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Folk art increases cross-cultural understanding in Deep South

A popular local chief in the insurgency-plagued region is using Thai folk arts to spread a message of peace and understanding to Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims.

By Bas Pattani for Khabar Southeast Asia in Yala

October 01, 2012
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Thamrong Kongwatmai, currently chief of Yaring District in Pattani Province, volunteered to serve in the local civil service in 2005. Ever since, he has used his free time to study the art of nang talung, or Thai shadow puppetry, to preach the importance of peace and tolerance between Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims.

  • Yaring District Chief Thamrong Kongwatmai uses shadow puppets to entertain and educate audiences on other cultures in Thailand's insurgency-plagued Deep South. [Bas Pattani/Khabar]

    Yaring District Chief Thamrong Kongwatmai uses shadow puppets to entertain and educate audiences on other cultures in Thailand's insurgency-plagued Deep South. [Bas Pattani/Khabar]

He and his team have developed their shadow-puppet troupe, "Thamrong Talungsin", as a travelling show that visits villages throughout the district.

They use humour and spectacle to publicise government campaigns and projects in the dialects understood by the locals, whether it is Yawi, the local dialect of Muslim Malays, or Southern Thai, which differs greatly from the central dialect spoken in Bangkok.

The campaigns include raising awareness of the dangers of drug addiction and creating unity among people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Thamrong is one of a handful of high-ranking civil servants in Pattani who "volunteered" to serve in the Deep South, waiving the right to transfer to posts in other parts of the country where security issues are not so predominant.

"The volunteer district chief position is one mechanism put in place by the Thai Ministry of Interior to improve communication between the government and people living in the three southernmost border provinces," he told Khabar Southeast Asia. "The goal is to publicise government policies and push for their full implementation, thus strengthening the relationships and reducing mistrust among state officials and local people."

"We need to prevent insurgents from infiltrating local communities and causing trouble. We have to deal with issues including different religions, languages and cultural conditions, so it is very important to prepare ourselves physically and emotionally for the challenge," he said.

Thamrong further added: "This is why I try and learn as much as possible about all the different lifestyles of people living in the region in as many dimensions as possible. I don't take sides, but try to learn on the ground from real people to get the clearest understanding possible … so that we can remedy any potential conflicts right on the spot."

"Thamrong Talungsin" successfully brings a variety of different local cultures into the mix on stage.

"We support the Thai Muslim culture through Anasis Dekahulu performances, while Thai Buddhist performance might include menorah dances or nang talung. We also have cultural performances by Morgan chao lay (sea gypsy) people," he said.

Thamrong controls the movements of the shadow puppets from behind the viewing screen and performs all the voices. He has displayed such expertise in the craft that he has been officially recognised as a nai nang talung (Thai shadow puppet master) by the Ministry of Culture.

"I think the local people are happy and proud of the troupe. They feel it is their own business, giving them a chance to travel throughout the South and staging shows for local people and promoting local arts and culture. We make trips to do performances at special events, including parts of the Deep South that have been affected by the insurgency and are considered dangerous to travel to," he said.

Samaair Dorloh, chief of Piya Mumung subdistrict in Yaring, told Khabar he was "very confused" when he came to know about Thamrong's approach to reaching out to locals.

"When I heard about it I was very confused. I found it hard to believe that such a civil servant in such a high-ranking position would attempt something so difficult, but he has not only pulled it off but done a great job," he said.

"I think it has many good points, showing that he is sincerely friendly and not arrogant. This allows the villagers to get close to him and he can disseminate official news directly to the people.

"Using puppets allows him to interact directly to the people, rather than through the old style of holding meetings, which many people did not like and failed to attend. This disinterest can lead to an unclear understanding of government policy and misinformation."

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