BEAUTIFUL AND DEADLY
By Andrew Biggs
Anubal Narathiwat is one of the largest primary schools in the provincial capital of Narathiwat, the southernmost province of Thailand right on the Malaysian border.
Every morning at 8 am assembly, the 1,437 school children in Years 1 to 6 line up in front of the flagpole and sing the national anthem.
A Year 6 girl takes the microphone and recites a Buddhist prayer. Half the students place their hands together in prayer; the other half cross their arms.
When she is finished, a Year 6 boy takes the microphone and recites an Islamic prayer. There is a collective switch in pose; half the students place their hands together in prayer, while the other half cross their arms.
Finally, all the students place their hands together. The religious boundaries come down; the students are united in meditation. Assembly over. Off to classes.
There was something very consoling and logical about the entire process, which I witnessed last Wednesday, since I spent most of last week in this province. What do you do when half the school is Muslim and the other half Buddhist? Simple. You stand in lines, and you take it in turns to pray. Then you go off and study together. One can’t help but wonder how it is that the primary school kids get it, but the adults don’t.
Despite the civility of the morning ritual, these kids live in the most dangerous part of Thailand, where more than 6,000 people have been killed via bombs and guns and another 10,000 injured over the past decade.
Narathiwat, along with Pattani and Yala, are the three southernmost provinces wracked by conflicts over separatism and religion. The violence is as mysterious as it is relentless, but life has to go on. Even the terrorists have families, with children, and those children need to be educated.
And here are those children, standing in perfect lines in front of the Thai flag, the Muslims and the Buddhists all mixed up, getting on with their lives.
What happens to these kids? Where does it all fall apart? At what age do the barriers go up? When do they get suspicious? When does it start to be not okay to live side by side with your Buddhist or Muslim brethren? Who feeds them the information that turns some of them into terrorists?
Foreign embassies are unanimous: Stay away from Narathiwat, unless you have business there, and if you do, get in and get out as quick as you can. Bombs can and do go off, and while foreigners may not be the targets, car bombs don’t discriminate.
When Anubal Narathiwat School first contacted me, to ask if I would be willing to run an English camp for the Year 1 and 2 students, their first question was: “Would you be brave enough to travel down here?” I told them I risk my life on a daily basis in the terrifyingly lawless and dangerous Bangkok traffic. Surely the probability of being killed and maimed is much higher on Sukhumvit Road. What’s a short trip to the South between friends?
The tragedy of Narathiwat is that it is such a beautiful city. It is a tourist town without tourists.
It’s right on the beach, and those beaches are pristine, white and wide. The town is tiny and everything is within walking distance. Sea breezes rush down the corridors of the main streets. Palm trees dot the city. There is a bustling morning market and an equally frenetic night market.
The food is sensational; arguably the best authentic Muslim food you’ll find in the country. There are restaurants where you can sit overlooking the Bang Nara River. Alternatively you can sit at a Muslim coffee shop and stuff yourself with rotis and matabas and >>khao yam.<< That was my last Tuesday night; sitting on a street corner, amid yellow and green two-storey buildings, at a roti shop where half of Narathiwat’s residents stopped to buy dinner. At the table next to ours, the local council was meeting informally over tea and rotis. It would be easy to fall in love with this atmosphere — but how dangerous it would be to do so.
Strolling back from the roti shop to our hotel, there are concrete barricades found outside many of the shophouses. We passed another coffee shop that was bombed in 2009, one of nine places that were bombed in a single night. It never recovered, and remains a shell to this day, with a group of four very young soldiers holding four very big rifles at a make-shift check point in the shadows outside.
Directly across the road is closed-down cinema, now home to swiftlets, whose saliva is used to make birds nest soup.
Even our hotel was a target, back in 2005, when a bomb went off in an adjacent restaurant.
During the day soldiers stand, backs to the road, along the main roads of the town. In the afternoon as students stream out of schools they cluster around school gates, since the terrorists target teachers.
Economically, this picturesque town is hurting. Narathiwat has no major businesses, factories or industries. Tourism would give the place a much-needed boost, but the only foreigners you find here are shady Russians. No native English teachers dare live in the town, which has a direct effect on the education of Narathiwat schoolchildren.
My Narathiwat experience was memorable, but my heart does go out to the beautiful young children, still blind to the divisions of religions, who are living in violent times. I could grow to really like this town.
One incident did give me a jolt of reality, however.
As I was about to leave, a Channel 5 reporter interviewed me about my visit. Santhiti Khojidmet, a Narathiwat native, asked me if I was afraid to be there.
“Not in the slightest,” I said. “You can’t live your life in fear of terrorists. I’d be happy to come down here again. I’d even think about taking a holiday here.”
Fine words, fit for media sound bites, and words I even convinced myself were admirable – until I turned the question around.
“What about you?” I casually asked. “Have you ever seen any violence?”
“Well, yes,” she replied casually. “Five times. Hospitalized, too.”
It turns out this female reporter has been the subject of national media more than once.
On January 16, 2007, she was covering news in Ban Bue Jo district when a second bomb exploded right where she was standing.
“Second bombs” as they are called are the bombs terrorists let off a short time after the first one. The aim is to inflict as much death and destruction upon the people who have rushed to help the victims of the first one.
In that incident, the bomb ripped apart the man standing next to her, killing him instantly. Santhiti was thrown three metres into the air and landed on concrete. She was wearing a yellow shirt in honor of the King at the time; her picture went around the country. She spent the next month in hospital.
She has been caught in bomb blasts another four times since then.
Her editor in chief has offered her a position in Chiang Mai, but she isn’t taking it. “Narathiwat is my hometown,” she says. “Like most people, we were born here. We can’t live anywhere else. Why would I move?”
Why would you move? What a question.
By Wednesday night I was back in Bangkok, a thousand kilometres from those gorgeous Anubal Narathiwat schoolkids, missing them greatly. But Santhithi made me realize my rose-tinted view of this tourist ghost town needs an attitude adjustment. As beautiful as it is, it is a town that needs to be treated with the utmost caution.