A letter from Pattani: Checkpoints and our lives
'On our way home…
Both roadsides used to have flowers," Diarna told me.
"Colourful flowers, red, yellow, white…
Collecting them and putting them in a vase, with storylines
Before red, yellow, white colour would disappear…
Today, both roadsides no longer have flowers," Diarna told me.
"They were replaced by smoke and checkpoints on the roads
Replaced by red traffic plastic cones, lining up to make buffer zones
Human fences replacing wooden fences, my heart sunk…"
I turned to Diarna and asked: "Should I continue to look for flowers or make sand dunes to plant them?"
The message on the white wall by Anuwat Apimukmongkon, 26, was very sober and clear. Life in the three southernmost provinces is not like it is in other places in Thailand. His reflections were simple but touching in the most peaceful way. His real life is full of stops at numerous checkpoints. It is difficult for Thais living outside the deep South in their comfort zones to fully understand the anguish and mistrust of people dwelling in this besieged part of the country.
Anuwat, who is also a curator, got together with five other young artists who are living in the far South -- Asdiana Hasa, 23, Esuwan Chali, 24, Sopida Ratta, 24, Muhammadtoha Hajiyusof, 24, and Thanyuth Srisuwarn, 23 -- to express their feelings about their daily experiences with checkpoints that are part of growing up there.
Their works, which are now on display at Patani Artspace, vary in theme and style. But the substance is the same -- the trauma inflicted on their lives from passing through checkpoints, which was deliberately chosen as the name of this unusual art exhibition.
Asst Prof Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh, 36, the owner of the six-year-old art gallery and a lecturer on visual arts at Prince of Songkla University, Pattani campus, was very happy to have their works on show at his gallery. Jehabdulloh goes through the same experiences, so he understands the psyche of his younger colleagues well. As an artist, he also struggles to express his nightmarish epsidodes at checkpoints near his studio. "Just over a short distance of less than three kilometres, you have to go through three checkpoints," he lamented.
These checkpoints are made from makeshift iron fences or plastic cones, which slow down all moving vehicles. Some of them have sandbags as barriers in areas where bombings have taken place.
Residents in the deep South know what to do when they approach any checkpoint -- they open their car windows or turn on the dome light at night for an inspection. Motorcycles and riders are thoroughly checked. Near public places or government agencies, vehicles are searched and sometimes identities checked. In the areas outside these red zones, there are also numerous checkpoints but they are for car parks and toll gates. "Sometimes, we get through quickly, sometimes there are questions," he said. "It all depends on the daily circumstances."
Local militants took up arms in the 1960s to carve out a separate state for the local ethnic Malays. Their efforts died down in the 1990s but the narrative of an independent homeland never went away. The current armed insurgency, which resurfaced around 2002 and intensified in early 2004, followed an attack on a military base in Narathiwat. Since then, the conflict has so far claimed more than 7,000 lives. And still there is no end in sight.
Jehabdulloh's words reminded me of the world's most famous checkpoint -- Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. During the Cold War, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, whoever wanted to escape to the western part of the city had to risk their lives by sneaking over the wall. It was permanent and there was no turning back. But in the deep South, it happens every day without end -- going back and forth, checkpoint after checkpoint. It is real life, which people in the region must deal with every day.
Patani Artspace is not big but its space is sufficient for the overwhelming, perhaps overloaded, emotions in all the artworks displayed. That explains why the artists depict themselves as suspected fugitives on the poster publicising the show.
One of the pieces by Anuwat contains several thousand Thai alphabet characters, in grey, black or red. Looking closely, some of the abbreviations represent government agencies dealing with the security that, one way or another, affects the artists' lives. Another artwork is filled with small-cut wooden blocks placed throughout the canvas. However, in certain areas those wooden blocks are painted red, indicating checkpoints. Esuwan Chali, who assembled this piece, lives on a rubber plantation with his father.
Another distinctive work is full of twisted rusty nails. Muhammad-toha Hajiyusof lives in Bacho district of Narathiwat, one of the most well-known hot spots for violence in the deep South. Nails were picked up from actual locations where bombs exploded. Obviously, outside the three provinces, nails are hammered into wood, but over here they are stuffed inside roadside bombs, or spread on roads to puncture tyres.
Deep mental scars are also shared by his colleague, Adriana, whose painting is a collage of small pieces of batik from sarongs and costumes. "When you put on these costumes, you assume a Muslim identity," she reiterated. Growing up in Narathiwat, checkpoints are a daily matter. "Now I have grown up to understand."
At the exit in the main gallery hall, there are two lines written on the wall detailing the meaning of a checkpoint: "(1) Noun: detention place, checking a place for security for exit and entry points. (2) Noun: a passage." The southerners want and prefer the second interpretation. It remains a distant dream.
Despite the ongoing conflict, Pattani's economy is thriving. Land prices are soaring. Last weekend, local auto shows blocked streets. These days, local and foreign tourists are flocking to the provinces to enjoy Pattani's unique, multicultural flavour. It is so refreshing to visit Patani Artspace -- a place for ideas and hope. Jehabdulloh's gallery also provides art education by giving opportunities for young artists in the southern provinces and beyond to show their work and inspiration.
Just a short note: On my return from the gallery to the CS Hotel, a distance of less than 2 kilometres, I had to pass through three checkpoints to reach the hotel.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.