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Fear closes markets in Thai south on Fridays

An old man making his way down a deserted street in Saiburi last Friday, at the site of a deadly attack on September 21. In towns throughout Thailand's deep south, markets have shut down on Fridays in the wake of threats from the shadowy insurgents demanding that they observe the Islamic holy day. (ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH)

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


In the best of times, the town of Saiburi, with its very old Chinese community, is a sleepy one. Now it turns into a veritable ghost town one day a week.

Almost every shop is closed on Fridays. Nothing stirs on empty streets except the occasional trundling truck full of soldiers in full battle gear.

On Friday last week, an old man with a stick walked laboriously down "Chinatown Road", past bombed-out remains of shop houses and the bullet-scarred facade of a Chinese gold shop. He sighed and sat down at the lone tea shop that was still open.

On September 21, a Friday, Malay-Muslim militants shot at the Chinese gold shop. Minutes later, a bomb in a parked car went off, killing six people and injuring around 40. Since then, a new wave of fear has swept through Thailand's deep south.

In town after town, markets have shut down on Fridays in the wake of threats from the shadowy insurgents demanding that they observe the Islamic holy day.

In Tesvivat - Pattani's main market - only about two dozen of the 100 shops and a small handful of roadside stalls were open last Friday.

It all started sometime in early September when leaflets appeared in some towns - printed in Thai - warning shopkeepers to stay closed on Fridays.

It was not the first time. The last time was from 2004 to 2005, during the peak of the insurgency that has since seen well over 5,500 killed - many of them civilians - and torn apart the Buddhist and Muslim communities. But then, the effort fizzled.

More than 40,000 Thai troops and paramilitaries in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, and part of Songkhla, have put the militancy under some pressure, but have still made no real impact on their ability to choose the time and place of attacks.

The war has ground to a stalemate. But this year has seen an upsurge in violence, with security forces targeted in increasingly precise attacks. Dozens have been killed.

Shopkeepers by and large did not take the warnings seriously - until Saiburi.

A fireman who had helped fight the blaze triggered by the bomb at Saiburi showed closed circuit TV footage of the attack on his mobile phone.

In the middle of a slow afternoon, a black pickup truck was parked across from the gold shop.

Another pickup truck drew up seconds later. Several men with guns jumped out; there may have been a woman, or a man dressed like one. They opened fire, spraying the gold shop and others with bullets. Oddly, nobody was hurt. Then they jumped into the truck. A man emerged from the parked pickup and got on a waiting motorcycle. They all sped away.

A few seconds of calm followed and a scramble of rescuers and security personnel arrived on the scene. Vehicles and people returned. But 15 minutes after the shooting, a huge bomb in the black pickup exploded in a fireball. It killed six people instantly and reduced nearby shophouses to flaming matchwood.

From that day, hardly any shops have opened on Fridays.

"Saiburi was one of the turning points. It was blatant, in the middle of the day, on a main road, 200m from a police station," Senator Anusart Suwanmongkol said in an interview.

The senator owns the upscale CS Pattani Hotel in the city of Pattani. It has been bombed twice in four years. A thick concrete pillar shielded him from the blast the first time in 2008. The second bomb exploded on July 31 this year, in a truck parked behind the hotel. Nobody was hurt, but it blew out nearly every window, set one room on fire and trashed an electrical transformer, plunging part of the city into darkness.

"This time the militants have been very successful," said Anusart. "I am 51 years old and have spent my life here, and this is the most fear I have ever seen, among Muslims and Buddhists alike. Fear has overtaken their lives. And much of it is based just on rumours."

"It is increasingly a mix of ideology, money, drug trafficking, and local politics," he said. "And there is no trust between Buddhists and Muslims now. It's gone."

Pornthep Sachavirawongse, 39, who owns the Chaidee Store in Tesvivat market, selling Malaysian and Indonesian batik, is one of the few who has struggled to keep his shop open.

"It is a domino effect," he explained. "When I ask if anyone has seen a threatening leaflet, it seems nobody has actually seen one. But the fear has stopped buyers from coming; some of them come from outside town and are afraid to travel. Some of our workers also come from outside town and are also afraid.

"With business collapsing, many shopkeepers say 'why take a risk? May as well close anyway'."

Anusart and some local officials visited Tesvivat market on Friday last week as Pornthep opened his shop. Armed soldiers were deployed around the market. But it seemed a lost cause.

Cheyoh Jehdueramae, 54, sat alone on a table with a basket of mushrooms. She had been selling fish and mushrooms at the market for 20 years, she said, and normally her table would be groaning under their weight and the lanes would be full of people. But that day she was pessimistic.

"This is the worst I have ever seen it," she said.

Pausing to chat with the few people who still had shops open, Anusart also sounded despondent. "It is a psychological battle against collective fear and panic," he said. "And so far, the insurgents have won."


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