When art imitates life in the South

Suhaidee Sata is an artist from Pattani whose art pieces include charcoal sketches of guns used by security officials in the deep South. "This is M16a1," he pointed at one drawing. "This is M16a2. This is M4. And this is AK47."

I couldn't tell the differences. All sketches are bold black lines tracing the sturdy, formalist contours of the firearms, from barrel to magazine and trigger, transposed onto papers. They're forbidding and elegant, in a cold, uncompromising way. Many art students draw nude sketches to study anatomy; for Mr Suhaidee, the anatomy of fear is expressed in the stiff curves of the guns.

"I am not an expert in weapon. I just keep hearing about different gun models in the news, and I started looked them up for my work," said Mr Suhaidee.

Rightly he heard about another gun model this week in a report that was a big deal in Pattani but not so much elsewhere.

On Tuesday evening a ranger fired three shots at a student outside her house after his pickup truck brushed against her motorcycle, toppling her and her friend to the ground. Initial report said that the soldier, Sergeant Preecha Intarangsri of Special Rangers Task Force in Pattani, "unintentionally discharged" the bullets -- an accident. But no. It was later confirmed that the sergeant, enraged and drunk, purposely shot at the student though the bullets didn't hit her. The student, Hanan Sudane, fled into the house. Still in the trigger-happy mood, the soldier fired twice more into the air and shouted, according to police reports, "do you think this is a toy gun?"

No, it's not. It's a CZ pistol. Like Mr Suhaidee, we'll all be able to remember the firearm catalogue by heart after years of following news of the deep South.

Sergeant Preecha was taken into custody and will be court-martialled. He apologised to the student, saying he was upset after a quarrel with his wife. The general who's his superior also came out to apologise and assured due justice. The Prince of Songkla University, where the victim was a student, issued a statement expressing concern about the brazen use of force by a security officer.

What happened might look like a random case of a drunk acting foolishly (almost fatally), but given the context, its repercussions are grave. First, it was an unprovoked act of aggression in a place already wrecked by senseless violence. Second, the violence was committed by a state officer against an innocent civilian (and remember that his truck also hit her motorcycle).

Finally and most crucially, the case further erodes what little trust the locals have for the military operating in the area. And as trust ebbs, suspicion grows, and that plays into the hands of the troublemakers looking for new recruits. When the state that talks about peace has its agent fire shots at a female student outside her own house, peace carries little or no weight.

Of course, the insurgents are believed to be responsible for most of the violence and murders, but it's the cases like Sgt Preecha's -- plus the extrajudicial killings, suspect detention and other dubious incidents involving security officers -- that harm the image and reduce the credibility of the army, dimming its odds of gaining the upper hand in this psychological battlefield.

In Pattani, you see soldiers carrying machine guns as they man checkpoints or patrol streets. A familiar sight, perhaps that's why Mr Suhaidee the artist became interested in weapons. Besides his sketches of M16s and M4s -- which are part of the "Patani Semasa" exhibition showing now at Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai -- he also installed a set of M16 replicas on two walls facing each other. Visitors are invited to walk between them and feel rows of guns pointing at their heads.

This past May, two days after the shocking bombing at Big C in Pattani, Mr Suhaidee on his motorcycle was stopped at a checkpoint. "The soldiers asked me the usual questions, then they went through my backpack," says the artist, half-amused, half-upset. "They found my sketchbook, and sure, they saw all these sketches of guns and grenades I was preparing for the exhibition.

"I told them I'm an artist, and this is my art," he continues. "But they didn't believe me. They said it wasn't art. It didn't look like art."

Maybe it's not. Maybe it's reality -- the reality of the deep South as transported into drawing. Mr Suhaidee was grilled for hours at the station, fearful that he would be taken to some camp, before his lecturers at Prince of Songkla University got his phone message and came to offer their guarantee. Art imitates life, and Mr Suhaidee only wishes one day he could draw flowers instead of guns.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

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