His heartfelt song brought a nation to tears. Now 29-year-old singer-songwriter Somchai Nilsri hopes he can help restore harmony to his native Deep South, where a violent insurgency has shattered thousands of lives since it escalated in 2004.
On August 29th, Somchai won the final round of the Thailand's Got Talent 2013 competition, winning a majority of votes submitted by contest viewers via SMS. The triumph came with a prize of 10 million baht ($312,917). He plans to use part of the award to set up a charitable foundation to help victims of the insurgency.
His hopes for peace were conveyed in the winning song, titled "Yaak hai ban rao pen meuan derm' ('I want our home to return to how it was before').
"I was born in Pattani and grew up in Panare District. Back then the Thai Buddhist and Muslim communities got along so well," he said during an interview on the popular news show Joh Khao Den. "Thai Buddhists worked the fields and plantations, while the Muslim communities earned their living at sea catching fish. It was normal and safe to drive our crops to their villages and trade them for fish, which benefitted both communities."
"In Panare it was always safe to go out at any time, but now after 5pm or 6pm, everything falls silent and the only people on the roads are security forces," he said.
The song, he explained, came to him spontaneously after he travelled by motorcycle in order to report for his mandatory military conscription. A friend, he explained, helped him avoid a firefight between insurgents and security forces.
"I just want to be able to trade and hang out with my Muslim friends like we used to; that's all," he said in the interview, hosted by famous TV personality Sorayut Suthasanachinda.
Song expresses "pain of people who have suffered"
Speaking to reporters after the result, Pattani DJ Atthaya Nakthong described Somchai as a "man with a dream who never stopped trying to make his dream come true."
"He loves his place of birth very much, loves peace and unity, and who always works to improve society. Whenever a bad incident happens in our place of birth, he always wants to give moral support to the people there, helping as much as he can," said Atthaya, a close friend of the singer. "When he sings the songs that he has written for the people there, they break down in tears because his words touch the heart so deeply and carry the pain of the people who have suffered directly from all the violence," she said.
His song contest triumph brought joy not only at home, but abroad. Among his admirers is Rusneeta Awae, a young Muslim woman who is originally from Tak Bai District in Narathiwat. Currently, she studies accounting and finance at Monash University in Australia under a Thai government scholarship.
"I was very proud of him; his performance was very good. He showed the real feeling of people from Southern Thailand and the story in his song was meaningful, but I never thought that he would be the winner," she told Khabar Southeast Asia by e-mail. "It really surprised me and my friends here; we all cheered him on and I am pretty sure that all the people in southern part were cheering him as well."
Pornchita Na Songkhla ('Benz'), one of three judges who gave Somchai the thumbs-up in earlier rounds, described him as "truly extraordinary".
"I was pleased to see him show so much courage in expressing his feelings about what he loves before all the Thai people. He is a source of inspiration for all Thais who think outside of the box and dare to continually pursue excellence," said the 33-year-old judge and former model in comments to the song contest's TV audience.