Perspectives on the
Tsunami, Bird Flu, and Pattani

by Inside Thailand Director, Mac Bakewell

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April 24, 2005

Dear Inside Thailand families,

Southeast Asia has been in the news more than once during the past twelve months. In late 2003 and early 2004, an outbreak of avian flu led to the culling of millions of Thai and Vietnamese poultry. In December of 2004, a tsunami devastated miles of Thailand's and Indonesia's western coastlines. And in the months between, Thai soldiers clashed with Islamic separatists near the Thai-Malaysian border.

Any of those headlines would give any cogent traveller pause, so, as a concerned parent and conscientious group leader, I'm pleased to be able to offer some local perspective, together with a bit of background on the geography and demographics of the region, especially as related to our program's itinerary.


The Tsunami (as experienced in Uttaradit)

Boosaba, Benyapa, and I were in Thailand for three months last summer, and again for five weeks over Christmas. With roots on two continents, we're thoroughly familiar with the business of worrying about loved ones far away, so we were grateful to be at home with Boosaba's mom in Uttaradit on the morning the tsunami struck in Phuket.

Uttaradit is 850 miles north of Phuket, and 300 miles from the nearest salt water (see map below). Our windows didn't rattle, and only a few sensitive folks in our village felt any trace of the distant tremor. Even though none of us knew anyone directly affected by the waves, our entire village was deeply touched by that national — and international — tragedy. Everyone prayed and rushed to phone any friends in the south. Those who could, rushed to donate blood. Others donated money and many did both.

Within a week, life in Uttaradit was pretty much back to normal. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and few of its citizens are strangers to hardships. Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering, and that the key to personal peace is an attitude of unattachment. Things happen. One does what one can to alleviate suffering, and then moves on. Thai TV broadcast daily updates on the recovery efforts, but no endless replays of the same waves crashing over the same beaches. There was also no public speculation about epidemics of cholera or malaria. The Ministry of Public Health simply took appropriate steps to preempt those risks, and they never materialized.


The Tsunami (as it affects Inside Thailand)

Four months after the tsunami, the recovery effort in Thailand is well underway. About 90% of the hotels in Phuket and Krabi have reopened, and returning guests are proud to be bringing jobs back to the region. December's waves struck the heart of Thailand's tourist industry, and economics being what they are the push has been to rebuild the resorts first.

On April 24 the New York Times published After the Tsunami, Rebuilding Paradise, an article by Seth Mydans which includes a sidebar of beautifully illustrated narratives from Phuket, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives; and Picking Up the Pieces, an annotated map comparing the damage and the reconstruction progress in each of the nations affected by the tsunami. The message from Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and especially Thailand, is the same: the mourning is over and tourists are vital to the recovery. (Please contact Inside Thailand if you are unable to access any of those links.)

Each July, Inside Thailand visits a small, secluded island in the Gulf of Siam — 360 miles northeast of Phuket and across the peninsula from the tsunami. "Our" island is so pristine, and so little known, that we do not list its name (at least not in English!) on this web site. The first people we called on that December morning were the caretaker of our island, and the fisherman who ferries us to that favorite Shangri-la. Both men and their families were perfectly fine. There had been no tremors and no waves anywhere on their side of the peninsula.

Even though Thailand clearly needs tourist dollars, few visitors could ignore the obvious needs of those who lost not investment properties, but their homes and loved ones. Each June, Inside Thailand visits an AIDS hospice and orphanage in Bangkok. That remarkably uplifting place is one of the truly good works headed by our dear friend, Father Joe Maier. Father Joe's response to the tsunami has been to focus on the gaps overlooked by the banks, and even by the larger relief organizations. While others are rebuilding resorts, businesses, and government services, Father Joe and his team are working to help folks like HIV-positive fishing families who, at the best of times, are forced to live on the fringes of their communities.

Inside Thailand will not be visiting any of the tsunami sites this summer (too distant), but we will certainly have the opportunity to make direct contributions to this grass-roots recovery effort when we visit Father Joe's community center in Bangkok. Meanwhile, if you know anyone still seeking the "right" organization to support in the tsunami recovery, please direct them to Father Joe's Human Development Centre.


Bird Flu

Even though avian flu is clearly a problem for chickens, at this time it is not a significant hazard to most humans. During late 2003 and early 2004, outbreaks of avian influenza A (H5N1) occurred among poultry in 8 countries in Asia (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Lao, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam). At that time, more than 100 million birds either died from the disease or were culled.

As of April 24, 2005, there have been a total of 89 confirmed human cases of avian influenza A (H5N1) in Vietnam (69), Thailand (17), and Cambodia (3) resulting in 52 deaths. For our purposes it's important to note that nearly all humans who have contracted avian flu from infected birds were poultry farmers or fighting cock handlers who were continuously and intimately exposed to infected birds, or young children who routinely played and slept very near infected poultry.

Two of those 89 cases have been reasonably well confirmed as isolated instances of human-to-human transmission. Both cases occurred in Thailand during September of 2004. The indididuals involved were a pair of adult sisters who had, together, participated in prolonged, intimate, and unprotected contact with one of the two women's seriously ill child. In December of 2004, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on that tragic incident with a brief story and a couple of poignant photos.

Also in September of 2004, Thailand implemented a public awareness campaign about bird flu. Doctors and hospitals throughout the kingdom have been alerted to symptoms and optimal treatment methods, radio messages continually inform listeners how to handle eggs and poultry safely, and public health workers regularly inspect farms and villages for possible infections. I'm pleased to report that no birds or humans anywhere near our own village in Uttaradit have ever been infected.

For detailed current information on all aspects of avian influenza, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) web sites. For information on the excellent health care available in Thailand, please see these articles on Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital.


Separatist Movement (short answer)

The short answer is that Thailand's separatist conflict is confined to the kingdom's three Muslim majority provinces — Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat — all of which are culturally very different, and hundreds of miles distant, from any Inside Thailand destination (see map below). There has been no separatist activity outside of those three southernmost provinces, and it is unlikely that there ever will be.

Thailand's southern separatist movement is a 500-year-old domestic issue completely unrelated to Jemmah Islamiyah, al Qaeda, and Iraq. For that matter, Thailand did not support either the invasion of Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. The 443 troops Thailand sent to Iraq in 2003 were all strictly non-combatant humanitarians, and all returned to Thailand in 2004.

Even so, in these generally unpredictable times it is reassuring to note that the only tourist destination Inside Thailand visits during our entire month in the kingdom is the Grand Palace in Bangkok, a site far too heavily guarded to ever be considered a target.

As Inside Thailand program directors, Boosaba and I are entrusted with protecting our students' well-being, in addition to our own, our daughter's, and Boosaba's family's in Uttaradit. In light of that awesome responsibility, and in careful consideration of all facts currently available, at this point we do not foresee any aspect of this centuries-old separatist conflict becoming a safety issue for Inside Thailand 2005.

That's the short answer. Please read on for a more detailed perspective on the conflict in Thailand's southernmost border provinces.


Separatist Movement (detailed perspective)

While the Bush administration's crusade-tainted foreign policies have done nothing to assuage the situation, the roots of civil unrest in Thailand's extreme south actually date back to the 15th Century when Buddhist Siam first invaded Islamic Kedah, a rice-rich northern sultanate in what were then the loosely associated states of Malacca. During the ensuing centuries, Pattani, which bordered Kedah on the north, was consistently the most resistant of the Malay states to Siamese rule. When the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya briefly fell to Burma in 1767, Pattani briefly liberated itself to full independence. In 1791 Pattani reluctantly became part of Siam again.

During the 1800's Pattani's allegiance was further complicated by the British, who were Malaysia's primary colonial rulers from 1795 to 1957. At one point the raja of Pattani sought British protection, but in 1909 Pattani was formally annexed by Siam as part of a treaty with the British. Later in the twentieth century Yala and Narathiwat, both of which were originally contained within Pattani, were split off as distinct provinces.

Today, 95% of Thailand's 64 million citizens are Buddhist and only some 4% are Muslim (source: CIA World Fact Book - Thailand). Most of the kingdom's 2.6 million Muslims live in the deep south, where those religious demographics are nearly reversed. Even so, most Malay-Thais are proud to be Thai citizens, and generally get along amicably with their Buddhist countrymen. In recent decades disputes have arisen from the Malay-Thais's frustrations over under-representation in the political process, and their desire for Islam to be taught in addition to Buddhism in Malay-Thai public schools.

Although the vast majority of Thai Muslims prefer to seek peaceful resolutions to these issues through democratic processes, there have always been a few loosely organized groups which have chosen a radical, separatist approach. Over the past few decades those fractious extremists have taken a few lives, generally targeting individual policemen rather than random groups of civilians. They've also gained notoriety for burning several unoccupied public schools in night raids.

In the last year, extremist activities have expanded to include a couple of hotel and department store bombings, and a few gruesome attacks on Buddhist monks. Events reached a crescendo in April of 2004 when over a hundred insurgents were killed trying to steal weapons from several police stations. Thailand's military and Prime Minister Thaksin have been widely criticized for their heavy-handed response to an issue that begs for mediation. Even so, all such violence remains confined to those three southern border provinces, where the radical groups responsible are motivated by their own internal agendas. Apparently, the separatists are neither allied with nor supportive of al Qaeda's anti-western mystique, and they have few sympathizers outside of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.

Even after 9/11, when Thai Muslims' primary concern was that their government should not join in the killing of their innocent brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, they demonstrated far greater sympathies for the 9/11 victims than for Osama bin Laden. The Thai government addressed its Islamic (and Buddhist) citizens' concerns by denying landing rights to American warplanes supporting attacks on the Taliban, and by sending 3,000 tons of rice, instead of troops, to Afghanistan.

From a geographic perspective it's important to note that Pattani, the northernmost of Thailand's three troubled provinces, is 375 road miles south of Chumpon, Inside Thailand's southernmost destination; 655 road miles south of Bangkok; 960 road miles south of Boosaba's home in Uttaradit; and 1103 road miles south of Chiangmai.

The map above gives a visual representation of those distances. The green-highlighted provinces are Inside Thailand destinations, while the separatist conflict in the south is limited to the three provinces contained within the red-highlighted region.

The following demographics are also illustrative.

Provinces visited by Inside Thailand:

CHIANGMAI Population 1,500,100
Buddhist 92.2%
Christian 6.0%

UTTARADIT Population 464,500
Buddhist 99.2%
Muslim 0.1%
Christian 0.3%

BANGKOK Population 6,355,100
Buddhist 94.5%
Muslim 4.1%
Christian 1.0%

CHUMPON (our island's province) Population 446,200
Buddhist 98.9%
Muslim 0.7%

Provinces experiencing separatist conflict:

PATTANI Population 596,000
Buddhist 19.2%
Muslim 80.7%

YALA Population 415,500
Buddhist 31.0%
Muslim 68.9%

NARATHIWAT Population 662,400
Buddhist 17.9%
Muslim 82.0%

Source: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)



I hope that these perspectives will help you to understand the origins, nature, and geographic limitations of the current troubles in Thailand's deep south. I also hope my perspectives on the tsunami and bird flu will help you to more clearly appreciate the facts of each of those situations in Thailand. Please do not hesitate to contact me directly if you would like to discuss these or any other concerns.


Mac Bakewell, Director
Inside Thailand Cultural Exchange

April 24, 2005


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