The Central Plains farmers who survived last weekend's fatal attack on their convoy in Pattani have vowed to continue their work to restore rice-growing in the South, saying their two slain colleagues would have wanted them to complete the job.
Saneh Khunnen, 28, and Ekkarin Homchoey, 26, were killed and 11 others injured when gunmen opened fire on them late on Friday evening in Yaring district's tambon Bo Loy.
They were part of a team of 20 farmers from Sing Buri and Suphan Buri provinces taking part in a project funded by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) to educate locals on restoring rice farming in abandoned southern fields. All the participants had been recruited from Suphan Buri's Buffalo Village, a renowned rice-growing centre.
The farmer Bangkok Post Sunday spoke to, who cannot be identified for security reasons, said after the pair were shot dead all the farmers went to their home provinces to attend the funerals.
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But they all returned to Pattani on Wednesday evening, in part inspired by the news that 350 southern farmers had contacted the SBPAC about taking part in the rice education programme.
"We all just feel bad for them and think we have to continue this project to the end, no matter what happens," said the farmer who was injured in the Feb 1 attack. "I think the two educators who lost their lives would do the same if they were still alive. So I came back here and gave my first lesson on Thursday."
He said that prior to the attack they had been under military guard before the soldiers left them to escort teachers home from school.
The group of farmers is now under 24-hour military protection.
"We don't have to be on the scene every single day like when we first started the project," he said. "We spend most of the time at the official residence provided by the Pattani governor and only go out to monitor the rice fields from time to time."
The project _ covering Songkhla, Satun, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat _ aims to restore 15,000 rai of abandoned rice fields and improve the livelihoods of 5,000 villagers within a two-year period.
Tambon Bo Loy was the first area in which it was being implemented and locals believe the attacks could be an effort by insurgents to stop government development in the area.
"They also don't want outsiders to come to the area," said one local reporter who chose to remain anonymous. "Their main intention is to make this territory isolated and unlivable," he said adding that the educators would have been perceived as government representatives.
Wuthisak Suwan, the director of SBPAC's Community Economic Development section, said even before the insurgency took hold the southern rice farmers were producing lower yields than their counterparts from the Central Plains.
In the southern agricultural sector about 60% of farmers grow rice, 25% rubber plants and the rest fruit.
"Five to 10 years ago, before farmers abandoned their rice fields, they only produced 450-600kg of rice per rai because the local villagers have no knowledge of rice farming like farmers in the central part of Thailand do," he said.
"With the money and time they invested, they earned less than growing rubber trees or doing labouring jobs. No villager, especially the newer generation, wants to continue rice farming and they have abandoned their land."
Mr Wuthisak said if the project is successful, yields could increase to 1,200kg per rai. Based on the current market price of 2,000 baht per rai for 100kg, the 25 million baht earmarked for the project would reap major financial rewards for the South.
Plans are already in train for a rice mill in Pattani and within four months it was hoped that rice produced in the South would replace imports from Malaysia, Mr Wuthisak said.
The project will also see 360 southern villagers sent to the Buffalo Village in groups of 120 to undergo further 10-day training courses. The last group leaves Pattani on Feb 12.
The injured educator said some of the rice fields had been abandoned for 10 years. He said the soil was still useable but a pressing issue was restoring irrigation systems.
"There are plenty of abandoned rice fields in the southern border provinces," he said. "If we can restore all of them, the economy in this area will improve greatly."
He said the educators planned to be in the South until the end of the year. "We won't leave the villagers until they can rely on themselves _ no matter what happens," he said.
About the author
- Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai