Thai film delves into murky Muslim insurgency

BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - Five years on, the insurgency in Thailand’s mainly Muslim south continues to defy attempts to placate it and a new Thai documentary uses the brutal death of a young Buddhist art teacher to examine why.

“Citizen Juling”, shown at the Toronto Film Festival this month, bills itself as “a road movie through Thailand’s soul” but centres around the story of teacher Juling Pongkanmul, who was kidnapped and beaten by a group of Muslim women in 2006. She died, aged 24, after spending eight months in a coma.

Filmed during the last four months of the administration of now deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the film follows former opposition Senator Kraisak Choonhavan as he travels into Thailand’s three southernmost provinces -- Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala -- to uncover the truth behind the teacher’s death.

His trip, which also takes him to the northernmost reaches where Juling was born, sheds light on the violence and poverty fuelling the unrest in a region wracked by a government campaign to stamp out a separatist insurgency that has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths since 2003.

A longtime critic of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, Kraisak says government attempts to root out the insurgency have only prolonged and strengthened it.

“We can blame the state for creating a horrific situation for the people there and opening the door for Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists to spread,” he told Reuters said after a screening of the film in Bangkok last week.

“We have to first realise that these are people. You just can’t go on killing them. You can’t wipe out millions of people.”

The crackdowns in the south under Thaksin have been condemned by international human rights groups, while the former prime minister has denied policies of extra-judicial killings.


Thailand has long grappled with the southern unrest, ranging from attempts to win “hearts and minds” through promises of development aid to crackdowns on suspected separatists.

“Citizen Juling” -- which runs for almost four hours -- details abuses against Muslim Thais, from the killing of a youth soccer team to a massacre at a mosque, and the futile attempts of survivors to win justice.

“You see how people are suffering and how their suffering has never been heard in conventional media and mass media,” said photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom, who joined forces with his wife, artist Ing K, and Kraisak to make the film.

“There is no feeling. But these are real people,” he said.

Born in the northern province of Chiang Rai, idealistic teacher Juling went to Thailand’s southernmost tip to teach children art. In May 2006, a group of Muslim women kidnapped and then brutally beat her.

She sustained massive damage to her brain stem, her spine fractured in several places, during an attack Kraisak characterised as “a venting vendetta against the Thai state”.

Unlike most documentaries, the film has no explicit narrative, a deliberate technique adopted by the film-makers who wanted the story to tell itself.

“A conventional journalistic approach to the editing would’ve resulted in a much shorter film by telling more and showing less,” Ing, a former journalist, wrote in the film’s synopsis.

“We wanted to allow people to be themselves instead of reducing them by soundbites, into mere representations of specific points of view.”