This week I’m going to do something different.  Something I’d previously decided not to do.  I want to share a story told to me by a monk I interviewed in Yala several years ago.  I’ve spend more than a few months total in this region, made some good friends, and been taken into the confidence of a few.  This story you might remember from several years back.  The details were printed in the local and some international papers, but so far I’m the only person actually granted an interview with the surviving monk.  The eyewitness.  I recorded his story and have recently reviewed the transcripts for accuracy.  This is his story.

Before I begin let me tell you that the images from this trip fell victim to my great RAID crash of 2006.. so all I have left are small jpegs which aren’t necessarily the best choice for this story.  The importance of backing up your images cannot be overstated.

About ten years ago there was a young Thai teenager being raised in the deep south.  Without the guidance of a father or other male mentor he learned to drink and experimented with drugs.  The drug use became more frequent and soon he was hooked.  What family he had disowned him.  He’d steal anything he could to buy more drugs and it didn’t take long until he accepted that his life would probably end at any time.  He had nothing to look forward to but his next fix.

An old monk from the local temple observed his plight and offered to help.  Help was refused.  The old monk persisted and several months later the young Thai teenager decided to accept his help. He knew otherwise he would die, or worse end up in a local prison.

Withdrawal was hell.  The teenager thought he was going to die, and he almost wished he was dead already.  But for the first time in his life a male figure seemed to really care about him.  The old monk never left his side, soothing him, talking to him about his bright future, encouraging him.

Within a few weeks the teenager was better, but obviously not cured.  He knew he’d always be an addict, but he’d also learned he could stay clean and make something of his life.  It was his choice.  Soon her donned the robes of an apprentice monk and started his studies with the old monk.  The old monk nurtured and educated this young man.  The young man had never respected anyone more in his life.  He finally felt wanted.  He finally felt he’d found a home in the monkhood and the temple.  He decided to remain a monk for life.

 

A yuong monk in Pattani goes through a terrible experience  

 

The temple was small, but growing.  The monks at this temple did a lot of hard physical labor building new buildings, walls, and storage facilities.  They worked hard together, studied long hours together, and the temple grew and served well the local Buddhists.

On two sides of the temple were residential homes.  In the front a street.  In the back a rice field open to a nice view.  The monks dormitory was nothing more than a cement building with small bare rooms with large wooden doors.

 

The residence where the minks used to live  

 

The young monk had heard much about the violence in the south and the bombings and beheadings.  Still, he knew that for hundreds of years Muslims and Buddhists have lived side by side in peace and this was still the rule and not the exception.  The temple was considered a place of sanctuary.  Everyone was welcome and safe there.

One day everything changed.  The young monk was in a building preparing food when he heard a bunch of yelling and men ordering around other men.  He looked out the door and saw a group of men dressed in the local Muslim garb holding AK-47’s on the other monks and the volunteers who had come to work.  They were ordering them up against the building where they lived.

Fearing for his life the young monk hid under a table.  He had to watch, to see what was happening to the old monk and his other brothers.  From his hiding place under the table he watched in horror as the men were beaten, humiliated, and lined up against the building where they lived and shot.  He felt like his life ended as he watched the old monk fall lifeless to the ground.  That wasn’t the end of the assault on the old monk.  He stayed under the table shaking in fear and silently crying.  He was found several hours later by the soldiers who responded to the local’s calls for help.  Bullet holes can be seen in the door and far walls.

 

Inside these doors terrible things took place  

 

He remembers watching them remove the bodies.  He didn’t sleep or move for days.  He was sure the men would come back and finish the job and kill the people they missed.  When they didn’t come back he set about cleaning the blood stains as best he could.  Each day he continued their work alone.  There was no one left to help him.  Only a picture which still hung on a wall.

 

Now departed  

 

The locals, both Muslim and Buddhist supported his efforts and brought him supplies, food, and volunteered labor.  They built tall watchtowers and military style bunkers so they could keep an eye out for the next assault.  Police guarded the compound.

 

A water tower pulls double duty as a watch tower with sandbags and machine guns.  Pattani Thailand  

 

The work on the temple continues, the young monk is now the senior monk.  The children of volunteers play in the courtyard and swing in hammocks set up in the bunkers.  Life continues for the young monk, but he’ll never forget the hollow void previously filled by the old monk and his brothers.

 

Rebuilding in process

This pretty young Thai girl plays inside the bunker as if a bunker in his backyard is normal

A shy young Thai boy

 

I arrived almost a year later.  I’d read about this and remember noting that the location or even town name wasn’t given.  The authorities didn’t want the place attacked again, and they didn’t want the entire story going to the press to inflame tensions even more.  I’ve been careful to be very general in the above narrative.  The transcripts revealed many more details of the horror and deaths.

I spent over two months in the southern three provinces making friends and contacts before anyone would talk to me about this small temple and what happened there that horrific day.  I had to be “vetted” and earn a certain amount of trust.  I won’t go into how this was done, or the details of the people who made the final decision.  I will say I greatly admire the selfless man who leads the Buddhists in the southern three regions.  He opens himself to Muslims and Buddhists alike, and yet still must live in hiding, changing his location every few days lest he be assassinated.  I’ve maintained contact with this man and my new friends, and I’ll never forget the time I spent with the young monk.

We pulled into the temple in the late morning.  The military style watch towers surprised me.  I parked next to a bunker built from sandbags.  We were expected and a lunch was provided.  After lunch we talked.  We talked until well after last light.  He told me his story and cried.

 

An outside eating area for the Thai soldiers in Pattani

A well is now a bunker at this Pattani Thailand buddhist temple  

 

About four months later I returned to the temple.  I’d kept my word and not told anyone his story.  Our agreement was to let a few years pass so tensions would ease.  I’d also brought him his portrait sealed in a frame of teak with polyurethane covering the portrait.  This was as weather resistant to the elements as I could make it.  Because monks usually live in harsh environments exposed to the elements, photographs quickly fade and become unrecognizable.  This one would last his lifetime.

I once again parked by the bunker noting the progress which had been made during my absence.  New high walls now provided a measure of security from the rice field where the assailants walked in from before.  New modest (very) buildings for teaching and the locals who needed temporary shelter.  Even the landscaping had been improved a bit.  Looking around I didn’t see my friend the young monk.  No one came to greet me.  The old dormitory remained empty and untouched.  Bullet holes remained as a reminder.

 

This is where the terrorists broke into the temple compound before there was a wall.

Pattani Thailand, southern provinces

Bullets pockmarked this cement wall

 

As I walked through the compound I noticed no one looked at me.  No one would talk.  Something was wrong and I didn’t know what.  Finally I noticed an old lady cooking who I recognized and when no one else was near we approached her and asked about the young monk and the others I’d met on my last visit.

She told me that the “elders” really didn’t believe I’d keep the story to myself.  They feared I’d release the story and the assailants or their associates would come back and kill him because he was an eyewitness.  Supposedly there was much debate about why a “farang” was trusted in the first place.  Why not a local Thai reporter.  At the time the only local reporters worked for Channel 5, Thaksin’s news network.  I suppose a farang was trusted more than the locals, at least until they thought about it.  Then they relocated the young monk and those close to him and no one would tell me where he was or how I could get in contact with him.

The old lady saw the portrait I was carrying.  She promised me she’d get it to him.  I took another look around the compound and left.  Honored that I was chosen and trusted to tell his story.  Disappointed that the trust didn’t endure.  And saddened because I wasn’t to see the young monk again.

More than a few years have gone by and this is the first time I’ve told the his story.  At least a ‘washed’ version of his story.  Until I know he’s okay and I have his consent, the details will remain with me.

Meanwhile the violence once again has really picked up in the South.  Buildings bombed, police killed, citizens beheaded, teachers slain.  Its almost like the new group of politicians in power have went full circle and are now back where we were 3 years ago.

 

Life in a bunker, this young Thai girl knows this as normal in her Pattani home