September 21, 2005

Militants, modernity threaten Thai rubber tradition

By Ed Cropley

BAN MUANG MANG, Thailand (Reuters) - Treading in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Tawin Suanchatree makes the pre-dawn rounds of her rubber grove in southern Thailand armed only with a headlamp and curved knife.

But in the darkness enveloping the wizened 55-year-old Buddhist stand a dozen soldiers, silently guarding those who, like Tawin, have become unwitting targets in a bloody insurgency by ethnic Malay separatists. Nearly 900 people have died in Thailand's three southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces in 20 months of violence directed mainly at symbols of the state, such as the police, government offices or schools.

However, the beheading of several rubber tappers by militants has dragged civilians into the conflict and cast a shadow over the future of a simple, century-old way of life already feeling the heat from modern times and technology.

Tawin has spent 40 years working the trees in the family plantation just north of Yala, a southern provincial capital. She has decided her son and daughter should choose other ways to make a living.

"They are worried about the situation. I think my son is going to become an electrician," she told Reuters as the eerie pre-dawn chant of Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery filtered through the trees.

Against the backdrop of unrest, Buddhists are increasingly the outsiders in a region where 80 percent of people are Muslim

ethnic Malays who do not speak Thai as their first language.

Besides relying on armed escorts for security, tappers are changing working hours to avoid the blackest hours of the night.

The result is a rapidly shrinking yield as tappers miss the middle of the cool night when the precious white sap flows fastest from the trees.

"Normally I would be going out at 2 o'clock in the morning, because rubber trees don't like the sun," said Chatchai Singmayo, 42, a rubber tapper all his working life. "But because of all the trouble, I'm scared and I only go out at 4."


With claims to be the first toehold of Islam in Southeast Asia, the jungle-clad southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were a fiercely proud and independent Muslim sultanate until formally annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago.

Dotted with simple white-washed mosques, the region had long been famed as a center of traditional Islamic learning in its many pondoks, or religious schools, run by ethnic Malay scholars.

But around the same time that it fell under the unwanted aegis of Bangkok, it was also introduced to what would become its second claim to fame -- rubber.

In 1896, a young Chinese farmer called Tan Chay Yan in what was then Malaya changed the face and fortune of Southeast Asia by planting its first rubber plantation, using seed stock taken by the British from Brazil 20 years earlier.

With world demand for the commodity far outstripping supply, plantations sprang up quickly all over the British-ruled country, and within five years had spread north into southern Thailand -- then called Siam.

Thailand overtook Indonesia and Malaysia as the world's top natural rubber producer in 1990, then increased output steadily to 3 million tonnes a year by 2003, according to figures from the London-based International Rubber Study Group (IRSG).


However, the onset of violence in January 2004 in the three southern provinces, which account for 20 percent of Thailand's output, has coincided with a halt in that rising trend.

The IRSG has trimmed its 2005 output forecasts to 2.9 million tonnes from 3 million due to a combination of drought and the unrest, which has also seen tappers staying at home on Fridays after death threats against those working on the Muslim holy day.

Chatchai, who makes around 300 baht a day, complains of tough times despite a recent rise in world natural rubber prices on the back of high crude oil prices, which have pushed up the cost of its petroleum-based synthetic equivalent.

"I make a lot less money than I used to," he said. "When my children finish their studies, I would like them to go and get a job in the town," he said.

Even without the unrest, a long-term decline of the industry is likely in Thailand, the IRSG says, as more and more Thais feel the benefits of a rapidly modernizing economy and start to swap the plantation for the air-conditioned office.

The process has already happened in Malaysia, where many rubber plantation jobs are held by migrant workers from deeply impoverished Myanmar and Laos.

"Even if the planting continues to increase in the coming years, there is no guarantee that there will be enough tappers, or incentives for tapping," said IRSG economist Prachaya Jumpasut.