On patrol in the danger zone

Journeywatch’s Southeast Asia correspondent chronicles his experiences in Thailand’s violent ‘deep south’.

IMG_1343resizedThe most common reaction when I explain I work in Thailand’s insurgency-affected southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala is to question whether it is dangerous. It’s a logical question. Since early 2000, a separatist-oriented insurgency has claimed over 3000 lives and the region is heavily militarized.

Yet whether it is dangerous or not to work and travel there is not a straight forward answer. Despite the fact that news coverage from the region is filled with images of warfare and carnage, daily life can be surprisingly peaceful and calm.

While my work has taken me on military patrols, guard duty with militia forces in remote villages, and crisscrossing the provinces in a Black Hawk helicopter, my experiences are usually much more prosaic. Academic conferences, lunch meetings at street-side cafes, field trips with Islamic school students, swimming off largely-deserted beaches, and nights out at a couple of surprisingly wild discos are just examples of how normal life persists despite the ever-present threat of violence.

While insurgency is a real and serious issue, the relatively low frequency of violence and its geographic disbursement over three provinces gives a somewhat false impression of safety.

Travellers traversing the relatively safe National Route 4 highway between Malaysia and Thailand’s southern city of Hat Yai are likely not to notice anything more than a few soldiers loitering around quiet check stops.

This is not to say that the threat of violence is not real. I have been woken up by the sharp boom and shattering of windows as a late-night bomb was detonated outside my hotel and once was violently ambushed on a rural road and forced to flee. These incidents thankfully didn’t result in injury but they were life threatening. CBV Blackhawk in Narathiwat

Yet the paradox of Thailand’s southern insurgency, and other war zones around the world, is how easily one can be lulled into a false sense of normality. Each time I go, after a day or two, my heightened sense of awareness eases and it is life as normal. I walk around crowded markets which were once the scene of grisly bomb attacks and travel on rural highways plagued by devastating improvised explosive devices (IEDs)

So, when my friends in Thailand ask if it is dangerous I usually respond in two ways. The first is to say that it is statistically more dangerous to cross the road in Bangkok or spend any time on the chaotic Thai highways that it is in the conflict-affected southern border provinces.

Then, I reluctantly admit that it is a very dangerous place. After Afghanistan, southern Thailand has the most incidents of devastating IED attacks. And some influential counterinsurgency specialists such as David Kilcullen are claiming that Thailand’s insurgency is only matched in intensity by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Until a political solution emerges and brings an end to the violence, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala should be considered strictly off any travel plans when visiting Thailand.

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