COVID-19 Pandemic Adds Hardship to Insurgency-hit Thai Deep South

Mariyam Ahmad and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Pattani, Thailand and Bangkok
2020-04-16
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200416-TH-deepsouth-covid-1000.jpg A woman waits for an interview with health workers at a disease screening check point in Yala, a province in Thailand’s Deep South, April 15, 2020.
Mariyam Ahmad/BenarNews

The coronavirus has killed at least five people and infected nearly 300 others so far in Thailand’s Deep South, creating new hardship for the 2.4 million residents of this largely impoverished and insurgency-stricken region, locals say.

Confirmed infections in the border region account for 11 percent of cases recorded nationwide since January, although the mostly Muslim, Malay-speaking region comprises just 3.5 percent of Thailand’s total population.

Ripple effects from the viral outbreak have hit the region’s fishing and rubber farming industries, and the closure of the Thai-Malaysia border trapped many residents on the wrong side.

Meanwhile, the office that oversees Muslim affairs has ordered mosques closed nationwide and banned activities during Ramadan, the fasting month which begins in late April. Those usually include festive food bazaars, invitations to break the daily fast with friends and colleagues, and well-attended evening prayers

“Allah tells us to be patient and have a sense of giving. As COVID-19 spreads, it is a good time for all to fast so the haves understand the have-not,” Imrram Waemuso, 52, a restaurant owner in Yala, told BenarNews.

Praying and breaking the fast at home this year will be good for family ties, he said.

A high cost

Local administrations in the heavily militarized Deep South have placed movement curbs on villages to prevent the spread of the virus, but at a high cost to the local economy.

“My village was locked down because there are infected people under quarantine and we cannot make money. I registered for [government] relief funds but I did not get it yet,” said Aisoh Ngo-tali, who usually sells chicken at open-air markets in Kok Pho, a district of Pattani province.

“I could only feed my child milk. I cried tears after I received aid from private donors,” the 32-year-old mother of two told BenarNews.

Deep South provinces are among the country’s most impoverished, with an average household income of 15,000 to 20,000 baht (U.S. $459 to $612) per month, compared with 45,000 baht ($1,377) in Bangkok.

The economy of the border region depends heavily on exports of its rubber, palm oil and fisheries, but those have slumped amid the coronavirus pandemic, locals told BenarNews.

“The hardest part of COVID handling is how to balance out controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the economic impact. Too tight restrictions hurt economically,” said Supat Hasuwannakit, a physician in Songkhla.

“Fishermen told me they can catch fish, but no one buys them,” he said.

Links to mass Muslim event

Supat directs the Chana Hospital in Songkhla province, which successfully treated six Muslim patients who fell sick after attending a huge religious gathering in nearby Malaysia organized by Tablighi Jamaat, an India-based missionary group.

At least 13 Thai Muslims who attended that event in February, and close to 60 others who traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia to attend a similar event in March, fell ill with coronavirus, officials said.

Narathiwat native Maseng Awae-gueji, 49, the first COVID-19 fatality in the Deep South, was among the thousands who attended the Tablighi gathering at a Kuala Lumpur mosque in late February. He died on March 27.

Another man from Songkhla province also died of the coronavirus after catching it from his son who had attended the event in the Malaysian capital, authorities said.

Still, Supat said that hospitals in the southern region could cope with the pandemic, provided that the number of patients stayed relatively low.

“Unless we have a huge number of patients with pneumonia, we still have enough respirators and ICU rooms to take care of them. We have about 50 patients in severe condition in 77 provinces nationwide,” he told BenarNews.

According to a spokesman for the COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) – as the national coronavirus task force is known – hospitals and health clinics in the 14 provinces of southern Thailand have 568 respirators currently available.

Specific data about the number of respirators and hospital beds in the Deep South was not available.

Unprecedented ceasefire

As the number of coronavirus cases in Malaysia shot up in connection with that religious gathering, Malaysia sealed its international borders and imposed a lockdown to contain the viral outbreak. Thailand soon followed suit.

That resulted in nearly 100,000 Thai nationals who work across the border – many of them from the Deep South – being trapped by the Malaysia lockdown.

However, authorities have recently relented and announced that starting on April 18, five border crossings would be opened to allow a maximum of 350 Thai citizens to return from Malaysia per day.

A spokesman for the military command that covers the Deep South said it had prepared almost 2,500 rooms to quarantine those people as a safeguard against the virus.

The Deep South is home to Thailand’s only active insurgency, a separatist rebellion that has simmered for decades.

On March 17, a twin bombing outside the offices of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) in Yala town injured at least 25 people, in an attack believed to have been carried out by the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, the largest and most powerful of insurgent groups in the Deep South.

At the time of the attack, SBPAC officials were meeting to discuss Malaysia’s decision to close its border with Thailand due to the viral outbreak.

More than two weeks later, BRN made an unprecedented announcement: it was declaring a ceasefire and halting “all activities” for the time being on humanitarian grounds because, the group said, “we realized that the main enemy for all mankind is COVID-19.”

BRN issued its declaration on the same day that the U.N. secretary-general reiterated his call for warring parties around the globe to “silence their guns” to help combat the pandemic.

There have been no reports since then of skirmishes between the southern rebels and the Thai security forces.

However, the military has brushed off the BRN’s ceasefire.

“The BRN’s self-proclaimed ceasefire is irrelevant,” Maj. Gen. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command-4, the regional military command, told BenarNews.

“All along, authorities keep internal peace duly under the authority of laws and enforce laws on those who perpetrate against both officials and innocents.”

More than 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the Deep South since the conflict reignited in January 2004.

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