Welcome to the provincial city of Yala, deep in Thailand's south.
A few hours drive from tourist resorts, where holidaymakers enjoy the sun and surf, a growing Islamist insurgency has resulted in the death of over 3,500 people in the last four years.
YOUR SAY: What are you thoughts on Yala's quest for peace?
This week John Martinkus travels to the region and meets Yala's mayor, Pongsak Yingchoncharoen who takes him on a night-time tour of his often dangerous city. Almost every corner has armed citizens manning roadblocks.
Boys, men, women – young and old – have been given weapons and basic training by the Thai authorities in a bid to protect themselves and their community.
The conflict has created tension between the region’s Buddhists and Muslims – and further inflamed , say the Muslims, by heavy handed tactics from the mostly Buddhist military and police. The Australian educated mayor faces an uphill battle to bridge the widening gap in his community.
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Southern Thailand, a place that's been a no-go area for tourists for some time now. It's a part of the country where violence is almost daily fare, where an ongoing Muslim insurgency has been complicated by drugs and high crime rates. It's definitely no South-East Asian tourist destination Here's John Martinkus on the spot.
REPORTER: John Martinkus
The provincial city of Yala, only a couple of hours drive from the resorts where tourists from around the globe flock to the bars and beaches. But those few hours will take you into a dangerous and confused world where 3,500 people have lost their lives over the past four years. This amateur footage shows an ambush by suspected insurgents not far from town. An emergency response team from Yala is desperately trying to save the victim. In Thailand they call this the Deep South – the border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. And it's where the cultures of Thai Buddhism and Malayan Islam meet, and clash.
REPORTER: Who is responsible for those attacks?
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN, MAYOR OF YALA: Acually we don’t know exactly.
Pongsak Yingchoncharoen, the Mayor of Yala, attended university in Queensland. Now as head of his community he's trying to bridge the divide between the Buddhists and the Muslims. But first he must first solve the violence that plagues the region and his city. The problem the authorities face is pinpointing just who is causing the violence.
In this area there is an ongoing problem with a Muslim insurgency, but many deaths are also attributed to a battle for control of the drug trade. Add a high crime rate, and it becomes a nightmare for law enforcement. It's meant these southern provinces have been placed under martial law and the military are never far away. But the extra soldiers and police that have been sent here are Buddhists from Thailand's north, where they have little or no experience of Islamic culture. And with these southern provinces being 80% Muslim, the problem is only exacerbated by their presence.
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN: They protect their community around this area.
As night falls in Yala, the Mayor is keen for me to see how he has secured the city.
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN (Translation): The situation is becoming more tense, so we must keep on fighting. I will be here with you so you’ll have no fear as long as I am your mayor.
The ongoing violence has spurred volunteer groups into patrolling their own local streets. They have been armed and given basic training by the police and military.
REPORTER: So how many groups would be operating on a night like
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN: I think actually they work every night, so 58 or something groups.
At one of the many roadblocks manned by the volunteers, I'm surprised to find an armed boy alongside the men at the post.
REPORTER: This boy here, how old is he?
INTERPRETER: He is 16. He is a student here.
REPORTER: You come here every night to stay at the post?
Even young women are armed.
REPORTER: Why did they volunteer?
WOMAN (Translation): I just want to be part of this.
REPORTER: What does she do during the day?
WOMAN (Translation): Yes. We work for the council, we sweep and mop floors and take the rubbish out. We’re the cleaners.
REPORTER: And did you want to be a part of this because of the violence? Are you worried about the violence here in Yala?
WOMAN (Translation): Because I’m Thai, I have seen others come and help protect us, I feel that at least I can do this to help.
REPORTER: When you were studying in Australia did you ever think one day you would be mayor and in charge of a city with problems like this?
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN: I think the situation made me like this, otherwise the people may be afraid of the situation and…. so I have to be a leader to look after them and to make sure, to ensure them that we still can live together.
Pongsak, the Mayor, takes me into the centre that coordinates the groups.
MAN (Translation): Be on the alert and cautious when performing your tasks, this is Mae Thapthim at 19.33, over.
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN: This is the person shot dead, but not in the city.
They want to show me photographs and a video of another of their community initiatives – the emergency response teams. These are mobile units that respond quickly to any emergency, helping the police as necessary, and getting the injured to hospital. In and around Yala, there is no shortage of work for these emergency teams. It's here that I learn more about the roadside attack. It apparently occurred after a bomb was detonated by suspected insurgents.
This footage, taken by a team member, shows the results of the attack as the emergency response team try to rescue the injured and come under fire themselves.
The victim is eventually rescued and the attackers melt back into the jungle.
The southern provinces, acquired by Thailand in 1905 from Muslim Malaysia, have always harboured separatist sentiment. The Muslims here believe they've long been marginalised by the Thai authorities. *
This small village hosts an Islamic religious school.
ABDUL KARIM NACHNAWAR, IMAM (Translation): The bullets came from the back, through the wall and out here. Two bullet holes, they fired them from the other side. Then they went through that one.
The imam in charge of the school, Abdul Karim Nachnawar, believes heavy-handed retaliation by the police and military has made the villagers both scared and angry. The week before, they had a visit from the Thai military. A man was shot dead and the village sprayed with gunfire.
ABDUL KARIM NACHNAWAR, (Translation): The cylinder was full of gas at the time and a child was hiding behind it. If the bullet had gone a bit lower, it would have hit his head. It is their long established belief that our schools are where terrorism is instigated. They should have known that not everyone in a religious school is a separatist. There might be a few people, only a few. It is wrong to assume that every school has separatists. Go ask any Islamic teacher, 99.9 per cent of students are not separatists. Maybe 0.1 per cent of separatists come from religious schools, and that’s why the assumption was made, that’s how we got a bad reputation.
Nikmuk Mak Ka Jay, a respected former member of the Muslim Religious Council in the south, believes there are still doubts about who the insurgents are and who is responsible for the ongoing violence.
NIKMUK MAK KA JAY (Translation): Are they really separatists or is this all about narcotics? Is it about politics? Is it about local politics? Is there a hidden agenda? We can’t figure it out, even the locals here are not sure. So deciding whether to withdraw troops or send more in will depend onall these factors.
The Muslims here are also concerned about the civilian volunteers being armed. They believe only the Buddhists are given weapons to defend themselves. Yet anyone who cooperates with the police or military will becomes a target for the insurgents.
But back in Yala, the Mayor doesn't want to talk about who gets armed and who doesn't but he is adamant that the volunteer groups have been a success
PONGSAK YINGCHONCHAROEN : Statistically, the violence in the city decreased very much compared to two or three years ago. That means in terms of violence, there has been a success. And also I can see in terms of the .. the strength of the group of the community is better than before. So my challenge is how to…. make the people, both Buddhists and Muslims, live together like before the situation happened. This is my challenge.
* Editor's Note: Our story reported that the southern provinces of Thailand were acquired in 1905 from Muslim Malaysia. In fact, Thailand annexed the independent Muslim sultanate of Pattani, which now makes up its southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narthiwat, in 1835. This ethnically-Malay region was ruled autonomously until 1902. Pattani was then dissolved and divided into three provinces, governed from Bangkok