Security officers patrol on Nov. 11, 2019, in Pattani province.

By Eskel Gorov

With recent national interest moving towards judicial reforms in the southern border provinces, I’d like to also call attention to the Royal Thai Police, particularly in Pattani city.

What I will do, though, is not so much offer up a review of the internal actions and attend it with some suggested solutions. That would cut too closely to security sector reforms and would require a simultaneous deep dive into the conflict itself – especially the greed and grievance motivations. This must be a task for the Thai-speaking community.

Instead, I’d like to give a brief snapshot of dysfunction that is objectively and readily apparent to any visitor to Pattani. I do this with several years of work experience living in other conflict affected areas, both inside and outside the region.

After living in Pattani downtown (Muang Pattani) for many months, I still cannot figure out what services the police render to the community.

To be sure, they have a heavy presence all throughout the city: there are checkpoints on most roads, with only some of which are manned by the police, but traffic police can be seen all over. Notwithstanding, I have almost never seen any individual officer who is not ignoring his surroundings and glued firmly to his phone—imagine the personal security risks this represents in their lack of environmental awareness.

A file photo of traffic police in Pattani

The only exception to this practice is when they detain young men aged between 16 and 34 so that they can do a roadside investigation. That’s it.

To understand why this is odd, it should be fit into the context of traffic in the city. Now, I have lived in pretty much every region in Thailand and all over the world, including places where homes and roads remain bombed-out, but can say without question that Pattani City has the worst driving culture of them all.

In a sense, I suppose it would be easy to blame motorists for inattention or discourtesy, but if you observe closely, you start to understand that this stems from the lack of policing.

For example, while there are traffic lights at most major intersections, they are usually disabled throughout the day and night. Instead of an orderly control of traffic, motorists experience a chaotic cluster of simultaneously selfish and apprehensive cars and motorbikes all attempting to navigate the roads.

What would you get at rush hour or during a rainstorm is a deathtrap that far exceeds the normal risks of a Thai road. A reasonable person then would wear a helmet, right? Not so much.

For some who do, particularly Malayu men, they can expect to be stopped by the police and told to stop wearing their helmets because it interferes with the police surveillance. This is despite the fact that motorbike drivers are legally required to wear helmets.

On the rare and unpredictable occasion that traffic lights are engaged, they are run on timers that make motorists wait for more than 2.5 minutes. The result? Motorists generally ignore the lights so that they can make illegal manoeuvres to continue on their way.

Top: CCTV footage of a road accident in Pattani in July 2019. 

And why shouldn’t they? They know full well that there is no officer on patrol to enforce the law. Essentially, in Muang Pattani, there are no traffic laws. What remains, then, is a portrait of a city adapting to a legal vacuum. This makes some people cautious or timid, while others are aggressive assholes.

I have even observed motorists speeding through crosswalks full of children and elderly pedestrians, despite having an officer attempting to halt traffic; no enforcement on behalf of the grandmother darting out of the way. Everyone knows that there is no authority in which to trust.

Back to why this is odd, this public sentiment is despite a fleet of traffic officers on duty at all times. Again, there is de facto no traffic oversight.

To offer a comparison, I recently lived in a city that was nearly levelled from airstrikes and still had ISIS cells in operation, complete with occasional car bombs. Even there, uniformed police and soldiers were at intersections directing traffic or holding the hands of children crossing the street to and from school. Quite stark.

I imagine if I was a traffic officer who was not deployed out with a mandate to enforce traffic laws, I’d be bored and hang out on my phone all day as well. I have been told by local people that the police are perceived as only interested in providing for their own security, meaning their presence is intended to preserve their presence. I predict that something is amiss in the command structure and it relates to the open secret that the deep south is considered a punishment assignment.

But whatever the cause, the result is that Thai taxes are flowing to the non-delivery of services.

Embarking on a campaign of pacification under the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first wave of soldiers arrive in Pattani in this May 2004 file photo.

Other than wasting funds, why should this matter? As I mentioned at the outset, conflict is principally driven by greed and grievances, among other factors. These have been studied by science for decades, across many contexts.

One thing that has been revealed is that a lack of fundamental services in a community is an aggravating factor that further perpetuates conflict.

Another one is the phenomena of how the increased visual presence of weapons and security personnel actually result in diminished community safety perceptions, which leads to a degradation of relations between security forces and the community that usually promotes tighter security measures, and thus weapons being more visually present.

This is a downward spiral of mutually reinforcing negative attributes that are difficult to reverse. From what I’ve observed in Muang Pattani, these are certainly concerns.

I’ll leave it to the many talented scholars on hand to discuss this all this more deeply, but I’ll leave it to you to discuss whether it is important enough to lend some of your attention. If you are sitting in Bangkok, or Udon Thani, or Ayutthaya, I urge you to spend some time to understand the deep south in terms that are beyond the IEDs and security operations.

There are large numbers of humans here, and their daily life is quite frustrating.

Note: These opinions expressed are personally held by the author, who is not affiliated with any organization or institution involved in deep south matters.