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Danger in the Deep South of Thailand

Publication Date : 30-12-2013

 

You can dismiss border towns like Danok as a safe alternative to Haadyai as Thai insurgents are bombing towns outside their comfort zones.

In 2013, there were about 320 bomb attacks in Thailand’s Deep South provinces close to Malaysia.

That was the count on December 22, according to a report in The Nation newspaper. There were 105 bombings in Pattani, 69 in Yala, 129 in Narathiwat and 17 in Songkla.

If you included the 5kg homemade bomb detonated at a Thai custom checkpoint in Narathiwat along the Thailand-Malaysia border next to Kelantan on Thursday, the figure is 321.

Later in the afternoon the figure rose, two separate bomb blasts occurred in Yala’s Raman district and Bannang Sata district.

If you were to ask me whether it was safe to visit southern Thailand towns such as Pattani or Narathiwat, I would say antharaai (dangerous in Thai).

It is antharaai because these two towns are in ground zero of the Deep South conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since it erupted in 2004.

When I visited the two towns during my stint as The Star’s Thailand correspondent from 2006 to 2010, locals (about 1.3 million ethnic Malay Muslims form the majority of the population in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces) would warn me to be careful.

Muka chomi tapi tak tahu kalau hati chomi (they look nice but we don’t know whether the heart is just as nice),” I was told.

The enemy was faceless, as nobody would claim responsibility if a bomb exploded in southern Thailand where a violent Muslim separatist insurgency was playing out.

If you were to ask me whether Danok in Songkla province and Betong in Yala province were safe, I would say yes. Probably if I was in Alor Setar, I would play tourist guide for your trip to Danok.

That’s what I did in October when there was a lull during the Sg Limau by-election in Kedah.

Prior to October, I’ve been to Danok twice. I visited the town out of curiosity.

When I was based in Bangkok, I kept on hearing from Malaysian “cheongsters” (a Chinese slang for someone who has sex with prostitutes; the literal meaning is “charge” or “rush”) that a sin city had risen next to the Thailand-Malaysia border.

“Danok is like a mini Haadyai. Since there have been several bombings in Haadyai, Malaysians prefer to go to Danok as it is safer there and it is closer to the Malaysian border,” a cheongster told me while we had Singha beer in Sukhumvit in Bangkok a few years ago.

In September 2011, I was in Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) campus in Kedah to interview Thai expert Duncan McCargo, who has written several books on Thailand including one entitled Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence.

I was on my way to Golok in Narathiwat province next to Kelantan where three bombs had killed four Malaysians and a Thai. Before heading to Golok, I interviewed McCargo to get an insight into the triple bombings.

It was about 9pm when I was done with my meeting with the British academician and I decided to travel to Danok that was close to the UUM Sintok campus, about a 50-minute drive from Alor Setar.

Danok was about 1km from the Malaysian immigration checkpoint.

It turned out to be a town with a single main road with establishments such as McDonald’s, KFC, 7-Eleven, Thai restaurants, hotels and banks. Along the main road were soi (Thai for “lane”) that would lead married men astray.

Not that I visited the establishment along the soi but instincts told me that when a pub is lighted in red, it could only mean one thing.

Later, I was told by a cheongster that it cost 450 ringgit (US$136.63) to rent a “Thai wife” for a night.

I had a sumptuous and cheap seafood dinner at a Thai restaurant and I rushed back to the border as the immigration checkpoint closed at midnight (Malaysian time).

If I wanted to, I could have rented a taxi and I could have spent the night in Haadyai that was about an hour’s drive away.

Last October, I had a few hours to burn in sleepy Alor Setar so I asked my 25-year-old colleague Michelle Tam if she was game to visit Danok.

Michelle, who grew up in Seremban, said yes as she wondered whether Danok would be a cowboy town like Port Dickson.

It was raining heavily in Danok and we only had two hours before the border crossing was closed.

I have always been curious to know what a woman can do in a sin city like Danok. An hour later, when I met Michelle, I had the answer – shopping.

She bought banana cream cakes (Euro cake brand), Birdy instant coffee, a Zebra tiffin carrier, bubble tea, Takoyaki-flavoured chips, prune yoghurt drink, Mango sticky rice and more.

I only managed to buy painkillers that my wife Whatsapp-ed me to buy as it was not sold in Malaysia.

It was shocking to find out that a pre-Christmas bombing had rocked Danok on December 21. The target was Oliver Hotel, which is popular with Malaysian cheongsters.

Next time I will think thrice before I play tourist guide in Danok. The insurgents are bombing towns outside their comfort zones.

 

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