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Drugs and disaffection in southern Thailand

By Terrapinzflyer, Feb 17, 2010 | |
  1. Terrapinzflyer
    Drugs and disaffection in southern Thailand

    PATTANI - It's 8:00 pm at a shop and cafe in a small village in Pattani province, one of the four provinces torn by violence and insurgency in Thailand's predominantly Muslim southernmost region. On this night, Sukarno, a 22-year-old ethnic Malay Muslim who helps run the modest establishment, is visibly frustrated and depressed.

    His angst, however, does not stem from the Thai state's marginalization of Malay identity and language, or even its violence against other Malay Muslims - two key factors that have contributed to the protracted conflict between the Thai state and shadowy, cell-based insurgents that has taken more than 4,000 lives since early 2004.

    To the contrary, Sukarno also works part-time as a state-supported village defense volunteer, meaning he is officially "pro-state" and thus a potential target of the insurgents who have been known to kill Malay Muslims who collaborate with Thai authorities. But protecting the Thai state from the separatist threat is not among his major concerns: "I'm f*****g bored," he told this correspondent.

    Although his village has been relatively unscathed by the brutal conflict, the three rifles belonging to state-supported village defense volunteers in the back of the shop are a palpable reminder of the ever-present threat of violence in this region that was once an Islamic kingdom known as Patani Darulsalam before being usurped by Thailand, then known as Siam, in the late 18th century.

    For the year and a half that I have known Sukarno, I have witnessed a life confined to this shop and cafe, where he regularly works for about 12 hours per day, and his village. A dropout from a local private Islamic high school, Sukarno does not have the academic credentials necessary for advancement in Thailand's mainstream economy; nor is he especially endowed with Islamic knowledge, which for centuries has been a principal source of dignity and respect among Malay Muslims.

    Like many lower-class young men who lack the knowledge, language and disposition to get ahead in Thai society, Sukarno often relies on his physical prowess and verbal assaults to gain some sense of meaning in his life. When I used to try to engage him in the political debates that titillate so many foreign observers of this violence-ridden region, Sukarno would typically dismiss my questions and mock me as an effeminate, out-of-touch intellectual.

    On one occasion he even challenged me in front of a group of his friends to a fight after I jokingly told him that he was not handsome enough to attract women. When I once asked him if he feared being a village defense volunteer, he triumphantly said that he feared no one.

    On this particular night, Sukarno has just finished work and was waiting for his childhood friend, Osama. He had procured and prepared the indigenous narcotic concoction 4 x 100, known locally as sii khun roi, a mix of the illegal kratom leaf, cough syrup and Coca-Cola. Osama, wearing a "God made grass, man made booze: Who do you trust?" t-shirt, sped up to the shop on his motorbike, slammed on the breaks and walked toward Sukarno and I with a toothy grin on his face.

    As Sukarno jumped out of his chair to greet his friend, he half-jokingly told me in a raspy voice that "the administrator of 4 x 100 has arrived". A few minutes later, the depression and boredom suffered by so many young men in this violence-prone region was almost instantaneously transformed into a state of wide-eyed euphoria.

    Sukarno and Osama are just two of a growing mass of undereducated and underemployed Malay Muslims embedded in a culture of drugs. Rather than practice a pious life in this region once dubbed as the "cradle of Islam" in Southeast Asia, many underprivileged young men are turning to substances such as 4 x 100, marijuana and methamphetamines to cope with daily life in this low-intensity war zone.

    While occasional use of marijuana and kratom seem to be viewed by most Malay Muslims as relatively harmless, there is growing alarm over the propensity of young people getting caught up in a cycle of daily substance abuse. In fact, many locals are far more concerned with the social ills of rampant substance abuse and unemployment than the political identity issues and the Thai state's human-rights abuses, which have dominated discourse about the conflict among academics, human-rights activists, the media and policy-makers.

    Although the Thai government has not budged to Malay Muslim calls for some form of autonomy, or at least more decentralization from the highly centralized Thai state, it has made some attempt to address socio-economic grievances among this ethno-religious minority group. A core component of its widely publicized - and heavily criticized - "hearts and minds" campaign that focuses on justice and development for the far south aimed to address the spiraling substance abuse problem.

    The Jalan Baru (meaning "New Way" in Malay) project, a joint operation between the Civilian-Police-Military Command Task Force and the Office of Narcotics Control, is the largest drug rehabilitation program in the region, with three locations at the region's three main army camps. Participants are taught the dangers of substance abuse, Islamic principles - sometimes even taught by Thai Buddhists who have studied Islam - and the benefits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Abdulyadej's sufficiency economy concept. Some 11,000 participants have attended this program since 2007, and recently a job-training program has been introduced.

    Although many Malay Muslim participants and other locals shared positive opinions of the program's attempts to channel young men's energies away from drug use, several participants admitted that they only attended because they were persuaded by village headmen and other state officials. Some suggested that the project - based on a similar project in Thailand's north - is also a publicity stunt to improve the military's poor image among the majority of Malay Muslims.

    One Malay Muslim village headman even said that because he was requested to send several participants from his village, he had to pay three young men 500 baht (US$15) each to take part in the project. However, according to him, their reluctance to attend stemmed not from animosity towards the Thai military, but simply because they did not want to spend a week away from home at a camp. That said, a few of the 30 participants interviewed for this article revealed Patani Malay Muslim nationalist sentiment and resentment towards both the Thai state and its security forces.

    Drug-fueled insurgents?
    Despite official claims linking substance use and participation in insurgent activities, independent researchers have tended to de-emphasize any causal connection. Most recently, the International Crisis Group's (ICG) report on the recruitment of insurgents dismissed some officials' allegations of just such a link. Based on an interview with a religious teacher, ICG described insurgents as devout, pious Muslims motivated principally by nationalism and a sense of injustice.

    But while several religious teachers - historically the primary disseminators of the Patani Malay Muslim nationalist narrative to Malay Muslim youth - at two private Islamic schools, as well as one alleged highly-ranked insurgent leader, conveyed to this correspondent's sources that substance-using youth and young men are not involved with the insurgency, such claims are at odds with the perceptions among not only Thai Buddhist officials, but even many Malay Muslims.

    There is a near-universal belief among the Malay Muslim population that state officials hire substance-abusing youth to carry out bombings and arson attacks - only to later lay blame on insurgents - to justify receiving ever-rising budgetary allowances. Some of the same people interviewed for this article believe that substance-abusing youth also perpetuate violent incidents and small-scale disturbances for insurgent groups.

    Two police detectives who also work as consultants for a military detention center, or what the military refers to as a reconciliation center, claimed that in the first few years of the current wave of insurgent violence there was scarce evidence demonstrating a link between the violence and narcotic abuse. Since then, they say, there has been mounting evidence indicating that a growing number of low-level insurgents use 4 x 100, methamphetamines and marijuana and may often be high while in attack mode.

    One of the detectives explained that because state security forces have since 2008 curtailed the availability of new recruits through military sweeps, recruiters have increasingly turned to substance-abusing young men to fill the gap. Importantly, the two detectives as well as two locally-based researchers distinguished core insurgent members who they believe to be pious Muslims driven by nationalism and Islamism and low-level or even occasional insurgents, who may use drugs and may be less ideologically motivated.

    The detectives also noted that insurgent leaders probably do not even know that their subordinates use drugs. Religious teachers, who are not necessarily involved in the movement, claimed that though they knew of rampant drug use in their villages, they did not specifically know who used drugs.

    At a military detention center, one captured insurgent who had confessed to his role as an economic council member for the BRN-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate), the insurgent group believed by analysts to be the primary Malay Muslim group behind the violence, told this correspondent that some insurgents used drugs. Last year, one captured low-level insurgent interviewed by a Thai TV reporter said that almost every youth attached to the movement in his immediate area regularly used 4 x 100.

    To be sure, given the widespread suspicions among authorities and researchers that insurgent activities are funded in part by drug-smuggling syndicates, there may often be overlap between insurgent violence and criminal-related violence. Moreover, as reported in Asia Times Online last month, (see Justice deficit in southern Thailand, January 26) insurgents are believed to also moonlight as hired gunmen for criminal networks, including those associated with drug-smuggling.

    Highs and lows
    Many locals note the glaring correlation between educational levels, unemployment and substance abuse. However, while many Malay Muslims apportion blame to the Thai government's long-term neglect of the region, corrupt officials' complicity in the drug trade, or even the growing influence of perceived amoral aspects of Buddhist Thai society, many others prioritize explanations that center on large families beset by poverty and instability or even the pathologies of substance abusers themselves.

    Many Malay Muslims even suggest that substance abusers' less-than-pious lifestyles result in part from a dearth of Islamic knowledge. Thus many believe a stricter, more puritanical following of Islam could help eliminate substance abuse in their communities, but the government has been reluctant to allow any expansion of sharia law.

    Scholars especially tend to trace the root cause of the region's socio-economic problems, including rampant substance abuse, to the Thai state's centralization policies that have long marginalized and disadvantaged young Malay Muslim men. Many have asserted that Malay Muslim educational problems, and by extension integration issues, stem in part from language barriers resulting from Malay Muslims' minority status.

    Since Malay Muslims' native tongue is an unwritten local Malay dialect, and the medium of instruction in both Thai government schools and the increasingly popular private Islamic schools is central Thai, Thailand's official language, Malay Muslims are faced with unequal access to the language that is necessary for socio-economic advancement.

    However, in the contemporary context, approximately 75% of Malay Muslims now in high school attend private Islamic schools, where some 90% of the student population hails from Malay-speaking families. In other words, academic failure in these schools also reflects class and cultural disparities within the Malay Muslim community and is not simply explained by the minority group's position vis-a-vis the more dominant Thai society.
    Indeed, almost all substance abusers interviewed for this article offered tales of academic failure and even humiliation in the very same educational institutions, Islamic schools, which have historically been the backbone of Patani Malay Muslim identity. Many youth and young men said how they could not, for instance, enunciate elaborate Koranic versus, understand Jawi or Arabic, or even speak standard Malay.

    Many of these same young men commented that they failed miserably in secular coursework, while others admitted that they would never participate in classroom discussions and preferred to sit in the back of class and even sleep. Rather than passively accept a subordinate role in the classroom or in other social sites later in life where they are susceptible to feeling a sense of marginalization, scores of young men seem to be actively seeking out alternative social forums.

    It is thus not surprising that many substance abusers celebrate themselves as successful outlaws, smoking in school bathrooms, pulling off daredevil acts on motorbikes, joining gangs, consuming and selling illegal substances, stealing, and, for some, even participating in acts of violence - whether on behalf of the Thai state, criminal networks or insurgent groups.

    In contrast to mainstream Thai society, the sub-culture of substance abuse, delinquency and violence generally requires expressive aggressiveness and toughness. For so many young men in Thailand's far south, these attributes are often the only way of finding any sense of meaning or dignity in a world that seemingly offers no way out.

    By Jason Johnson
    Feb 18, 2010



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