The artists promoting peace in Thailand’s conflict-plagued south

Saiburi Looker is a group of artists aiming to rebuild communal ties and promote peace by using art as their main tool. Saiburi, Thailand – With his hands tucked in his jacket pockets, Anas Pongpraset slightly nods towards two collapsed buildings in front of him. “That’s where the car bomb went off,” says the 35-year-old of an explosion that rocked the Chinatown district of the small town of Saiburi in Thailand’s deep south in 2012. “It killed both Buddhists and Muslims. There weren’t any clues that it would happen here in the Chinese community,” he adds, his gaze fixed at the charred structures. Fighters have been waging an armed campaign for independence in Thailand’s deep south for decades, but the conflict escalated in 2004 after a series of well-planned attacks on police and government facilities. Explosions, gunfire and organised killings shook the region as the rest of the country watched in horror. The violence has since kept Thailand’s military on edge, yet it has caused more than death and destruction. It’s also left broken communal ties throughout the southern region, a large and diverse area that’s home to various ethnic groups, including Chinese, Thai Buddhists, Pakistanis and Thai Muslims, who make up the majority of the population. Saiburi has been particularly hit. It’s been designated as a “red zone”, indicating that the town is more prone to be struck by violence than others. “I watched as my hometown erupted in violence on the television set,” says Anas, recalling the clashes that hit Saiburi some 15 years ago when he was a student in Thailand’s capital. “I would see the news from Bangkok and felt depressed that there was so much violence coming from the south,” he adds. “When I got back, I couldn’t believe the amount of military that was everywhere. The first thing I noticed was that there were bunkers, roadblocks, troops – all on the roads. Everything felt so different.” The filmmaker and photographer says he couldn’t just ignore the lingering remnants of violence and the continuous aggression by both the Thai military and the separatists for any longer. Joining forces with other like-minded people, Anas in 2012 founded Saiburi Looker, a collective of young artists working to rebuild communal relationships and promote peace in the south through art. The group’s activism started with artist Waearong Waeno courageously painting elaborate drawings representing peace on public walls throughout Saiburi. In a way, his paintings were the first act of silent defiance aiming to soothe the tension that permeated through the town’s streets. “There was one time when people were so into it [public paintings] that they joined and painted alongside us – even bringing their kids along,” Waearong says. “People got the chance to have real conversations. We found that these events relieve problematic relations between the villagers, especially Thai Buddhists and Muslims. We’ve had events where the military participated and talked with the community. I think that is impressive.” Historians trace the origin of the conflict to around 1909, during Thailand’s annexation and takeover of the Malay Sultanate of Patani. They say it began when the northern states of Malaysia were cut into separate pieces by the occupying Thai forces. After the annexation, forced assimilation procedures created resentment among the local populace. It didn’t take long before armed campaigns by separatist groups started appearing in the 1950s with tensions brewing over the following 50 years. In 2004, groups such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN) increased attacks against military, government officials and teachers. The situation deteriorated around 2012 when fighters began purposely targeting civilians from differing minorities as well. They deliberately planned attacks that would cause communal tension creating a new sense of distrust and Islamophobia towards the majority Muslim population, according to Anas. He says that prior to 2004, the various communities in the area coexisted without any major problems, adding that it’s likely that those attacks were orchestrated to destabilise communal relationships. “Nobody trusted each other. We didn’t know who could be listening to our conversations. Everyone was scared to express themselves and there was this general sadness and fear,” Anas says. Anas’s grandfather was a prominent Muslim leader both in the south of Thailand and in neighbouring Malaysia. But his grandfather’s brother was on a military list of “extremists”. Thailand’s security forces harassed and investigated his family often, disrupting their daily lives under false suspicions that they were connected to armed groups, Anas says. It is cases like this, he adds, that broaden the sense of distrust between local Muslims and the military. Violence between the fighters and the military has continued to grind over the years and persists to this day, with civilians often caught in the middle. Just this week,
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