-in-translation confusedness.

Blah blah, so anyway, it seems funny when I see headlines like the one below that use the term "insurgent". I've never been south of Phuket, so I've never been in a Muslim dominated town so to speak and have never felt the "fear" or "paranoia" of some potential random act of violence against me because or my religion or a race. I have no plans to go too far south either. I mean, you still gotta be street smart no matter how much you want to show that you're not anti-Muslim, show tolerance and level-headedness, etc.

I talked to a Thai Marine a while back, and he was so excited to be getting out of the military after 6 more months of service. Military service here is mandatory. And being in the military in one of these southern provinces is like extremely dangerous. You are a walking symbol of the government, a target. Your Buddhist or Christian women who do not wear head dress are walking around quite obviously a symbol or their religion, and a target to those extreme few among the the larger group of Muslims who wish nobody harm.

Props to the boys who go down there and thump on the bad guys who are doing bad things. Not the Muslims, the majority of them are lovely family people who wish no harm on anybody. Its the extremists and "insurgents" who are bringing the killing and violence into the equation. And just to put a bow on top of this entry, the gangsters, gambling rings and drug dealers here are just as dangerous, just as publicized and I'm sure responsible for many more deaths than the insurgents down south. Drunk driving deaths, traffic fatalities due to unsafe driving habits or wreckless driving and murders committed by spurned lovers here also contribute to the daily body count...Just trying to show that although there are a lot of deaths caused by the so-called insurgency, there are just as many or more from other stupid things that stupid people do.

This is today's latest headline from down south courtesy of the AP:

4 die in insurgent attack in southern Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand: Suspected Muslim militants fatally shot four bridge construction workers Saturday in Thailand's insurgency-plagued south, police said.

Several men approached the workers at the construction site in Yala province and shot them to death at close range, said police Sgt. Tanongsak Saengong.

The insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces has killed more than 3,300 people since early 2004.

"The killing sprees in Yala have been less frequent since last year, but there have been more victims in each incident," the police sergeant said.

Suspected insurgents target Buddhists and Muslims who they believe have collaborated with the government, including soldiers, police, informants and civilians.

The attacks — which generally include drive-by shootings and bombings — are intended to frighten Buddhist residents into leaving the only Muslim-dominated areas of Thailand, whose population is 90 percent Buddhist.

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