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Southern Thailand's 'Uprising Express' – The Diplomat

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Thailand’s Insurgency Express is a colourful, old and shabby train that winds its way across the country’s southern provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Starting in Hat Yai, the economic capital of the south, the train ends its journey in Sungai Golok, a neon-soaked red-light city and smuggling hub on the Malaysian border.

Since 2004, a brutal separatist insurgency has plagued these same provinces, making the train a recurring target for the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), an armed group that represents the Malay-Muslim majority of the southern provinces. fighting for a free motherland. Since the outbreak of violence in 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed in the conflict in southern Thailand. A The peace process has evolved since 2020Yet the train has continued to be targeted by the insurgents.

several Coordinated bomb attacks against railways in the south took place last month., during the last week of the holy month of Ramadan. Last month’s attacks are the latest in a string of attacks against railway workers and infrastructure over the past 18 months. In February this year, Eight members of the security forces were injured The blast was triggered by an IED during a routine security check of a railway near Rueso in Narathiwat.

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Southern Thai Railway train number 452, which ran from Sungai Kolok to Surat Thani, is in the undergrowth after being derailed in an insurgent attack near China Station. Seven people aboard were injured in this incident. (Richard Humphreys / Kingdom’s Edge Project)

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In December, Three Thai railway workers killed by a bomb while clearing debris From an earlier bomb that derailed a goods train. about a year ago there was a train derailed after the bomb attack On the track near Songkhla province.

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The number of attacks on trains and connected infrastructure is classified and exact numbers are nearly impossible to ascertain. According to an article in the Malaysian Star from 2007, “State railway records for the southern zone show that since March 2004, insurgents have attacked trains and other railway property and personnel 42 times, causing 24 deaths and 30 injuries.” According for a Thai-language sourceBetween 2004 and 2012, the train was attacked more than 100 times. In December 2016, Bangkok Post reported that since 2004, the train has been hit by militants “dozens of times”.

The train is mainly used by the poor of the area, many of whom have no other form of transport. It is also used by school children, as transport to schools in the area is in short supply. The southern provinces are the poorest in Thailand and although the majority of passengers on the train are local Muslims, The train has been continuously attacked by the insurgents who apparently see it as an easy target and a symbol of the Thai state.

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A graveyard of damaged and destroyed Southern Thai Railway locomotives and rolling stock is located in a siding at Hat Yai Junction station. All the debris is the result of rebel attacks. (Richard Humphreys / Kingdom’s Edge Project)

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The list of events is long: In March 2005, The train was derailed after being bombed twice, and then machine-gunned by the insurgents. Hiding in the nearby woods. In April 2007, several passengers were injured after a train was riddled with machine-gun fire. That June, a train derailed in Patani province after parts of the track were removed by insurgents. In June of the following year, three Thai railway workers and a policeman were shot dead on a moving train by insurgents, and several passengers were also injured. In April 2009, the train was again attacked with machine guns by insurgents, killing a member of a government-sponsored paramilitary organization who was on board.

In July 2011, two separate sections of the railway were destroyed by bombs, disrupting rail service for several days. In August 2012, the train was again attacked with machine guns by insurgents, killing a member of a local paramilitary group. Hundreds of spent casings were later found in a ditch near the railway line. Another attack in 2012On 18 November, a bomb placed on the track at Bukit Station in Narathiwat was involved. It exploded as soon as the train arrived at the station on Sunday morning. The explosion killed three people and injured 36, while two coaches were derailed and the train itself was badly damaged.

For many years, local people could travel for free in the train, but After the military coup in 2014, fares were re-introduced., Since the coup, trains have been attacked several times during the holy month of Ramadan, especially when locals are on their way home to meet their families. Such attacks targeting essential services such as public transport, local administration and schools have made the BRN’s insurgency increasingly less attractive to the local Muslim population over the past two decades.

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Students from a school in Narathiwat rest on Southern Thai Railway’s train number 172 on their way north to school. Trains are the only mode of transport for many people in the Thai deep south. It’s free too. (Richard Humphreys / Kingdom’s Edge Project)

Despite the constant threat of violence, a trip to the South is extraordinarily enriching, both visually and socially. The changing landscape of the South, quaint little towns, local food being sold to passengers from platforms and meeting locals along the way make the journey both new and exciting. In addition to providing security for each of the 30 or so stations along the route, soldiers and defense volunteers are always on board the train. It is common to see old people playing cards, drinking tea and smoking rolled cigarettes in the carriages, as is the practice of selling lottery tickets and Buddhist amulets on board. The train stops in some of the most dangerous districts in the south, such as Raman, Rousseau, Range, Joh-Ai-Rong and Sungai Padi, making train travel between Hat Yai and Sungai Kolok the most dangerous in Southeast Asia, and possibly World.

The journey begins at Hat Yai Junction, a station that has been repeatedly bombed by insurgents since 1977 during a previous separatist conflict in the south. Departing from Hat Yai Junction and heading south, one immediately sees the “Train Graveyard”, the wreckage and ruins of old and damaged trains gathered together at the edge of the station.

The train winds through the run-down borough of Hat Yai and then heads out into dense forests and hills along the edges of the city. Beyond the bustling commercial center of Hat Yai and the sprawling hotels, the train enters the small and seemingly prosperous towns of eastern Songkhla province before passing through part of Patani province. The train stops at small stations in Pattani such as Wat Chang Hai, a beautiful, elaborate Buddhist temple complex that also serves as a temporary military base for the Thai military, and Khok Pho, a transit point for the province.

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Passengers rest on Southern Thai Railway train number 447 as they head south to Sungai Golok station on the Thailand/Malaysia border. Trains are the only mode of transport for many people in the Thai deep south. It’s free too. (Richard Humphreys / Kingdom’s Edge Project

As the train enters Yala and passes through the city’s Muslim old market district, a view of an abandoned Buddhist temple greets the passenger. The temple commemorates the substantial exodus of Thai-Buddhists from the region over the past two decades. Yala is an elaborately planned town that appears somewhat segregated along religious lines. Blasted walls and roads are scattered around this prosperous but divided city. After Yala, the line is surrounded by lush countryside as the train heads towards Narathiwat Province.

The second half of the yatra is mainly through the “Red Zone” districts of Narathiwat, which have experienced high levels of violence over the past two decades. Although seen as high-risk areas, the towns are quaint and the stations are well maintained. As the train passes through forested hills, one can see roads, bunkers and patrols across the country. Memories of the fierce insurgency of this troubled region remain constant along the journey, as do views of colorfully painted mosques and fortified Buddhist temples.

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The final destination is Sungai Golok, one of Thailand’s vice cities on the border with Malaysia. The city’s outskirts along the Golok River are a vibrant bundle of contrasts, from the chaotic and wild center made up of hotels, bars and noisy clubs, where one can find a more authentically Malay way of life. The Golok River, a bustling hub of smuggling and illegal border crossings, forms the border between Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of Malaysian tourists visit the city each weekend in search of a sample of nightlife not available in Malaysia south of the border.

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Southern Thai Railway train number 172, bound for Sungai Golok to Hat Yai Junction station on the Thailand-Malaysia border, heads north towards the lush Sankalkhiri mountain range. (Richard Humphreys / Kingdom’s Edge Project)

It is unlikely that the Rebellion Express will become any kind of attraction for Western tourists in the foreseeable future, due to the region’s geographic isolation and ongoing violence in the southern provinces. Although it is arguably the most congested railway line in the world, it is also an incomparable journey into a wild and little-known landscape. Despite a history of violence and ongoing conflict in the southern provinces, this unexplored route is characterized by discovery, beauty, mystery and charm. From the bustling markets of Hat Yai to the misty hills of Narathiwat and further afield to the decadent sin-town of Sungai Golok, the tour covers everything fascinating and incongruous or contradictory about Thailand’s southern provinces. In its entirety, a journey on the Insurgency Express serves as a one-of-a-kind overview of a unique, complex and layered region that is home to diverse communities as well as separate living.