“Our bird contest made it in the Guinness Record,” says the mayor of Yala, “in the midst of bombings”.
The city in southern Thailand is known for its annual bird ‘olympics’, drawing participants from all over Southeast Asia. But the region is also home to an ongoing Islamist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2004. The UK Foreign Office warned in January of “almost daily attacks” in the region, targeting everything from schools and trains to hotels and offices.
Amidst the violence, Mayor Pongsak Yingchoncharoen hopes to keep the city alive. He tells GovInsider of his plans to strengthen the community, engage residents and educate the youth to subdue tensions in the city.
Residents continue to live in fear of circulating rumours and threats. On 22 January, a motorcycle bomb went off in a market, killing three and wounding 34 other civilians. “It’s like a ghost,” he explains. “How do we get rid of the fear?”
“It’s like a ghost. How do we get rid of the fear?”
Citizens are wary of leaving their homes at night, as insurgents often attack under the cover of dark. Last year, a group of suspected insurgents attacked a joint police-military checkpoint in the city. The attackers used assault rifles, road spikes and pipe bombs on the checkpoint, injuring 12 policemen.
The mayor has introduced night-time communal activities and installed bright lights to make the streets look less scary at night. We “turn on the light and stay in large groups,” he says. Yingchoncharoen has also organised community night cycling trips around the city. He hopes that in doing these activities repeatedly, people’s fears will eventually dissipate.
The long years of violence and conflict have strained the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in the community, the mayor notes. One of the municipality’s main focuses is to create social harmony through community building and social activities. “We have to build social immunity because without it, it is easy for diseases to penetrate,” Yingchoncharoen says.
Yala wants to bring people together and heal divides by promoting itself as a hub of Melayu culture. Since 2014, it has been throwing the annual Melayu Day @ Yala, the biggest Melayu event in Southeast Asia. The festival, now in its fifth year, features parades, performances, and contests, with participants from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The debut event was well-received, and the Malaysian and Indonesian consulates will co-host it with the Yala Municipal Government in the following years.
The municipal government encourages citizens to actively participate in local governance. It hosts village meetings, morning coffee forums, and monthly meetings segmented by age group, gender, and even vocations. Annually, it holds a People’s Congress, where residents can voice their opinions on public services.
Thirteen years into the insurgency, surveillance remains a huge challenge for the city. The municipal government has set up CCTVs all over the city, but bombings in public places remain common. In May – the holy month of Ramadan – insurgents detonated four bombs across four districts, reported the Bangkok Post.
The mayor hopes that engaging people and encouraging them to be alert would help improve the scope of the surveillance. Yala has developed a mobile app for citizens to share photos of suspicious activity or objects with the authorities. In the past, the municipality had set up a neighbourhood watch, with 10 to 20 volunteers assigned to monitor their own streets. “This is how we can cover the entire area,” he explains.
The city wants to prevent divisiveness by building up civic-minded youth with an annual 45-day summer camp for high schoolers. “These children are capable,” the mayor says. “We want to build them up to be future leaders.”
In these camps, teenagers from various ethnic and religious backgrounds are encouraged to work as a team and to learn about each other’s’ cultures. They discuss how they can bring peace back to the community and propose solutions to challenges in their local communities. Many graduates of these programmes have since gone on to become youth representatives in their communities.
Low educational attainment is another problem in the province, caused by intermittent violence and widespread poverty. Only 73% of children have access to preschool programmes, lower than the national average of 85%, according to a 2016 report by the United Nations Development Programme.
To encourage children to continue their education, the municipality provides a ‘counseling service’ to encourage them to study what they are interested in. Every child takes a Multiple Intelligence assessment in grade 8, and a counselor advises them through high school on their strengths and suggest career possibilities. “When children study something that they like, they will demonstrate their full potential,” the mayor says.
Tourism in Yala has steadily plummeted since the South Thailand insurgency began in 2004, and it has not recovered. The municipal government is trying to change public perception of the city by hosting various international and domestic events and broadcasting them on Facebook Live.
Yingchoncharoen hopes to turn the city’s birds into a brand for it. Two bird mascots have already been created to promote the city and its products, inspired by Japan’s successful Kumamon, a mascot created in the Kumamoto Prefecture to promote tourism in the previously overlooked city.
But relations between different religious groups remain a tricky landscape to navigate – and is one that the local government needs to continue mediating. The region saw a surge in attacks in August and last month, the Prime Ministers of Malaysia and Thailand agreed to expand their cooperation to end the violence along its shared border.
Perhaps better international cooperation with neighbours will help, but until then, Yala must fight to build social cohesion and educate its young residents to stay away from violence.