Zan Azlee’s “Operation Nasi Kerabu: Finding Patani in an Islamic Insurgency” – is a book about the author finding himself in the lives of his fellow Malay/Muslim community living in neighbouring Thailand. It is a candid and honest eyewitness account of how ordinary people like us live in a war zone.
I had visited Narathiwat before, and could relate to some of the things Zan writes in his 111-paged book, which comes with a free DVD! The book was published in May 2011, by ZI Publications. Thank to Lori Lee for the complimentary book!
Zan’s documentary on the subject was due to be screened on Malaysian TV but alas! it was banned by the Prime Minister’s office. The documentary was supposed to be on the Malay community and their survival to keep their Malay/Muslim heritage alive. “It was the last kind of content that we had thought would scare our keris wielding Malay leaders” says a disappointed Zan on page 105.
It wasn’t Zan’s or anyone’s fault but the timing was wrong. At that point of time, or a few months before hand, Thai PM Abhisit had requested Najib Razak’s assistance in sorting out the problems in Southern Thailand. So we can’t have a book that would spoil the fun for Najib, can we? So the written word again becomes a victim of a larger political game. Sigh.
But the positive part of it all is that we now have a book and DVD to savour and enjoy! This was a book I finished in one day, partly because it was rather interesting and I wanted to know all the details all at once.
Turning the first few chapters, one can feel Zan’s tension as he is met with soldiers at checkpoints, immigration officers, familiar scenes of a war zone when he first drives into the area. We also come to know of his aspiration to be like Sean Langan, a famous war reporter, which prompted Zan in the first place to take on such risky but adventurous assignments.
In his book, Zan often provides an insight into how Thais perceive the media in Malaysia, or how it treats it journalists. “The Thai government is actually very liberal and respectful towards journalists, not as bad as Malaysia, huh?” is what Zan’s guide (or fixer, as he calls the Thai reporter – Daniya) says to the author.
On page 11, Zan summarises how he feels about the conflict area: “The danger I had expected was hugely exaggerated by my imagination (and the international news media). People were friendly and the authorities did their best to protect civilians”. – Yes, I must agree that is how I felt too after visiting Narathiwat!
From Pages 12-15, the reader would be introduced to a bit of a history lesson on Southern Thailand. It’s narrated in a very organised manner, without going too much into details. Don’t forget Zan is a lecturer too, so he knows how to maintain the interest of his students/readers in the topic. In these chapters, we also get to know the key players in the conflict and about former Prime Minister Thaksin’s handling of the deep south which perhaps, had worsened the situation then. Zan also related briefly about the power struggle between the police and army and ineffective Muslim leaders, who collectively contributed to a complicated situation.
Through his observation and interviews with Pattani’s ordinary folks, one can see, as Zan pointed out, that there are many bored, restless local youths, poverty stricken, who are willing to confront the authority “when their lives boil over”. His interviewees come from people from all walks of lives – students, teachers, religious people, business folks – but voices we have never heard in the local or international news. These are voices of survival, hope, faith and love – that the human spirit is resilient, strong, and enduring.
Turning more pages, I felt that while Zan may not intend to compare, he offers glimpses of comparison between Malaysian and Thailand in several aspects, for example: in Thailand, authorities are friendlier to journalists; roads are better, no need to pay toll; and different gender roles – women work and men support them with their labour.
It’s refreshing to see so many photos of the going-ons in Pattani interspersed between the pages, makes it a little like a travel book, only that the destination is a war zone! In using these photos, Zan cleverly puts a human face to his stories, and that is a very brilliant way of helping his readers stay on focus.
In the course of his interviews, we also realise the uncertainty of the people about who and what is behind all the violence that plagues their daily lives: it could be “insurgents, militants or criminals”, they tell Zan.
What I find interesting because I am a journalist, too, and can relate to the fact that when we are in the midst of working on a news coverage, most of us feel like Zan. We are sometimes challenged to remain independent, objective, unbias, especially in the face of violence. These feelings Zan shares with us when visiting the controversial 500 year old Kru Se Mosque (in chapter 6 (page 60). “Which side do you take? And who possibly has the right to evaluate and evaluate evil?”. In 2004, this place was splashed with blood, the military stormed into the building and took 32 lives. Too terrifying a story to tell.
On page 89, Zan is again confronted with the question of journalism when Daniya talks to him about “peace journalism”. “Does it fit with journalistic principles of objectivity? Where is the line between journalist and activists? One has the responsibility to report. The other has an agenda, however philanthropic it may be”.
But then I wanted to laugh out when I read Daniya’s perception of the Malaysian media (he works for some of the local media here as well). He said “we really trust the Malaysian media because it is honest” (page 90). What an irony! which Zan would later elaborate in Chapter 12, the final part.
Intentionally or otherwise, when discussing about Southern Thailand, Zan manages to share his thoughts on Malaysia’s current political situation which strikes a cord in most Malaysians – where he briefly mentions issues like the Allah ban on Christians, cases of conversion of Muslims to Christianity (famous Lina Joy case), the Internal Security Act and not forgetting the popular Malay phrase: Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia.
Lastly, Zan writes about a serious topic in Operation Nasi Kerabu, but he doesn’t waffle on it but sprinkles lots of little humour that makes us see the human side of the episodes inside his book. One hilarious moment which got me laughing was his discovery of a very “old and sad looking Umno flag” in one Kampong Datuk. Daniya asked him (I think quite earnestly) “That is the flag of Keadilan, right?” (Page 68).
HAHAHA! That is Zan Azlee for you. A promising writer, broadcaster and journalist. You can read more of Zan here and know that he has produced several documentary feature films and have screened his independent documentaries in countries like Singapore, Bangkok, Berlin and New York, other than Malaysia.
Don’t play play ya…he is quite a distinguish fella, so go buy his book now! and Happy Reading 🙂