Surviving Tak Bai

Tak Bai, Oct. 25, 2004

In the village of Ae Wae, about a three-hour drive from Yala, people have grown suspicious of outsiders, an old woman told me as we waited on her porch one afternoon. The sky turned the color of salt, and it started to rain. I’d come to meet a group of young men who had attended the protest at Tak Bai last October. The Thai security forces now make regular visits, the woman said, and recently the soldiers discovered a large cache of rice in the village.

“The army and police thought that the rice was hidden for terrorists. But in fact it was just villagers afraid of civil war.” She went into the house and returned with a tin of butter cookies. “Almost every day, people are killed here.”

The young men we had come to see arrived, soaked, on a handful of motorbikes. We sat down around a cement table and listened to the rain hit the tin roof. One man, a rangy 30-year-old named Rusalam, with yellowing circles under his eyes, was wearing a T-shirt that read, “We love the king.” He had been given the T-shirt during a government re-education course conducted after Tak Bai. They’d taught him how to take care of livestock, he said. The problem was he couldn’t afford any livestock and, anyway, after what was done to him at Tak Bai, he was still too frail to work. I asked him to tell me what happened that day.

On Oct. 25, he said, at about 9:30 in the morning, he and 18 other men from this village had climbed into pickup trucks and driven to Tak Bai. It was Ramadan, and having little else to do, Rusalam wanted to buy sweets in town to break the day’s fast. “It was raining, so we couldn’t tap rubber that morning,” he said.

But when they reached Tak Bai, around 2,000 people were gathering outside the police station to protest the arrest of six village defense volunteers who were accused of handing their weapons over to Islamic insurgents. So, Rusalam forgot about getting something to eat and joined the protest.

“I only wanted to see all six alive, but we weren’t allowed to see, so no one would leave,” he said. By midday, the army surrounded the protestors and fired water into the crowd. Then the soldiers switched to bullets. Several of the protestors were shot, others fled into a nearby river. Both ends of the sandy road were blocked by tanks. Finally, the soldiers stopped shooting and decided to arrest the young men. They began by separating those with beards (that is, Muslims), from the other protestors. Rusalam was one of the first to be taken, he said, stroking the few hairs on his chin.

Then Rusalam and about a thousand other young men were ordered to take off their T-shirts and to lie on the ground. The soldiers tied their arms behind their backs. “I crawled on the ground to the trucks with my arms tied behind me with my belt,” he said. “I had bruises from the soldiers’ boots on my back. They kicked me too many times to count. I couldn’t walk.” Rusalam was lifted into the empty truck and placed on the bottom of what would become six layers of people. He was first in because of his beard.

“When I moved, a soldier said to me, ‘You want to die? You want to die?’ ” He was beaten in the head with a rifle butt. Other men, according to Human Rights Watch, were urinated on.

On the way to the army barracks, the truck kept stopping, and more men were loaded on top of Rusalam and the others. The drive usually takes about an hour; that afternoon it took almost five. About two hours before they reached the camp, the young man next to Rusalam said he couldn’t breathe and pleaded with the person on top of him to lift his bodyweight up if he could. It was the last thing Rusalam heard him say. When they reached the army camp, the young man was dead.

Several days later, Rusalam returned home to Ae Wae. “When I came back, no one recognized me,” he said. “My face was so swollen and my teeth were broken.” Before Tak Bai, he’d worked as a contractor across the border in Malaysia. Now he can only help his parents flatten raw rubber into mats. “I am really angry, but what can I do?” he said, shifting his long legs beneath him. “I won’t go to another protest. I don’t want to die.”

Later, at a snack bar on the campus of Prince of Songkla University, about an hour’s drive from Rusalam’s village, I met Col. Somkuan Saengpataranet, an army spokesman. Around us, Muslim and Buddhist students sat together at picnic tables, drinking juice and eating plates of fried rice. The university is a center of life for six thousand young southerners, the colonel said, looking around brightly at the tables.

He’d buttoned his black beret under his left epaulet, and a neat little mustache hung above his upper lip. He ordered a fruit plate and explained the apparent act of mass-martyrdom—in which the army killed 105 men last April 28—from the government’s point of view.

“Some religious teachers mixed narcotics with lessons on how to be invincible, so the young people were not afraid to die,” he said, spearing a piece of pineapple. “At the time, we didn’t believe it, but then we saw the book Jihad in Pattani,” he said. “The wrong Quran.” The latter phrase is considered offensive by Muslims, because it both demonizes the Quran and legitimizes the sensational pamphlet, but the colonel, who was trained in Kentucky at Fort Knox, probably had no idea of this. He seemed a kind and approachable man with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing.

“At Tak Bai, the commander tried to solve [the conflict] peacefully,” he said, looking pained. “He had the families of the arrested men come out, an imam—he tried so many ways to explain it to the people.”

“The very sad story is that people died from weakness and from fasting during Ramadan when we tried to transport them in trucks,” he said. This excuse has enraged the local population, because it implies their religion is somehow to blame. They are also furious that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has never apologized for Tak Bai. The colonel went on, “I myself felt sad. No one should kill any people. I believe that.” He said, “We’ve never transported people like that before. I don’t know why we did it.”

The colonel looked at the table nearby where two bored-looking soldiers with M-16s were picking at their own plate of pineapple. “In Buddhist teaching, there is a relationship between cause and result,” he said. “So, we have to think again about who caused it, who brought those people here. We shouldn’t blame only the soldiers. We have to think about who is behind the scenes.

“The aim of the insurgency is to send propaganda around the world that the Muslim people are suffering.” In response, he went on, the army has begun its own propaganda campaign. “Right now we’re waging a hearts-and-minds campaign in the villages. We try to teach the people to protect themselves, to fish and grow vegetables.”

The white paper fruit plate was empty, and it was time to go. He rose, as did his two bodyguards at the next table. Walking into the darkness, he fastened the Velcro on his flak jacket and said, “The people here love soldiers.”