Skateboarding, graffiti, and safe spaces in Thailand’s restive Deep South: the next step

The first ever skateboard competition in the southernmost province of Pattani has been held. A rare public event in a violence-plagued region, it comes amid calls for the Thai military and the Malay Muslim freedom fighters to establish a ceasefire zone in residential and economic areas. 
 
About 50 skateboarders, most of them from the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, and also Songkhla Province, joined the competition at the Arts and Culture Park in Mueang District, Pattani Province. In the predominantly Muslim Malay region, the participants are from various backgrounds. They are Muslim Malay, Buddhist Thai, Chinese and Christians who have joined hands to promote the sport as well as the skateboarding family of Thailand’s Far South. 
 
"Most of the teenagers here don’t have many places to hang out or do activities together. So many of them end up riding motorcycles around the city or become drug addicts. But we do skateboarding instead," said Abdulkarim Chada-oh, 28, the Vice-President of Pattani Risk Skateboard who organized the event. 
 
Despite a budget of 5.8 billion USD poured to Patani, or the region composed of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, in the past 10 years, the insurgency has trapped the region in economic stagnation. The three provinces with a population of about 3.4 million people have only one hypermarket, Big C in Pattani’s Mueang District. Drug problems and the smuggling of illicit goods are also pervasive. 
 
"To outsiders, skateboarding and Patani look dangerous, so they shy away from both, but in fact, if you just try it or come here once, you'll realize that they're actually ok and understand them better. Skateboarding is just like other sports, like Pattani. They're normal." said Abdulkarim Chada-oh 
 
According to research jointly conducted by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre and the Commerce Ministry, the Trade and Investment Sentiment Index from May 2013 to now has been consistently below the average, indicating that investors are not confident in the economic prospects of the Deep South. Moreover, since the latest round of violence erupted 11 years ago, average economic growth in the area slowed from 2004 to 2009, growing at only 1.4 per cent per year, compared to the pre-violence growth rate of 6 per cent per year. 
 
Since his first skateboard ride when he was 15, Abdulkarim, who is now 28, has had his finger broken and torn a muscle in his back, making him unable to walk for two or three days. The hobby that he started merely because it “looked cool” has become his passion and way of life. 
 
Abdulkarim Chada-oh, 28, the Vice-President of Pattani Risk Skateboard, tells Prachatai that he has had a passion for skateboarding since he was 15.
 
As Hat Yai, Songkhla, is the skateboard hub of the lower southern provinces, the Patanian skateboarders have often joined competitions in Hat Yai and regularly won competitions. 
 
Ale Comprendio, the founder of Hat Yai-based Skateboard for Jesus (S4J), said he sees big potential among skateboarders from the Deep South and hopes that by holding this event in Pattani, people from other parts of Thailand will see the Deep South in a different light and realize that the area is relatively safe. 
 
"There’s a very big potential for skateboarding in Pattani. I want to tell the people of Thailand that Pattani is safe and that the locals here can someday compete in the Olympics," said Ale, a native of Mindanao in the Philippines, who has lived in Thailand for 14 years.  
 
Ale Comprendio, the founder of Hat Yai-based Skateboard for Jesus (S4J). Photo by Hadi Wijaya
 
Both Ale and Abdulkarim admit that skateboarding is associated with a bad image. 
 
“The charm of skateboarding is the trick which we can’t yet perform, so we will spend hours practising that trick. To adults, if I spend lots of my time playing football, they see it as ok, but if I do skateboarding or spend time with our skateboarder friends, they see it as something bad,” said Abdulkarim. 
 
Ale said that S4J has tried to create a good image of the skateboarding family which looks after each other, encouraging each other to become better persons and do voluntary work. One of the S4J’s biannual competitions is held around the King’s birthday as the Filipino said this competition is a “gift” for the Thai King.   
 
In skateboarding, there is no age limit. A boy of about 10 years old competes with two teenagers in this round of competition at the amateur level. Photo by Hadi Wijaya
 
"True. There are skateboarders who are drug addicts or from dysfunctional families. However, skateboarding to us is a way of life and we are members of a family who help each other. There are messy skateboard communities around the world. We're ambitious for our Hat Yai S4J to be a role model for other skateboard communities," said Ale.   
 
The competition on 30 November 2015 was held to celebrate and to mark the launch of the Pattani Risk Skateboard club which will be officially recognized by the local authorities soon. The competition attracted about 50 skateboarders, from as young as 10 years old, who are at amateur and ‘pro’ levels, with some Thai national team skateboarders. The city, which sees an average of 2.2 insurgent incidents per day, became lively and vibrant.  
 

More public events and safe spaces needed

 
Public events in open spaces have become frequent only in recent years. More festivals and fairs held in the Deep South are sign of a more open and positive atmosphere. 
 
Referees look on as skateboarders perform tricks.
 
Last month, women’s groups in the Deep South voiced  strong demand to both sides -- the Thai military and the insurgent groups -- to establish a ceasefire zone or ‘safety zone’ in public spaces, especially residential areas, mosques, temples, schools and public parks. 
 
The proposal was well received by the Thai military, while MARA Patani, a peace dialogue panel comprising several Muslim Malay groups struggling for Patani independence, have not responded, saying that any agreement could only be made after the peace dialogue becomes official. Unless Bangkok accepts pre-conditions for the talk, namely raising the issue of the Deep South peace talks to a national level, immunity for MARA delegates, and official recognition of MARA, the talks will only be unofficial and considered as in the confidence building stage. The pre-conditions are aimed at guaranteeing the sustainability and quality of the talks.
 
A skateboarder performs a difficult trick in front of old Melayu-style houses. Photo by Hadi Wijaya
 
Hadi Wijaya, a local activist and older brother of a skateboarder, told Prachatai that the skateboard competition is part of a collaborative attempt to build a space for people from all ethnicities and faiths to interact and determine the future of Patani together. 
 
“The people here are longing for festivals and happiness. We’re finding ways to release their feelings. This has to be done with great caution that we don’t side with any party since here, people can be killed or get hurt for real,” Hadi said.
 
As political opinion in the Deep South is very polarized between those who subscribe to the central Thai official narrative and those who subscribe to the Malay Patani narrative, Hadi said a neutral and shared space for everyone is crucial. His priority, he said, is to restore the good relationship between people of all faiths. The mainstream media which repeatedly blames “Southern Bandits” or the Muslim Malay for causing violence has profoundly estranged the Buddhist Thais and the ethnic Chinese from the Muslim Malay. 
 
The activist revealed that his upcoming projects to restore this relationship and create a shared space will be carried out in Saiburi District, Pattani Province. 
 
"No pain, no glory," Ale Comprendio, the founder of Hat Yai-based Skateboard for Jesus (S4J), tells Prachatai after he finishes his duty of giving first aid to a skateboarder.
 
According to Deep South Watch, out of the 37 districts of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla, Saiburi ranks as the sixth most dangerous. Saiburi, which used to be a thriving port town that served the Malay Peninsula, has been made unrecognizable by the violence. Most of the Thai-Chinese businesses in the area have moved out. The Thai-Chinese avoid Malay neighbourhoods and vice versa, creating an atmosphere of tension and distrust.
 
Hadi said the project will show the cosmopolitan aspect of the town through graffiti, street art and skateboarding. He is ambitious for a similar space to be built in the old town of Pattani too. Why graffiti?  The activist said he wished there were more meaningful and artistic graffiti in the region, other than “Merdeka,” the Malay word for independence and “Hakku”, the Malay word meaning “I own it” which were written plainly on public signs and streets by the freedom fighters everywhere in Patani. 
 
Merdeka graffiti can be easily found in Thailand’s Deep South. Photo courtesy of the South China Morning Post 
 
“The graffiti of the freedom fighters show their resentment but their messages are too extreme and one-dimensional. I wish to see ordinary local people use art to express and communicate more sophisticated feelings and messages.”   
 
Although the event was interrupted three times by the seasonal monsoon, local people and family members of the participants came to watch and applaud the event, which is a big step for Patanian youth. A woman in a niqab, among the spectators, told Prachatai that she came to give her son moral support.   
 
Meanwhile, skateboarding is something similar to the situation in Patani, said Abdulkarim. 
 
"To outsiders, skateboarding and Patani look dangerous, so they shy away from both, but in fact, if you just try it or come here once, you'll realize that they're actually ok and understand them better. Skateboarding is just like other sports, like Pattani. They're normal." said Abdulkarim. 
 
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