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The artists promoting peace in Thailand’s conflict-plagued south | News

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Saiburi, Thailand – With his hands tucked in his jacket pockets, Anas Pongpraset slightly nods towards two collapsed buildings in front of him.

“That’s where the car bomb went off,” says the 35-year-old of an explosion that rocked the Chinatown district of the small town of Saiburi in Thailand‘s deep south in 2012.

“It killed both Buddhists and Muslims. There weren’t any clues that it would happen here in the Chinese community,” he adds, his gaze fixed at the charred structures.

Fighters have been waging an armed campaign for independence in Thailand’s deep south for decades, but the conflict escalated in 2004 after a series of well-planned attacks on police and government facilities. Explosions, gunfire and organised killings shook the region as the rest of the country watched in horror.

The violence has since kept Thailand’s military on edge, yet it has caused more than death and destruction. It’s also left broken communal ties throughout the southern region, a large and diverse area that’s home to various ethnic groups, including Chinese, Thai Buddhists, Pakistanis and Thai Muslims, who make up the majority of the population.

Saiburi has been particularly hit. It’s been designated as a “red zone” area, indicating that the town is more prone to be struck by violence than others.

“I watched as my hometown erupted in violence on the television set,” says Anas, recalling the clashes that hit Saiburi some 15 years ago when he was a student in Thailand’s capital. “I would see the news from Bangkok and felt depressed that there was so much violence coming from the south,” he adds.

“When I got back, I couldn’t believe the amount of military that was everywhere. The first thing I noticed was that there were bunkers, roadblocks, troops – all on the roads. Everything felt so different.”

The filmmaker and photographer says he couldn’t just ignore the lingering remnants of violence and the continuous aggression by both the Thai military and the separatists for any longer.

Instead, he decided to act.





Anas Pongpraset, founder of Saiburi Looker [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

Joining forces with other like-minded people, Anas in 2012 founded Saiburi Looker, a collective of young artists working to rebuild communal relationships and promote peace in the south through art.

The group’s activism started with artist Waearong Waeno courageously painting elaborate drawings representing peace on public walls throughout Saiburi. In a way, his paintings were the first act of silent defiance aiming to soothe the tension that permeated through the town’s streets.

“There was one time when people were so into it [public paintings] that they joined and painted alongside us – even bringing their kids along,” Waearong says. “People got the chance to have real conversations. We found that these events relieve problematic relations between the villagers, especially Thai Buddhists and Muslims. We’ve had events where the military participated and talked with the community. I think that is impressive.”

Deadly conflict

Historians trace the origins of the conflict to around 1909, during Thailand’s annexation and takeover of the Malay Sultanate of Patani. They say it began when the northern states of Malaysia were cut into separate pieces by the occupying Thai forces.

After the annexation, forced assimilation procedures created resentment among the local populace. It didn’t take long before armed campaigns by separatist groups started appearing in the 1950s with tensions brewing over the following 50 years.

In 2004, groups such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN) increased attacks against the military, government officials and teachers.

The situation deteriorated around 2012 when fighters began purposely targeting civilians from differing minorities as well. They deliberately planned attacks that would cause communal tension creating a new sense of distrust and Islamophobia towards the majority Muslim population, according to Anas. He says that prior to 2004, the various communities in the area coexisted without any major problems, adding that it’s likely that those attacks were orchestrated to destabilise communal relationships.

“Nobody trusted each other. We didn’t know who could be listening to our conversations. Everyone was scared to express themselves and there was this general sadness and fear,” Anas says.

He knows all-too-well how distrust can tear communities and families apart.

Anas’s grandfather was a prominent Muslim leader both in the south of Thailand and in neighbouring Malaysia. But his grandfather’s brother was on a military list of “extremists”. Thailand’s security forces harassed and investigated his family often, disrupting their daily lives under false suspicions that they were connected to armed groups, Anas says. It is cases like this, he adds, that broaden the sense of distrust between local Muslims and the military.





Saiburi Looker is focused on bringing the south’s different ethnic and cultural communities together [Courtesy Saiburi Looker/Al Jazeera]

‘Slow-burn insurgency to continue’

Violence between fighters and the military has continued to grind over the years and persists to this day, with civilians often caught in the middle. Just this week, the BRN, which spearheads the fight for independence, released a statement renewing the group’s commitment to their cause of “freedom” while also calling for more people to join their movement.

Since 2004, the conflict has resulted in more than 6,000 deaths, with some 20,000 documented attacks. Deep South Watch, a monitoring group, reported 45 incidents of violence and 26 deaths from the conflict in their latest update released in November last year.

Zachary Abuza, a specialist on the ongoing conflict and professor at National War College, says one reason why the fighting continues today is due to a lack of meaningful dialogue or compromise between the military and the separatists.

According to Abuza, communication between the military and the BRN has gotten worse in recent years, especially after Thailand’s current military government took power in 2014. He says the government has made fewer concessions to the fighters, resisting any semblance of compromise that could perhaps help ease the violence.

“The government made clear that autonomy was not on the table, they refused to implement language reforms, they have refused to have general amnesties,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Basically, the junta’s view of peace is that the militants surrender, without any meaningful concessions being made to address their core grievances. That’s why the conflict drags on … The insurgents, who have very limited resources, can escalate the violence when they want to remind the government that there are costs to not taking them seriously and stalling,” Abuza says.

“As such, the slow-burn insurgency will continue.”





The members of Saiburi Looker say the group is independent and inclusive of everyone [Courtesy Saiburi Looker/Al Jazeera]

‘We’re the same’

Against this background, Saiburi Looker’s members have stepped up their efforts to promote peace using art as their weapon.

Their varied events include concerts in which local musicians are encouraged to come together and perform live – anything from blues and jazz to pop and local country music.





One of the concerts organised by the group [Courtesy Saiburi Looker/Al Jazeera]

They have also staged poetry slam events, in which participants read aloud poems on how the conflict has affected them – a form of therapy for many of those presenting, according to organisers.

Saiburi Looker’s artists say one theme has continued to appear more than any other in their events. The idea that locals in the deep south were no different than any other Thais in the country and simply wanted the same thing as everyone else: a normal and peaceful life.

The group also takes a non-direct approach to combatting violence. Anas says that both the military and armed groups are not opposed to their events, stressing the importance of remaining independent in order to be inclusive of everyone.

“We don’t directly work with the militant groups or expect to have a strong effect,” Anas clarifies. “But, if members of these groups want to come to our events and see what we’re about, we’d be happy to build a relationship with them so we can understand each other better.”

“We want people to know that we’re the same as anyone else,” Anas says, with a sense of urgency.

“There’s a lot of Islamophobia in the country. Yes, we’re Muslim, we have beards and dress differently, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do all of the same things as other Thais. We all love music, writing and art in the same way any Thai does,” he adds.

“Just because our appearances are different, doesn’t mean that we’re not the same.”

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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