Saksith Saiyasombut speaks to award-winning journalist Patrick Winn about his new documentary ‘Red Light Jihad’
Bars line the street, on display are neon lights, beer signs and women trying to lure in passing revelers. This scene could be anywhere in Thailand, but this particular red light district in Su-ngai Kolok is on the border with Malaysia in Narathiwat province. Here, soldiers and military vehicles patrol the streets to protect the sex workers and the Malaysian men they cater to from the very real possibility of attacks by Muslim insurgents.
That is the backdrop for ‘Red Light Jihad: Thai Vice Under Attack’, a short documentary made by Patrick Winn and Mark Oltmanns for the Global Post. Su-ngai Kolok is representative of the distrust, fear and sense of injustice that permeates life in the southernmost, predominantly Muslim provinces in Thailand. The insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past decade.
Siam Voices spoke with Global Post’s award-winning senior Southeast Asia correspondent Patrick Winn earlier this week via email about his new documentary and the challenges they encountered making it. The interview starts after the trailer below.
Saksith Saiyasombut: Patrick, tell us a little about how this idea for the documentary came about?
Patrick Winn: Most Thais and foreigners alike tend to regard the southern insurgency zone as a hostile, alien place. And yet there’s this raging red-light scene that attracts tons of guys. They’re mostly men from parts of Malaysia under Sharia law, which forbids the bars, prostitution and assorted vice available in Thailand.
Obviously, that situation has all the ingredients needed for a fascinating story. Around this time last year, I considered using the red-light scene as a window into this conflict. So I set out to understand the motivations of the tourists, the sex workers and the jihadis who see all this vice as an intrusion into their homeland.
I was extremely lucky to bring on a highly talented videographer, Mark Oltmanns, who’s also a Thai speaker. It was our second time reporting as a duo on the Deep South.
Saiyasombut: As you just said, this isn’t the first time that you have covered the Deep South – was there anything this time that felt different, especially given the scope of this documentary?
Winn: Actually, no. Martial law may be the new normal for post-coup Thailand but it’s the old normal for the deep south. People have grown numb to the checkpoints, razor wire and violence. The mood is consistent: anxious and not terribly hopeful.
This project was more difficult for me personally because I witnessed a fatal bombing. While reporting in May, I heard a series of thundering booms in my hotel room and rushed out the street. Several blocks away, a woman wearing a hijab was laying face down in the road. She’d been killed by a motorbike bomb. I knew the woman was already dead because she was half-covered with a sheet and emergency workers were unhurriedly removing her gold jewelry. She did not appear to be a target. Just an very unlucky passerby. It was incredibly tragic.
The reactions from shopkeepers, hostesses and others I interviewed after the bombing were also disturbing. They were able to quickly shrug off the violence. Lots of nervous laughter, which is a common Thai coping mechanism.
Saiyasombut: What was the most surprising thing you have encountered during the research and filming? And what was the biggest challenge?
Winn: I was surprised at the candor of the sex workers. There are plenty of reasons why someone with that job wouldn’t want to get mic’d up on camera and answer nosey questions from a foreign journalist. But the women we interviewed seemed eager to drop the happy, smiley mask and just vent. There’s plenty to vent about. They face all the dangers and annoyances any sex worker faces plus the ever-present threat of bombs or bullets. This job requires a lot of cunning and perseverance.
As always, the biggest challenge in reporting on Thailand’s insurgency is representing the jihadi perspective. Even the Taliban and the Islamic State have press officers. But Thailand’s rebellion is infamously murky.
It took some cajoling to get the former leader of a now-defunct insurgent umbrella group called Bersatu to go on camera. His name is Wan Kadir. He’s from Pattani province but says he served in the US army as a non-citizen during the Vietnam War, returned to the states and joined American anti-war protests. That later influenced his zeal to liberate Thailand’s Muslim deep south.
Saiyasombut: The current conflict in the south has been going on for over a decade now with thousands of casualties and despite repeated efforts there’s no apparent resolution in sight – what did you hear on the ground? What are their thoughts about the conflict and do they have any hope for improvement?
Winn: My sense is that hope for improvement among Malays in Thailand runs low. I’m basing this on conversations with a range of sources: everyday non-political folks, activists, separatists and so on. They see that the conflict is entrenched. The Thai establishment isn’t going to cede any power. And Muslim Malay society isn’t going to suddenly transform into a bunch of Buddhist Thais.
Saiyasombut: What’s the impression you’re getting from the Thai authorities? Do they have a better grasp of what’s going on than their superiors in Bangkok?
Winn: The local authorities obviously know their terrain far better than the generals in Bangkok. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly well suited to mediate between Buddhists and Muslims. The factionalism runs very deep. The army fosters a siege mentality. They heavily defend minority Buddhist villages and tend to see all-Muslim areas as danger zones.
For example, in the documentary, you’ll hear a Thai colonel saying that “not all Muslims are bad… but my primary responsibility is to this Buddhist militia.” He’s referring to the “Or Ror Bor”, an almost entirely Thai Buddhist armed volunteer force.
For brevity’s sake, I’m painting with a broad brush here: there are also plenty of young troops doing the best they can to behave decently in a violent and unpredictable place.
Saiyasombut: Many different Thai governments have tried to resolve the conflict in the South, none of them successful. The current military government has launched another attempt, but has been very vague about it so far. What really needs to be done?
Winn: The solution is fairly obvious: more autonomy for Malay Muslims, who comprise 80 percent of the deep south’s population. I think most could tolerate living under the Thai state but they’d like much more authority in managing their own affairs. As it stands, the area feels a bit like an occupied colony.
Imagine you grow up in a hometown patrolled by young men with M-16s who can’t speak your language. Neither do most of your schoolteachers, who also preach obedience to an unfamiliar faith. You’re routinely frisked. Most of the major political decisions that affect your life are made by outsiders. It’s a recipe for rebellion.
The jihadis worsen the situation by giving the Thai state a pretext to step up its war footing. Malay Muslims also have to live in fear of separatists murdering them for “collaborating”, which is almost impossible to avoid when you live under a system where Thais hold all the political and economic power. It must be exhausting.
The Thai government might relieve this pressure cooker by relinquishing more control. But the military junta is all about tightening control and imposing “happiness” by force. That didn’t work when the Siamese kingdom conquered this territory more than a century ago. They shouldn’t expect it to work now.
Saiyasombut: Thank you very much for the interview!