Stemming resentment at its roots in Pattani

Economic development aims to ease tension in troubled Pattani

NATURAL BEAUTY: A view of Pattani Bay. The scenery leaves visitors wondering what Pattani could have been without the violence that has scarred the region. (Photos and video by Patpon Sabpaitoon)

Travelling along the route from Hat Yai in Songkhla to Pattani, one cannot help but notice the stark contrast between the two provinces -- with packed buildings slowly vanishing into a verdant landscape of forests stretching endlessly along the road, and houses coming into view only once in a while.

It took around one and a half hours to travel from Hat Yai International Airport to Pattani. In Pattani, the scenery is no different from what one can see elsewhere in rural areas throughout Thailand.

The district that connects Songkhla and Pattani is Nong Chik, an agricultural town in Pattani province. This tiny town, which also stretches along the Gulf of Thailand, has been chosen as one of the three focal areas of the government's development scheme designed to uplift the condition of locals in the southern border provinces.


In Nong Chik and Pattani, the general atmosphere, though dimmed from the prolonged years of conflict, seems calm and placid, with carefree locals in traditional garb walking along the streets.

The ambience is different from what has been portrayed in mainstream media, with bloodshed and violence repeatedly making the headlines.

At night, the picture is similar to what can be seen in rural areas in other part of the country: local food stalls, with mostly tea and roti shops occupying the streets. Driving past the main road, you notice the smiles on friendly faces travelling casually on motorcycles. The scenery will leave you wondering what Pattani could have been without all the violence.

"When there are no incidents, we just get on with our lives," said a local woman.

Despite what we've seen in the media throughout 14 years of prolonged violence, the local people seem determined to get on with their lives normally.

Nong Chik district is considered the gateway to the deep South because there are highways that connect the district to Songkhla, Yala and Narathiwat. However, the prolonged years of violence resulted in economic stalemate undermining the livelihood and well-being of the people in the area. There is little investment. Tourism and trade are also stagnant due to the situation.

Nong Chik, with its strength in agriculture, has been designated as a prototype "agricultural industrial city" -- one of the three districts under the "Secure, Prosperous, Sustainable Triangle" project approved by the cabinet in October last year.

The scheme designates three special development areas encompassing Nong Chik district, drawing a line that stretches to include Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province, then Betong in Yala province, It constitutes a full triangle, hence the name of the project.

The project aims to encourage investment from the private sector, creating jobs and raising incomes in the local area.

Economic development is expected to alleviate violence and stabilise the situation in the area in the long term. It also aims to uplift livelihoods and generate secure jobs and incomes for locals. This consequently will make the provinces safer. The effort is also believed to be a contributing factor in addressing the deep-rooted conflict in the region and could lay the foundation for further social and economic development in the next stage.

For the Triangle project, the cabinet approved a budget of 5 billion baht for 2017-20, with 300 million baht for 17 pilot projects for this year.

In 2017 and 2018, the infrastructure and microeconomy will be developed first, while in 2019 and 2020 intra- and inter-region connectivity will be enhanced.

Economic disparity is one of the main factors that has fuelled the conflict.

"You may think that this is 2017, there could not be that many people living in poverty, but obviously some people still do," said Nong Chik district chief Ake Yung-apai. "This makes it easy for people to lose their way and turn against the government."

As of last year, 862 out of 11,800 households in Nong Chik district lived below the standard of 30,000 baht per capita per year, according to the Basic Minimum Needs data of the Ministry of Interior.

"If people have jobs, equal opportunities and equal access to government services, if they feel like they also have a place in society, their resentment would be reduced. They would be deterred from joining the opposition," said the district chief.

In Nong Chik, with its fertile flatland, the conditions are ripe for agricultural development. Most of the economic activities in Pattani are connected with agriculture, with rice, coconut, rubber and palm oil the main products.

In terms of agriculture, single cropping further undermines the productivity of the area: when the global market stalls, planters are affected and suffer from falling prices.

To create resilience, the project aims to encourage multi-cropping and integrated agriculture and turn farmers into "smart farmers".

Furthermore, the authorities are urging people to add value to their products using various methods such as food processing to raise their income.

The comprehensive development scheme covers various areas, with the main goal to uplift the livelihood of locals in Nong Chik by creating jobs and generating income.

OIL PALM INDUSTRY

The oil palm industry is an area that will be developed. Considering a local factory's capacity to process 500,000 tonnes of oil palm a year, equal to what is produced in an area of 200,000 rai, there is plenty of room for expansion of oil palm plantations as only 50,000 rai in the district is used for such plantations.

With about 24,000 rai of unoccupied land accounting for 16% of the district, the state is promoting oil palm plantations among villagers. Currently, some 205 people plant oil palm on 1,324 rai of land. It is expected that this project will be able to create jobs for up to 6,000 people.

LIVESTOCK

Instead of depending on imported livestock as in the past, locals in Pattani have been encouraged to raise their own goats, cow and chickens, both for consumption and export to create resilience in the area.

"The government will only act as instructor. We will only disseminate knowledge and best practices. There will be no more giving livestock for them to raise or plant seeds for them to grow because that is not sustainable" said Mr Ake.

FISHERY PRODUCTS

Of all the people living in Pattani, the poorest are those who rely on coastal fishing.

Somkeart Ponprayoon, deputy secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre, said locals used to believe that if they changed their way of doing things, they wouldn't be able to generate enough income for themselves. But after the value chain was created, it made an impact -- the incomes of the locals rose.

Mr Somkeart said the quality of life of locals has been enhanced from better income.

Before they came together as a group, locals living along the shore made a living by selling packed fish products, with some making only 25 baht per day. Others rely on fishing and selling fresh fish at a low price to sustain themselves.

But after they were exposed to food processing, their income increased vastly. Threadfin fish that used to sell at 150 baht per kg is now be sold at 1,400-1,500 baht per kg after being processed. Fresh fish that sold at 150-250 baht per kg now rakes in up to 3,000 baht per day.

AGRICULTURAL TRAINING

In Ban Don Rak a pilot project called "FarmRak" (Love Farm) has been initiated whereby locals come together to practise farming, livestock raising and maintaining plantations.

Earning 300 baht per day, they also gain practical knowledge that can be applied to their lives. Each time, one person from a household is allocated to participate for a period of 10 days. Most of the participants in the project are farmers and housewives.

Asor Salae said that when she was a farmer, her income wasn't sufficient. She was only able to grow enough rice to feed herself. But after she joined the project she is able to use the knowledge and grow crops properly and sustain herself. She also added that the experience is fun because she can socialise with her friends.

Harun Cheha said this project gave him practical knowledge in farming. "The experience could be used in my daily life. I use the knowledge gained through the project and implement it in everyday life."

MARKET-LED DEVELOPMENT

Preferences of the market have now been studied and used as guidelines for production. There has been interest expressed by buyers in countries such as Malaysia, Japan, China and Indonesia.

"Knowing there are markets to support their products, people are motivated to grow crops and generate income for themselves," said Mr Somkeart.

SECURITY FIRST

Mr Somkeart stressed that for all of this to work, the most important factor is security. A safe environment will be beneficial to economic development since it can attract more investors to the area.

For investors to consider investment in the area, the authorities are trying their best to tighten the grip on security while encouraging locals to participate in the effort to make the area safe for development.

"The implementation of the Pracha Rat (people's state) policy proved to be successful in bringing people who went astray back to the community. People now realise that if the area is safe and secure, this will enhance tourism and investment, which will make their lives better," said Mr Ake.

The district chief added that the community is working closely with the authorities to make the area a safer place.

Economic development is the key to deter people from joining the opposition. Authorities also aim to increase understanding among different sectors and find a peaceful way to meditate the conflict. Mr Ake also pointed out that, apart from different mindsets, security is also undermined by drugs and illegal products and the local mafia. He said these factors have decreased after continual work by the local authorities.

MAKING PROGRESS

Throughout 14 years of conflict in the deep South, there have been 17,000 violent incidents. However, during the past three years the situation has become much more positive due to the implementation of the government's three-year plan for the southern border provinces. The result has been heartening, with fewer casualties, incidents and movements.

In 2014 there were 663 incidents, with 264 in 2015 and only 193 in 2016.

Although violent incidents still persist and there are some counter-efforts, creating a better quality of life while aiming for social and economic equity for the people is considered big progress, said Mr Ake.

"Progress has been made. Nowadays we can cooperate with religious schools as they are more open and kindly cooperate in development efforts by government," said Mr Somkeart.

In the eyes of locals, the situation is not as grim as portrayed in the media. Most say they feel safe enough and do not live in fear. Many of them said that although violence persists, they are used to it.

"Our lives are normal. We never know if it's ever going to happen to us; it's up to fate. But if we are too afraid, we wouldn't be able to get on with our lives," said Roslin Wattanapong, a Sukhothai native who married a Pattani man and moved there years ago.

Nukorn Makong, a soldier who has been on duty in Pattani since 2011, said the current situation is better compared to previous years.

The situation is also better in the eyes of security authorities.

"We [the government] are trying our best to make the area safe. You can see that now, when an incident happens, we are able to identify the wrongdoer quickly thanks to technology and joint efforts by the government and the public to ensure the safety of the people and tourists. Although we cannot say that it's 100% safe, we are definitely doing our best to secure the area," said Mr Somkeart.

Untouched natural landscape at Tachee Cape. Patpon Sabpaitoon

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS: At FarmRak, products grown by the locals are available for purchase. Patpon Sabpaitoon

LIFE GOES ON: For most locals, the area is safe enough and they get on with their lives normally. Patpon Sabpaitoon

FISHY BUSINESS: Processed threadfin products earn money for local people. Patpon Sabpaitoon

ON ALERT: Security checkpoints and barricades are deployed along a road for security reasons. Patpon Sabpaitoon

HEAVY LOAD: Trucks carry palms in a palm oil factory. Nong Chik's fertile flatland is ideal for agricultural development. Patpon Sabpaitoon

PILOT PROJECT: Locals grow crops at FarmRak in Ban Don Rak. Patpon Sabpaitoon

STANDING TOGETHER: Local women form a line to help carry soil for growing plants in their plantation. Patpon Sabpaitoon

TRANQUIL HIDEAWAY: This mangrove tunnel is one of many little-known tourist destinations in Pattani. Patpon Sabpaitoon

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