Trading up from terror

marketing a new image: A fresh market in Sungai Kolok, Narathiwat province. Under the Golden Triangle development project, the city will be transformed into a trade hub for business with Malaysia. (Photos by Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai)

With the ongoing deep South insurgency in Thailand, it's hard to imagine how the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat can start tackling issues like development when the threat of violence still lingers. The sounds of bombs and gunshots are a regular part of people's lives.

Several residents have been forced to relocate due to safety concerns. But with the government's recent efforts to restore peace in the area, deep South locals are feeling hopeful about change.

In October last year, the cabinet approved a project to transform the sensitive Red Zone area into an economic "Golden Triangle" with a budget of 533 million baht. The areas selected for having the strongest potential to realise the project's goals are Nong Chik district in Pattani, Betong in Yala and Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat.

Each district has unique features for economic development -- Nong Chik will be reworked as an agriculture industry city, Betong will be rebranded as a sustainable development city and Sungai Kolok will be made into an international border city to its neighbouring Malaysia.

The Golden Triangle plan has already launched, but some questions about the prospects of success remain. Can the Red Zone rewrite its reputation and become Thailand's new economic hotspot? Spectrum went to the southernmost province Narathiwat to find out.

TARGET AREA

The Sungai Kolok district in Narathiwat has one major border checkpoint for entering Malaysia. The area attracts many Malaysian visitors who come to buy food and household products every day. Its economic strengths also include its rich supply of natural resources.

There are 77,863 people living in Sungai Kolok, comprising about 10% of the overall population of Narathiwat province. About 68% of residents run their own businesses and do trade with neighbouring cities in Malaysia.

A common sight in Sungai Kolok is cars with Malaysian licence plates heading to and from the border checkpoints. Pol Lt Col Poonsak Keawseekhao, the deputy superintendent of Narathiwat immigration police, told Spectrum that there are at least 1,000 to 1,500 Malaysians crossing into Sungai Kolok on weekdays, and 2,000 to 3,000 during the weekend.

"Malaysians come to buy food, fruits and vegetables on our side [of the border] since the products are much cheaper and better quality than what they have," Lt Col Poonsak explained. "They come here to purchase things but also to sell stuff sometimes."

The Malaysian city bordering Sungai Kolok is Kelantan, located around 296 kilometres from Penang and 482km from Singapore.

Since Sungai Kolok is the only direct gateway to East Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand, Narathiwat is the only province in the deep South that has its own airport and enjoys an extensive land transport system, including roads and railways.

Marine transport is also an important way for people to commute, especially those who live along the border.

Many Sungai Kolok residents benefit from the city's proximity to Malaysia. Residents carrying border passes can cross to the other side for work or leisure, and return in the same day. People from Thai provinces neighbouring Malaysia are entitled to these passes.

"We have many Thai locals crossing into Malaysia to work every day," says Lt Col Poonsak. "Eighty-five per cent of Thais who enter Malaysia through the Sungai Kolok checkpoint use border passes.

"However, they are only allowed to stay in Malaysia for 24 hours in a radius of 100 kilometres from the border with the pass."

With trade value between the border cities amounting to 31 billion baht last year, Sungai Kolok seems like an ideal place to build an international border city.

BUILDING ON PROGRESS

Sungai Kolok is preparing the ground for a large development leap. After a long period of economic abandonment owed to the insurgency, the city is starting to look ahead hopefully.

Preecha Nuannoy, the district chief of Sungai Kolok, has proposed five projects to get the city on track for economic growth, including plans to develop more efficient immigration procedures and construction work at the train station.

The district cabinet sees these two projects as the most important in the grand scheme of the city's development. The train station's construction project has a budget of 30 million baht, while the immigration process reforms have been given 10 million baht. The latter will involve the installation of new technology to improve the speed and security of Thai-Malaysia border immigration.

The train station renovation will start in October this year. However, the immigration reform is already under way.

"The brand-new 13 passport readers and five e-finger print readers have already been installed," said Lt Col Poonsak. "We work much faster with the automatic machines. We used to do everything manually, which was a big problem, especially during important holidays when Malaysians all travel into Sungai Kolok at the same time."

There are several more projects that Mr Preecha has in mind, but they have yet to be approved.

"One of the most important projects that we proposed was a trading centre and duty-free mall," Mr Preecha explains. "We have no shopping malls in the Narathiwat area. The closest mall we have in the deep South is in Pattani and it is not even particularly close.

"So I believe a shopping mall would be very beneficial for attracting visitors, especially from Malaysia. Their closest shopping malls are also more than 50 kilometres away from the [Thai-Malaysia] border. We should take this opportunity to give ourselves a real advantage."

The idea of a duty-free mall was taken from successful examples in Penang and Singapore. If Sungai Kolok had its own duty-free mall, it would not only stimulate the local economy but help draw new investors to the area.

The other projects yet to be approved include a friendship bridge connecting Sungai Kolok to Malaysia, a safety road to run parallel to the railway line and bypass roads to provide transport without having to go through town centres.

PLAYING IT SAFE

Life on the streets fades out fast after the sun goes down at any small city in Narathiwat. Sungai Kolok is no exception. The city gets quiet once the darkness starts creeping in.

Having seen several explosion incidents over the years, the residents of Sungai Kolok are always on guard about threats, but by and large they go about living their lives like normal.

The city at nighttime may be quiet, but it's at this time that the streets start to be patrolled by volunteer police and military members who oversee a series of checkpoints across town.

"We set up all-night checkpoints all over Sungai Kolok to make sure that terrorist acts won't occur in the most heavily populated areas," said Mr Preecha. "The first checkpoint will ensure that no one enters the city premises >> >> without being checked first. Then we have many more checkpoints within the city."

Pol Lt Col Taweesak Tongsongsee, the deputy superintendent of Sungai Kolok police station, said that ya ba pills are regularly shipped across the border from Malaysia.

Checkpoint officials frequently find drugs that are meant to be delivered to Thai teenage drug dealers.

During the day, the streets are not as heavily guarded as they are at night. But it is clear that extensive measures have been taken to protect the city from any violent threats.

BORDERING ON CHANGE

Besides the Sungai Kolok one, Narathiwat has a new checkpoint in Buketa subdistrict that recently opened to accommodate more people when there are festivals like Ramadan. The checkpoint is located around 22km away from the Sungai Kolok checkpoint.

The checkpoint may have only opened recently on the Thai side, but on the Malaysian side, they have used this as an entry point since 1999. The Thai side currently has a temporary building for conducting operations, but the construction of a larger complex is under way.

On the Bukit Bunga side of Malaysia, there are several buildings and businesses already there.

Artisan Puvapiparttanavong, the director of Buketa Customs House, says that Buketa will be one of the most important border checkpoints as one of two main official access points to Malaysia from Narathiwat that can be easily accessed by bridge.

"We hope to connect the two countries more," said Mr Artisan. "We expect to take halal into consideration. There is a lot of chicken meat from Thailand going into Malaysia through this checkpoint. I hope we will have more variety once we are fully up and operating."

Pol Lt Thanasis Chansiriyos, the duty officer of Buketa immigration police, said roughly 200 to 400 people pass through the checkpoint every day. Most visitors are Malaysian nationals who come to Thailand to eat or buy food to bring home.

Tak Bai is another border checkpoint that will need an upgrade. Currently, the only way to commute from Kelantan in Malaysia to Tak Bai, a town in Narathiwat, is by ferry. The ferry service has been running for over 20 years and comes back and forth every half hour.

Many Malaysians cross the border by long-tail boats to visit Taba market in Tak Bai for shopping.

Siripong Wutthinun, the director of Tak Bai Customs House, says that he has requested the funds to build a bridge connecting the Thai and Malaysia side to help facilitate trading.

"We imported a lot of coconut from Malaysia and they brought it by boat through this channel," Mr Siripong explained. "We can collect a lot of import duty from coconut. We collected 551,880 baht last year. I'm sure we could collect more if it becomes easier to commute between the two sides."

THE NEW METROPOLIS

Although Sungai Kolok has set its sights on becoming the new region's new trading hub, with only 45 hotels and no shopping mall to offer, the city still has some way to go.

Narathiwat is rich with natural resources, growing fresh fruits and vegetables that make for popular sells to Malaysians. But the province itself is no trading hub for agricultural products.

"It is very quiet here, especially after the new year," says Bang Mud, a vegetable seller at a Sungai Kolok market. "We are mostly relying on Malaysian buyers. However, not many of them come these days."

Locals largely sell their vegetables on the street, but a more sophisticated market venue is needed to sell the image of the city as an international trading hub.

Patimoh Sadiyamu, the vice-governor of Narathiwat, explains that the province is investing in modelling itself as a key trading hub for agricultural and livestock products.

Currently, only one private company is operating in the province, running a frozen durian export business for Malaysian and Indonesia clients. However, in the next two months, the place will allow traders to enter the premises with their own products for export.

"We exported more than 4,000 tonnes of longkong fruit last year," Ms Patimoh explained. "We expect to be able to do 14,000 tonnes after the trading hub starts fully operating."

The city's government is also planning to open a complex featuring a storage room, preservation centre, a fruit-processing centre and a frozen factory.

With over 300 rai of land, the trading hub will be large enough to service trucks from all over Thailand.

The city further plans to specialise in the trade of fruits from other regions of Thailand like mangoes. These can then be traded with people from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia due to their proximity to these countries.

"Before we build this trading hub, our agriculturists have to rely on outside traders to come and purchase their products," says Ms Patimoh.

"The result is our prices are suppressed. The outside traders then sell the agricultural products for a much higher price.

"But now that we have our own market, locals can sell their products at lower prices, but receive the full amount of money without having to go through middlemen.

"With the culture and language that we share with Malaysians and Indonesians, they make for one of our main customers at this trading hub. I'm sure we will create a lot of revenue from them that will allow us to become the new important trading spot in Asean."

Decades of instability have plagued the deep South, but a renewed effort of peace has given locals an opportunity to reimagine their lives there -- not only as more peaceful but more prosperous.

making a move: Thais take their motorcycles to the Sungai Kolok checkpoint to cross into Malaysia for work every day, left. Malaysians cross the border into Thailand to do shopping and business, right.

building connections: Artisan Puvapiparttanavong of Buketa Customs House.

under control: Pol Lt Col Taweesak Tongsongsee, the deputy superintendent of Sungai Kolok police. The city's streets are patrolled by police at night.

on the safe side: Tightened-up security checkpoints are set up on the road leading to Sungai Kolok at night. By 8pm, the streets become vacated save for the presence of security officials.

quiet on the vendors' front: Bang Mud, vegetable seller, says business is slow lately.

shipshape: A ferry carries vehicles from Kelantan, Malaysia, to the Tak Bai district of Narathiwat. The ferry service goes back and forth every half-hour.

a fine line: The queue at the Buketa border checkpoint in Narathiwat. The checkpoint was recently opened in order to accommodate higher numbers of visitors during holiday seasons like Ramadan.

bearing fruits: A vendor sells durian at Taba market nearby Tak Bai district. The market is popular among Malaysians who routinely cross the border to do shopping and access better-quality produce.

selling points: Patimoh Sadiyamu, the vice-governor of Narathiwat province.

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