Optimism in Thailand’s Deep South Belies Spike in Violence, Covid Crisis

Region beginning to transform itself against the odds

By: Murray Hunter

Despite an intensive outbreak of Covid-19 infection clusters within Thailand’s deep south, and a sudden spike in violent attacks by separatists, the region continues to display strong economic vibrancy. 

Major outbreaks of Covid-19 occurred in Yala and Patani, sparked by returnees from meetings of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi in Malaysia and Indonesia. This led to compulsory testing in some districts, leading to criticism by community groups and the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). Restrictions including the banning of community prayers at mosques appeared to severely stifle social and economic activity.

The BRN declared a unilateral ceasefire early April in response to the Covid-19 crisis. April became the first month in 16 years without any violent incidents. However, the Thai army embarked on search and arrest raids that led to the deaths of three separatists, which were condemned by BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Khalid for taking advantage of the pandemic. This in turn led to reprisals targeting military personnel in which civilians were caught up in attacks as well. During the first half of July, four civilians were among 10 people injured in a bombing, just a day after a separate attack killed a soldier in Patani Province. This has lured army personnel to return to armed patrols in an attempt to show their strength in a number of rural districts once again after standing down in their barracks for several months.

On the negotiation front, Thai government discussions with the umbrella organization MARA Patani, representing a number of separatist groups, stalled months before the Covid-19 crisis. Thai Government direct talks with the major group BRN have also stalled, after originally being talked up by Thai officials. Goodwill on the part of BRN seems to have disappeared with a resumption of activities directly against the Thai military.

With the exception of Betong, which relies on visitors from Malaysia, the deep south primarily relies on domestic visitors for tourism. Many of these visitors are from other towns within the deep south, or nearby cities like Hat Yai, Songkhla, and Trang, etc. Most hotels, resorts, and serviced apartments in Patani and Yala City are now doing a good trade after being forcibly closed for three months during Covid-19 restrictions. Some serviced apartments have now focused on taking longer-term guests to fill their rooms. Hotels in Betong, normally relying on Malaysian visitors are still operating at low capacities. Massage parlors and karaoke joints have all closed and unable to reopen without customers from across the border in Malaysia who have been barred from crossing.  It appears the government has made restrictions for massage parlors and karaoke joints so difficult that many will never reopen.  

Betong is seeing a resurgence in local tourism. Big bike groups from south-central Thailand are regular visitors, as are groups of Muslim tourists coming to sample the fruits and food and enjoy the more temperate climate. Tourism has moved away from the honkytonk culture, towards family-based, nature tourism, which includes such attractions as seeing the sunrise from mountain views from locations like Talay Mok Aiyoeweng, just north of the town.

Betong international Airport is now completed, but still awaiting negotiation with financially stressed airlines to utilize the facilities. Although it may be a long time before international flights arrive, domestic flights may start ferrying passengers to Betong from internal cities later this year.

Local markets and the informal economy across the deep south are vibrant. Stalls and markets have remained open during the lockdown to sustain their operators and families. In the major cities of Patani and Yala, restaurants are doing a good trade, with many new ones opening. The latest trends in food are shabu buffets, still operating normally under restrictions, fusion type noodles, and hybrid western foods such as pizza, steak, and burgers. The reopening of local universities this month has added to the vibrancy and ensures prices across both cities are competitive. All these outlets operate oblivious to Covid-19 restrictions, followed only by government offices, shopping centers, and banks.

The Muslim Malay community has behaved counterintuitively to their ethnic Thai compatriots, many of which have permanently closed, never to reopen. Muslim Malays have undertaken many start-ups, particularly food and beverage. Many are new enterprises based on innovation and unique branding, not copy-cat “coffee stall” start-ups. This has been the case in snack foods and other traditional products. The reasserting of Malay culture and the renaissance of Islam has provided opportunities to expand the Muslim garment industry, whose success can be seen on the streets.  

Within the agriculture sector, durian farming has become the star crop in Yala province, especially around Betong. It is rapidly replacing rubber, which has been depressed over the last couple of years. Production is up 20 percent on last year, according to the Yala Commerce Office. Durians, along with seasonal rambutan and mangosteen, are basically the only cargo being transported to Malaysia through the Betong border checkpoint. China is the major customer, with families along the roads loading convoys of trucks for transport. In addition, pickups travel to Betong en masse to take shipments as far away as Thailand’s Issan region.

With assistance from agricultural, local government, and university bodies, local farmers have widened the uses of their land, diversifying into poultry, livestock and goat farming, and market gardening to supply the rapidly growing local food market. Paddy farmers now mill their own rice and sell their produce direct, rather than through middlemen. Community programs have taught farmers how to harvest and package coconuts for city customers and produce other downstream products. A number of SMEs have set up factories to produce coconut drinks sold across Thailand. Many cottage industries have been set up to produce dry salted threadfin, which has turned into a lucrative market, bringing good incomes for the families involved. Many farmers have branded their produce and products, stimulating growth into SMEs.

Diversified agricultural activities have turned many rural districts into vibrant enterprising communities, with a quickly developing business culture.

Today, the deep south more resembles Malaysia’s Tanah Melayu (the Malay lands) than Thai provinces. Malay culture, Islam, and Malay-based business enterprises dominate. Buddhist temples appear more a relic of a past time. Malay culture within the deep south has now differentiated itself substantially from the Malay culture of their Malaysian southern cousins. Their work ethic emphasizes independence and self-determination rather than the dependency of Malay culture in Malaysia.

Those in Thailand’s deep south must be enterprising and cannot depend on institutional assistance. They have built up a strong sense of community that doesn’t exist within their southern neighbor. This sense of community is pushing the community forward, both socially and economically, in contrast to the northern states of Malaysia, which still have large pockets of poverty. The deep south with its optimism is set to become a powerhouse of Malay enterprise.

Murray Hunter, a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, is a Southeast Asia-based development specialist

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