Yala is in the news a lot because of the continuing insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South. Prime Minister Yingluck was just there a few days ago and I just returned from a trip to visit a friend who grew up in Yala. I stayed in the city the majority of the time and have 3 posts about this trip. This first one only focuses on security, particularly in the city.
Since I’m a news junkie and follow Thai news outlets like MCOT and Bangkok Post, I hear about all of the violent incidents in the Deep South so I was a bit apprehensive about going down there. Nit noi. Of course as fate would have it, on my way to Hat Yai I would sit next to an explosives technician who “strongly recommended” I not go outside after 6pm. My friend also told me to make sure I arrived to Yala before 6 which didn’t exactly make me feel much better. On top of that I knew I was going to stand out in a place I’d rather not be noticed. Foreigners are not targeted in insurgent attacks but after leaving Hat Yai, I was the only Westerner I saw the entire week. Yay.
Security concerns in Yala are a reality of life and most people take steps to protect themselves in simple ways. According to my friend there is a lot of small crime at night so they use an excessive number of locks on doors and don’t go out in the evenings very often. We did go out to eat after dark a couple times but we were always back before 8. There was a strange lack of police on the streets, only soldiers at checkpoints it seemed. My friend kept saying, “It’s kind of like the wild wild west here isn’t it?” They also protect their vehicles as much as possible. The streets are empty of motorcycles and cars at night since insurgents often steal vehicles to use for bombs. My friend has had 2 motorcycle bombs go off in front of neighbor’s homes, both of which they later learned were stolen. In addition to all of this, my friend is part of a large chat group on the “Line app” of people in Yala to share emergency information if something happens in the city. I thought I heard a Facebook group mentioned too but I can’t find it.
After greeting someone for the first time in Thailand, the follow up question is usually “where do you come from” or “are you a teacher” but nearly every person I met in Yala would ask if I was scared of bombs. “No” was always my response though I don’t think anyone believed me. And then they’d ask me where I come from. Several bombs went off in the province while I was there and I made the mistake of quickly informing a group of people I was with. They were less than interested in hearing the news even though it was only 10km away. Unless there’s a significant incident in the city, I found that most people didn’t even know anything was happening. Not because they don’t care, but because it happens all the time and simply don’t want to hear about it. One neighbor told me she never watches the news because the violence makes her too sad.
Security cameras are everywhere. During my visit it became a game after awhile to see who could spot a camera. This camera is an obvious one at a checkpoint but most of them are high up on telephone polls or buildings.
This is a military checkpoint near the border of Yala and Pattani. The provincial border checkpoints are large like this one. Once in the province, most are a bit smaller. We went through 6 of them in 125km from Hat Yai to Yala.
Occasionally you see small military camps like this in random rural areas.
The East side of the tracks in Yala is predominately Muslim. The West side is a mix. The friend I stayed with said that 12 years ago it was about half Muslim, half Buddhist all over the city but many Buddhists are leaving due to the insurgency. Despite the difference in religion, the majority of Muslims and Buddhists interact constantly, live as neighbors, shop the same places and work together. I’ll discuss this in my next post.
This monk has an armed escort in front and back with 2 children following. (Can’t see the other one.) Of the dozen or so monks I saw doing morning alms, this is the only one that had an armed escort.
Mini checkpoints like this are in strategic locations all over the city but not on the main roads.
The Thai military has done a good job of blanketing the region, making it difficult for insurgents to be mobile. I can’t imagine working these checkpoints, always wondering if a car is going to explode or if you’ll be attacked by a group of insurgents.
The next post will focus on life in general and not on the security situation.