“You can disclose my name. Take a photo of me. I’m not afraid. Reveal everything”, he told us when we offered to conceal his identity. Although the way he said this made him seem aggressive, if you looked into his eyes, you will see that there were no signs of violence compared to his statement.
The reason that made us drove through Raman District, Yala Province for 18 kilometers to Rueso District, Narathiwat Province is because of the stories we had heard of Leader Dee told by another village headman who was also our guide in this trip. To meet him in person is unbelievable considering that he had survived four attempts against his life. Since then, he has chosen to fight openly against the group he called “the opposite”.”
As we observed the man who sat in front of us, we could not help to think back of the journey we experienced traveling to see him. We almost got lost because we lost communication. We reached the place at dawn while the Rueso-Yingo road we were using was getting empty every minute. Nevertheless, we eventually found the place of the famous village headman. Our guide told us that “his house shouldn’t be called a ‘house’ as it’s no different than the banger.” His place was surrounded by sandbags and the curtain trees; it was similar to the military camps in the three southernmost provinces. When we arrived, his mother and his wife welcomed and told us that Leader Dee went out patrolling the village and will be back in a minute. We did not wait too long until a red pick-up truck arrived and parked near the house. Two men came out of the car and one of them was Leader Dee. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, holding a pistol on his right curl and an AK47 in his hand. The man invited us into his house. As we walked through the bangers and curtain trees, whether he had designed it intentionally, his two storey house was designed with a very tight security including, windows, doors, stairs and etc.
A picture of a man in a graduation suit grabbed our attention “I just graduated from Rajaphat Yala University” he told us.
“I thought that after I completed my studies, I would work downtown and never come back home again. But in the end I have to be here. It could be because I was born and raised here and that I have a grave waiting for me here.” He stated with determination in his eyes.
After sitting with him for a while, we later learned that this small, tanned and muscular man was only 28 years old. Leader Dee is the youngest village headman we have ever met in the past five years in the three southernmost provinces where village headmen are target’s of violence and their lives taken as if they were fallen leave. Of course, he has a reason why he chose this job.
“My father was shot by an insurgent”, he explained calmly.
“My father’s name was Mr. Ma Madeure and he was our village headman. He was shot dead two years ago in front of the Imam’s house and the mosque. They also stole my father’s gun (.357).” He described it to us as if it had happened a month ago.
“I eventually got my father’s stolen gun back a few months ago when the authorities raided the pondok in Chaloem Sub-District, Rangae District, Narathiwat Province. The insurgents had been hiding that pondok while clashing with the authorities. They were all dead. The authorities found out later that this insurgent group is the same group that attacked teacher Juling in 2005”
It is well-known that being a village head man is one of the riskiest positions. You do not have to have any statistics to prove this statement. For Leader Dee’s case, he was attacked 4 times and survived. If he were a Buddhist, he would have called it a miracle or, he might pray a thousand times to his Buddha amulet hanging around his neck. But as a Muslim, he believes that this is a test from “Allah”.
The first time he was attacked was on the Senate Election Day, 2 March 2008 at the election place Moo 3, Rueso Sub-District. He was injured after a bomb had exploded.
“I do not think I was the main target that day though, it was actually meant for the District Chief. I was just there at the wrong place and wrong time” He said.
The second time was three weeks after the first incident, on 24 March 2008. He was driving through Baan Taroe Moo1 in front of the Islamic Private School when a man in “Dawa” suit (a dress of Islam missionary) walked towards him and shot him.
“They were like missionaries who taught religion in the school. I believe they were subrogated. They were among the students when they had a chance they shot at me and Allah let me survive. I even have no wound from that attack.” He described.
Then, a week later, he was attacked for the third time. He had been driving up to the hill in the area of Moo7 Rueso Sub-District on the 31 March 2008 when he saw two groups of attacker. The first group threw a bomb into his pick-up car damaging it. Leader Dee and his crew fought back with their guns causing the second group who wanted to kill and steal their weapons fall back.
The latest attack, and perhaps not the last, happened recently on 23 September 2009 at the Mayoung corner Moo2 Rueso Sub-District. He and his crew were ambushed with M16. One of his crew was shot on a side of the body and the car has bullet holes all over. He decided to fight back as he usually did.
“I didn’t care about death anymore”, he affirmed.
After 4 attacks against him, in which he betted on his own life, now, the village headman of Baan Salobukit has decided to openly fight against the people who wants to take his life. In general it looks like the target is the young village headman, but Leader Dee said if we carefully consider the incidents in the context of the three southernmost provinces conflict, all the village headman’s life is at a high risk. If the position of the village headman is torn down and destroyed, the village will be in chaos. The villagers will feel unsafe and confuse.
“They want to get rid of leaders that villagers respect and believed in. If the villagers have no such leader, the villagers will have no one to protect them. This way, they can put more influence and pressure to the villagers.” He commented to the clean up phenomenon of village leaders in the three southernmost provinces which he is also one of the targets.
He stated that “the villagers will follow the insurgents by, 1) The distortion of religious and 2) Villagers cannot choose. The villagers will listen to whoever won. ”
Leader Dee commented that he believed everything can be solved if only the leaders show strength and leadership to protect everybody’s life. He told us that “I took the position to replace my father’s because I don’t want the situation to be like this. (Statistics shows that violence occurs most frequently in Rueso District of all the three southernmost provinces and it is also located near Sungai Padi and Joh-Irong District which is considered the second district in which violence occurs most often). It does not affect only the village headman but also the villagers. They cannot go to rubber the trees, their transportation is not safe, whenever an incident happens, and soldiers will surround the village. It gets worse every time.
The conflicts occurring in the Deep South according to Leader Dee’s view is not 100% only about the separatist movement. He believes that the root cause of conflict is highly more related to local politics.
“Frankly speaking, politics and elections are related to building its own mass for the vote and power. These people fuel more violence to the situation. They kill, shoot and raise gunmen. They share interest with the movement and they use the separatist to destroy their political rival. These people are building power for their own sake. I will beat them.”
He also dared to state that the separatist movement has a relationship with the illegal trade business group especially drugs business in order to gain money for supporting their struggle. Moreover, businesses that rely influence such as contractors, they will attempt to destroy their competitors. Leader Dee gave an example; the influential person will distort religious teaching to deceive the teenagers in using violence to its rival; burning schools or government office buildings is also related to the benefits from the budget of the new contraction.
“It’s a mess. We don’t know what’s going on. The people who are in the middle become victims of the group that intended to use violence for their own benefits.” He concluded.
Because of these reasons, after Leader Dee announced officially to fight as the village headman, he also announced that he will decrease the number of violence in this village and will protect the life of every soldier that camped in this area.
”Before all these incidents occurred; shooting, cutting trees, spreading the spikes, burning tires, in averages 3 times per day and the telephone posts were all burnt. After 19 months that I have been regularly going into the village, no such incident occurred. News reporting is better; in the past, villagers are not saying anything because they are afraid of the insurgents, when they want to tell me we will meet in a department store in Pattani Province. Nowadays, everybody is more confident to tell me if anything suspicious happened. I told my villagers that if they have relatives, friends or visitors from outside the area come to visit they have to inform me and the house owner has to guarantee that these visitors will not create any problem to the villagers. If I do not do this I cannot protect the village.”
He said the situation in the village is improving. Teenagers are not scared of the soldiers. They go inside the camp and play with the soldiers. (There is a small military base located only a hundred meters far from his house). Before, teenagers did not dare walk close to the base but now both the teenagers and the soldiers are close and become friends. Leader Dee said he has to work with both sides to bridge the gap. He convinced the soldiers not to be suspicious of the villagers and he convinced the villagers not to be scared of the soldiers. This helped ease a lot of the problems.
“But it will not easily end. If we cooperate it will just help ease the problem. The big problem is the village headman and the head of sub-district cannot talk in-depth. Not everybody is ready to stand up and challenge like I did. For me, it’s an obligation. Previously, I only cared about myself and my family; I did not care about others. Now, I have to be stricter. I have to do everything for my survival and peace for the village; villagers will not contradicted to each other and become small groups, otherwise, it will be difficult to govern them.
Not everything is smooth as silk. Besides, putting himself at risk, he also has to take on the burden of his volunteer defends corps which are also dramatically decreasing.
“I would like for the government to increase the number of volunteer defends corps as well as the budget. What we have now is not enough. The Self-Defends Volunteers have no salary. When the situation is tense, they cannot do daily work since they have to guard the village. I would like to request for more personal and budget. If the personals are enough, I can also do my own job for earning. Today, I give 100% to the work for villagers but I still have my family and my own staff to take care of. It is maintained for now but I do not know if I can continue doing this in the future.” Leader Dee said with his serious face. He insisted to us that we have to reveal his proposal as if it is the most important thing that he wanted to communicate with the state authorities.
Every day, this man has to patrol the village with his crew who share the same risk as him. He went out with his pistol and the bullet proof shirt with the hope that one day this little village can gain sustainable peace. We asked him about the fear and the possibility of his relocation for the sake of his life and his family. He replied firmly.
“I grew up here. We have a cemetery here. We cannot go anywhere. I must protect and preserve this place. If I die, my body will be buried here in this cemetery. I will admit that I’ve already done everything I can.”