Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Thai – Fai tai

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Thai, Turmoil


Fai tai

Relates to ‘southern fire’, insurgency

In some traditional belief systems, the four elements earth, water, air and fire are seen as basic constituents of nature. In the Thai version, these elements should be in equilibrium. Fire and heat, in particular, if ever out of balance, connote violence and unrest.  After years of civil war, the term ‘southern fire’ is typically used in the Thai press and other sources to refer to unrest in the Muslim-majority southern border areas. There is no ambiguity about the use of this term: it refers to the conflagration that has drained Thailand’s strengths in the deep south.  It plays into a certain understanding of southern Thais as “temperamental (jai ron: literally ‘hot hearted’) that gives extra depth to the expression.  In this context some have asked ‘The Southern Fire- who lit it?’ (Koylin Unwar and Suphalak Kanjanakhundee (2004). Fai Tai – Khray Jud.  Bangkok:  Indochina)

Beyond this term, analysis of security vocabulary in Thai needs to pay close attention to metaphorical uses of temperature expressions. In some Thai discourse, fire and heat metaphors seem to be portrayed as causes of terrorist actions themselves. The year round heat in southern Thailand is sometimes used, popularly, as an explanation for the violence. Also, antonyms, such as “shade and cool” (khwaam-rom-yen) are taken as objectives for the Thai military in efforts to calm the situation. In this way, thermal expressions become a code for representing security values and practical security objectives in Thai discourse.  Crudely, the government hopes to cultivate “coolness” in its efforts to put out the southern fire.

The metaphorical deployment of the term is brought to light in this extract from a famous Thai news magazine.  It argues that:

…นโยบายต่างประเทศของไทยเราเอง ต้องระมัดระวังมิให้ไปพัวพันกับอเมริกาในเรื่องก่อการร้ายมากนัก  ไม่เช่นนั้นจะส่งผลกระทบต่อไฟใต้ และจะกลายเป็นการชักศึกก่อการร้ายระดับโลกมาเข้าบ้านอีกด้วย  อเมริกานั้นอันตราย มิใช้มหามิตรแต่อย่างใด…(Matichon Weekly, 11-17/11/05:  98)

…The government must be careful that Thailand’s foreign policy does not become intertwined with America on the issue of terrorism. Otherwise there will be a [negative] effect upon the fire (unrest) in the south. America is a danger, not a great friend at all…

Such ‘fire’ naturally leads away from rational analysis, precisely because it interacts with so many other social, political and economic issues. The ‘fire’ metaphor seems to carry the implication that the problems of Thailand’s south could never be solved. In the words of one news magazine:

ไฟใต้ยุคนี้ ไม่ว่าทหารในกองทัพ หรือทหารเก่าก็ยังต้องนั่งกุมขมับ เพราะโจรใต้ยุคนี้ไม่ได้เหมือนเมื่อ ๓๐ ปีก่อนอีกแล้ว … ถ้าการดับไฟใต้ในอดีตสำเร็จ ราบคาบ สิ้นซาก แล้วทำไมไฟใต้จึงคุโชนขึ้นมาอีกครั้ง เพราะรากเชื้อยังคงมีอยู่  ไม่ได้มีการถอนรากถอนโคน…(Siamrath Weekly, 11-17/11/05: 5)

…the southern fire of this era, which both current and former soldiers have to worry about because southern bandits in this era are not like those of thirty years earlier… The question that has arisen is that if the fire in the south was successfully suppressed in the past, then why has the fire sparked up again. The answer is that the fuel remains. The roots and kindling were never removed…


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