Book Review: Kingdom’s Edge

By Bertil Lintner 25 March 2017

Burma is not the only Southeast Asian country that has been wrecked by violent, long-standing ethnic insurgencies. For several decades, groups of Malays in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have been fighting against the central government for local autonomy or independence from Bangkok. And, when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001 and dismissed the rebellion as “banditry” and adopted a hardline approach to the problem, the simmering, jungle-based rebellion turned into urban guerrilla warfare that since then has claimed at least 6,500 lives and caused nearly 12,000 injuries.

Richard Humphries, a British photojournalist who speaks Malay, first visited the conflict zone in 2005, and has since then returned many times to Thailand’s “deep south”. Kingdom’s Edge is the result of those journeys. It contains 79 color photographs taken by Humphries and 10 pages of background text written by Gerard McDermott, an independent researcher and writer from Ireland. The latter’s introduction outlines the history of those three provinces and parts of eastern Songkhla, which roughly makes up the territory of the old sultanate of Patani (with one “t”), as well as his own impression of an area that is both Muslim and Buddhist, Malay and Thai. It is, as Humphries writes in a brief foreword, “a region of trade and commerce, of young people and free wifi, of tea shops and markets. A place where tudung clad girls ride four on a motorbike, where twice a day people freeze on the spot to the sound of the national anthem, and where the call to prayer fills the air five times a day.”

Insurgents have attacked Buddhist temples, schools and other places they perceive to be symbols of Thai rule. Beheadings of teachers and Buddhist monks have shocked the public in the north, and the heavy-handed approach of the Thai military has created much anger among many young locals and filled the ranks of the insurgents. They may be Muslims, which means that they represent a minority in overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand, but the question of national identity is even stronger. As they see it, they are fighting to protect their Malay language and culture, of which Islam is important but not the only part. Significantly, there is no insurgency in Satun, the fourth Muslim-majority province in the south, where the Muslims speak Thai and not Malay as their mother tongue.

Humphries’ excellent photos and their captions give a flavor to the area and the conflict not seen in any other work on the subject. There are shots of children riding on a makeshift rollercoaster, young women in headscarves outside the Central Mosque in Pattani, Buddhist monks on their morning alms round, fishermen landing their catch — and, of course, photos of soldiers with guns and of trains that have been derailed and vehicles that have been blown up by insurgents. At the same time, boys have time to play in the Kolok River and girls skip rope after evening prayer. Sleazy bars with commercial sex workers can be found in the border town of Sungai Kolok, a popular destination for Malaysians who cross over into Thailand for shopping, sightseeing and more unsavory pursuits.

Especially striking are pictures of Muslims praying in a mosque, of boy scouts marching with one of them, in the front, carrying a huge portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and merchants selling their wares in local markets. And, not to be forgotten, the “deep south” also has a significant ethnic Chinese population who celebrate their own New Year with dances and fireworks. One is reminded of the fact that people live normal lives even in a war zone. Humphries has documented this photographically with skill and sensitivity.

McDermott writes in his introduction: “Like most other protracted conflicts, the south itself is a victim of misrepresentation and oversimplification, with much media coverage boiling down to tired clichés. Thai media outlets, both mainstream and independent, often reduce locals to caricatures, one-dimensional creatures: those loyal to the state and those trying to tear the kingdom apart.” And here, there are more similarities with Burma, where even the government fails to understand that there is a reason why people take up arms to fight for what they believe is right. And without such an understanding ethnic conflicts are bound to continue — in southern Thailand as well as in Burma’s frontier areas.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma.