Thailand held sub-district, local government elections in September. I went to South Thailand and observed a little bit of what voting was like in that troubled part of the region.
I don't know how to explain what I saw in South Thailand because I witnessed only 72 hours in what has been a five-year insurgency. In a span of less than three days, I visited several bombing scenes and a man I was supposed to meet was assassinated, gunned down along with his daughter and son-in-law.
The towns I visited, Pattani and Yala, were veiled in fear. Somber during the day; at night, spectral and deserted. Darkened, overcast skies. Driving from one town to the other, I had to pass through five separate checkpoints.
The killings in Thailand's three southern provinces are a slow, steady trickle. About 4,000 murders since 2004. That's an average of one or two insurgency related murders a day, every day, every week, every month for four years.
While the insurgency is portrayed as a separatist movement, with ethnic Malay Muslims wanting the South to become its own state along an ethno-religious fault line, it's mostly Muslims who are being killed, not Buddhists, who represent the authorities of Bangkok. Rather than taking the fight to the seat of power in Bangkok, the separatist fighters kill locals. They blend in as regular citizens. A grocery store clerk. A waiter. A DVD bootlegger. Every village has a handful hiding in plain sight.
The three southern provinces have a population of around 1 million people. Mostly ethnic Malay Muslims. Of that 1 million, maybe 100,000 are sympathetic to the mujahideen cause. And of that 100,000 only about 5,000 are hardcore insurgency soldiers. But those 5,000 are able to keep a stranglehold on half a country by patiently sewing a shroud of terror.
In Pattani City, a bomb was planted in a motorcycle and detonated in front of a Buddhist restaurant on Naklua Soi 6 Road. 27 people were wounded and a 65-year-old man was killed. In Yala City, a Buddhist restaurant called Yim Yim was bombed, but the target might have been the store across the street selling police uniforms. Twelve people were wounded and a policeman was killed.
I visited a hospital in Pattani where some of the wounded were taken and discreetly spoke with some of the victims while hospital administrators were distracted. One woman I spoke with was a waitress. Her face was massively swollen and stitched where shrapnel had dug deep into her forehead, narrowly missing her eyes. Another woman had been across the street, selling fried bananas. Her legs were smeared black with bruises. Both seemed in fairly decent spirits, but it was hard to maintain while a third woman nearby, held down by nurses and doctors, moaned in excruciating pain, her belly ripped open by the blast.
My fixer and interpreter set up a meeting for me with Waedolah Wae-u-Seng, a local government leader in the Tanjong district. In the 60's Waedoah had been part of the first real separatist movement. As he got older, his politics mellowed.
I arrived at Waedolah's daughter's house. The bodies were gone, replaced by large pools of blood on the ground. Kids peered through open windows into the house. People hung around outside, lethargic from shock, the heat, and the mourning.
I went to one of Waedolah's son's houses so I could take a photograph of a photograph of Waedolah. The son explained what unfolded at the daughter's home, saying that a group of men in a pickup truck arrived at one of Waedolah's other son's homes. They wore Thai Border Police uniforms and spoke Thai, not the more common Malay dialect of the South. They asked the son where Waedolah was. He said he didn't know. They drove to another of Waedolah's son's houses, the son who was recounting the story, asked the same question and was given the same response. They drove to a third son's house. They were told Waedolah was possibly at the house of his daughter Dariyal and her husband. It was Ramadan and everywhere in the provinces, friends and families were breaking their Ramadan fasts.
I was told that as a former guerilla, Waedolah was savvy about personal security. If someone he didn't know called out his name, he never replied. Who knows why after all those years he made the mistake. Maybe it was the uniforms that threw him off, because when this group of men called out, asking for the local leader, he stepped outside. His daughter followed. Both were gunned down on the spot. Dariyal's husband Muhammad ran outside and he, too, was murdered.
Seated in the son's small house, listening to him recount the story of what had transpired only hours before, I couldn't ignore the obvious. He had spoken with the killers. He had seen their faces. He had seen what they were wearing. He had seen their truck. He had nowhere to go. This was his home. And they had every reason to murder him next. It was in their best interest to do so. His eyes were glazed over. He managed a brief and dreadful smile. We both stared at one another for a second. We both knew he was a dead man.
Jeff is currently at work producing book of photographs of elections taken during times of war and conflict. Photo excerpts of the book can be seen at www.jeffantebi.com.