(Disclosure: This book is yet another complimentary copy from ZI Publications with no obligations to review it. For other reviews of books I received from ZI for free, check out Malaysian Tales Retold, Rojak Fakta Malaysia, Teohlogy, Found In Malaysia and a couple of books from ZI which I actually bought: Amir Muhammad’s Rojak: Bite Sized Stories and Hisham Rais’ Tapai)
About 100 years ago, the British colonials in the Malay States wanted as much distance as possible from the French in Indochina so they sought to create a buffer zone between their two empires. The British made a pact with the Siamese king who agreed to act as a buffer and to sweeten the deal, the northern parts of Malaya were carved out to become what is today the Malay/Muslim majority provinces of southern Thailand (comprising of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat). Apparently that pissed off the Patani Malays and they have engaged in an on-again, off-again violent uprising against Bangkok ever since.
Or have they? Malaysian broadcaster and journalist Zan Azlee travels to southern Thailand with a smile and “a big ass camera” in order to interview the people of Patani on what they think of the insurgency and how they cope with it while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers. It was to his surprise that what Zan Azlee saw there was not a bombed out war zone with a scared populace eking out a living whenever it was safe for them to leave their homes but a vibrant albeit under developed region where the locals are just as busy with their daily chores as anybody else in the world. Sure, there have been shootings and ambushes. In fact, his guide Daniya informs him that the hotel he was booked in was bombed not two months prior but things seemed to have cooled down overall. Two bomb-less months. Well, that’s nice.
A ‘warzone’ Patani may be, with the ubiquitous Thai soldiers patrolling the streets and motorcycles parked in the middle of the street with their seats unlocked and pointing up to the sky (because an opened seat means there are no bombs hidden underneath it and parking the bikes in the middle of the street places them away from the pedestrians), but it is a complicated ‘warzone’. Interviewing the locals like restaurant owner Ku Souh Ku Hasan, Zan Azlee learns that no one knows for sure anymore which group is behind which attacks. Unlike in the Middle East, the Patani insurgents never take credit for any attacks on government officials and assets and the Thai authorities aren’t exactly paragons of virtue either. The police are allegedly corrupt and the army are heavy handed when dealing with suspects. The Krue Se Mosque massacre, where over 30 young men with no weapons were allegedly shot execution style by the Thai army, is cited as an example. Then there are the drug dealers and smugglers, who take advantage of the troubles by engaging in their own turf wars and letting the insurgents take the blame. As usual, the local population are stuck in the middle with their heads bowed to avoid the bullets. It’s complicated. Nevertheless, life goes on as usual. Patani children are enrolled in privately funded schools where they learn Malay and Islam, two subjects that are not given much emphasis in government funded schools, marriage courses for about-to-be-wed Muslims are regularly held and even da’wah (preaching Islam) classes are not banned.
Zan starts off cautiously at first because like most outsiders he believed the news reports that Patani is an exceptionally ‘hot zone’ but is gradually more confident and curious as he travels around the place with his guide relatively unscathed while interviewing the locals whom he found to be very friendly and open. Operation Nasi Kerabu is an okay read especially as a primer on the situation in southern Thailand. It’s a quick read, just 111 pages not including a glossary at the back of the book, and it includes a DVD of his banned documentary on which the book is based. It was banned by the Malaysian government for what I thought was a spurious reason — they didn’t want to embarrass Bangkok. So why is it okay for it to be included for free with the book then? Sometimes I just don’t understand these bureaucrats.