Deep South ripe for investment, say locals

Declining insurgency-related violence, visitors from Malaysia spur hope for growth

Bangkok Post Published: 5/08/2018 at 07:11 AM

Following last year’s record 14-year-low in deaths related to the deep South insurgency, military and local officials in the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala have once again urged the government to boost safety and economic development in these “neglected” areas.

A cabinet order from Oct 2016 grouped three zones — Nong Chik district in Pattani, Betong district in Yala and Sungai Kolok district in Narathiwat — into a so-called “Southern Economic Triangle”, set to house 63 development projects in the deep South.

More than 5 billion baht was approved by the cabinet to carry out the development plans, all projects of which are scheduled for completion by 2020.

While some already began late last year, such as the construction of an all-new airport in Betong set to open in early 2020, local officials believe the much-reported violence in the provinces has hindered them from truly benefitting from these developments.

Maj Gen Sompol Pankul, commander of the Narathiwat Task Force, recently told a press tour in the province that tourism and commerce have greatly suffered in Narathiwat, despite its “favourable” location, bordering the Malaysian state of Kelantan.

“Much of the news coverage of violence in the deep South portrays the entire area as some sort of war zone, without acknowledging that the situation has gotten so much better now,” he said.

“If something happens in Yala, for instance, people automatically think that it is unsafe to travel to Pattani and Narathiwat, without realising how far the provinces actually are from each other, distance-wise.”

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Violence in the deep South has existed for a long time mainly because some insurgent groups want the region to separate from Thailand. They have killed civilians, state officials, teachers and monks in pursuit of autonomy.

A sharp surge in violence in these three provinces was seen in 2007, where several incidents claimed 892 lives, according to Deep South Watch, a database established by Prince of Songkla University Pattani Campus in 2006.

To date, the insurgency has taken almost 7,000 lives, with police, military, monks and both Muslim and Buddhist civilians comprising the casualties.

Although the violence has continued, there have since been gradual drops in reported incidents and deaths. Deep South Watch says there were 235 deaths related to the matter last year, and 309 in 2016.

“Frankly speaking, my generation will likely not be able to eradicate the violence, but we are gradually seeing improvements, and we have to pass it on,” Maj Gen Sompol said.

He added that tolerance of military and police patrols in Narathiwat has improved since 2004.

“In the beginning of our operations, we did not understand their culture, and combined with past incidents, many of the local community did not like us,” he said. “We would visit community areas and schools, and little children would point at us and make shooting motions and sounds with their hands.

“When the military gave them gifts, such as footballs, school leaders ordered them to be pierced immediately,” he added.

Maj Gen Sompol said it has “taken time” for the military and police to understand Muslim culture.

However, so long as the insurgency persists, the lack of safety felt among potential tourists will continue to hurt the local economy, said Suchada Panara, mayor of Narathiwat’s Sungai Kolok.

According to her, there is a lack of investment in the deep South, due to mismanagement of resources. Sungai Kolok is a border district, known for bringing in thousands of Malaysians into Thailand per day, many of whom cross the Golok river to buy higher-quality produce at cheaper prices.

Ms Suchada said this has made Sungai Kolok — locally known as simply “Kolok” — a favourable location for tourism development.

“There is several rai of land here that the government has bought which has not been put to good use, but could be if we developed it ourselves with ample funds,” Ms Suchada said. “We cannot establish nightlife and entertainment centres here, out of respect to Muslim culture, but there can be other, more creative and educational tourist sites here, such as kids’ parks, for example.

“Malaysian families travel to Kolok all the time, but they just do not have much to do as tourists,” she added.

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GETTING FRESH: A vendor sells vegetables at the market in downtown Narathiwat.

She said local shops have started to install surveillance cameras for safety purposes, but also suffered economically, serving “only two or three tables’ worth of customers per day”.

According to Narathiwat Immigration police, the number of foreigners legally entering Thailand through the province’s checkpoints has dropped from over 780,000 in 2016 to 490,000 last year. As of this month, only around 263,000 foreigners have entered.

Despite the continued insurgency, Maj Gen Sompol said Buddhists and Muslims can peacefully coexist, noting that most of the attacks are conducted by individuals who slip back and forth across the border with Malaysia.

“The army is holding more talks with local Imams and other neighbourhood leaders for them to help us in ensuring peace,” he said. “We are also training our operatives to display more discipline and sensitivity towards the public.”

Sungai Kolok is one of the more heavily-monitored areas of Narathiwat, with military and police officers being deployed round the clock along the streets and in checkpoints in populated areas.

Local wet markets open as early as 3am, with many of them closing by around 6pm. However, several small shops and fruit vendors can regularly be seen selling their wares on the streets until late into the night.

Food prices are on average far cheaper than those found in the capital, with locally-sourced durian selling for around 40 baht per kg and traditional Muslim food, such as Biryani (a mixed rice dish) offered at as low as 10 baht per serving. Vendors giving customers extra food as a gesture of hospitality is commonplace.

At Genting Market, one of the main markets in Sungai Kolok, Buddhist monks can be seen walking through the Muslim-majority marketplace, where local Buddhists make merit by giving food to them each morning.

“The potential is definitely there, and the situation, for the most part, is safe, but the insurgency remains a sensitive issue,” Maj Gen Sompol said. “Some Imams are hesitant to help us because they have received threats, stating their lives will be put in danger if they hold talks with the military.”

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Prayer offering: Buddhist monks offer a prayer for devotees after a morning alms collection in Sungai Kolok district of Narathiwat. Projects are being promoted to spur growth of the provinces in the far South.

Author: Om Jotikasthira

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