Thai Cyclists Complete Cross-Country Unity Tour

Stephen Fein and Adinan Malee

2015-10-04
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151003_TH-CYCLING_620.jpg Participants in ‘Cycle for Thai Unity’ get a warm welcome in Betong, in Yala Province, after a 38-day ride across Thailand, Oct. 1, 2015.
BenarNews

A group of Thai cyclists got a warm welcome in Thailand’s southernmost provinces this week as they wrapped up a grueling 2,674-kilometer ride to raise money for a vocational school in the troubled Deep South region and promote national unity.

Thirty-four cyclists riding under the project name Pun Ruamjai Thai (‘Cycle for Thai Unity’), rolled into the southern border district of Betong, in Yala Province, on October 1, 38 days after departing Mae Sai District in northernmost Chiang Rai.

The ride had multiple objectives, including helping people across Thailand learn more the Deep South, a predominantly Muslim region where violence linked to a separatist insurgency has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the past decade.

“All too often people in other parts of the country only hear negative news about the situation in the three southernmost border provinces through the media,” Col. Chatchai Kuekit told BenarNews a few days earlier, in Ranode District of Songkhla Province.

Chatchai, a participant and organizer of the tour, is also a spokesman with the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4 in Yala, the Thai military command with responsibility for the Deep South.

“We want to get truth out about the real situation there, directly from one Thai to another -- without having to pass through the media,” he explained.

Carefully selected

To achieve this, people were picked to take part in the journey not for their cycling abilities, but for other skills such as public speaking. The group was also carefully selected on a geographical basis to ensure all regions of the country were equally represented.

After each day’s ride, tired participants took to the stage to talk to local people and share their experiences for a few hours before bivouacking, typically in an army base or other government installation.

Riders Col Chatchai Keukit (purple) and Mahamazulkiflee Sni (yellow) are pictured at the Burapachan Arts and Cultural Center in Ranode, Songkhla. [BenarNews]
Riders Col Chatchai Keukit (purple) and Mahamazulkiflee Sni (yellow) are pictured at the Burapachan Arts and Cultural Center in Ranode, Songkhla. [BenarNews]

Riders Col Chatchai Keukit (purple) and Mahamazulkiflee Sni (yellow) are pictured at the Burapachan Arts and Cultural Center in Ranode, Songkhla. [BenarNews]

Mahamazulkiflee Sni, 21, a native of Bajoh District in Narathiwat, was one of four people on the ride who graduated from the royally-sponsored Pradabos Foundation vocational training program in Yala’s provincial capital district.

“The Pradabos Foundation was initially set up by HM The King 40 years ago in Samut Prakan province [outside Bangkok], but six years ago they opened a center in the southern border provinces to help young men like myself, who had limited access to formal education, gain vocational skills and find work,” he said.

The foundation offers 100,000-baht scholarships for qualified candidates, men aged from 18 to 25, to take part in a one-year training program in automobile, motorbike and agricultural equipment repair.

“After I learned about the project I was really motivated to take part, even though I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle,” Mahamazulkiflee said.

Fundraising associated with the ride was conducted by the Foundation and the final amount was not yet known, Chatchai told BenarNews.

Arduous

During their journey, the cyclists collected small soil samples from the flagpole area at each of the 27 schools they visited. These were used in the planting of nine royal rajapreuk trees at a school in Betong.

They also collected postcards at each stop to try and establish pen-pal relationships between Thais living in other parts of the country with their compatriots in the Deep South.

Six of the original 40 riders dropped out in Songkhla, including five in the city of Hat Yai, the gateway to the Thai Deep South.

“We began to feel under a lot of stress after reaching the 2,000 kilometer mark; they were getting much more strict with us,” said north Thailand representative Suni Chaiyakun, who operates an independent tour guide business in Wianpapao District of Chiang Rai.

Chatchai confirmed by telephone that only riders who “adhered with the rules” made it all the way to the final destination, the border checkpoint with Malaysia outside Betong Town.

The remaining 34 rolled on schedule into remote Betong Town, where they were greeted by scores of flag-waving Thais, both Muslim and Buddhist.

The final leg of the journey was also the most arduous, as the ride from Yala Town to Betong is hundreds of miles of curving, hilly roadsides punctuated by heavily fortified road checkpoints in district like Bannang Sata, which had the highest incidence of insurgency-related incidents in 2014.

Uman Jehsoo, a native of Betong who took part in the ride, told BenarNews after the finish, “I am proud to have been chosen to represent the people of Betong and the entire Deep South region in this activity to support the work of the Pradabos Foundation here in the southern border provinces.

Throughout the entire 2,674-kilometer journey we enjoyed an experience of friendship, caring and great support, as shown by all the cards and letters collected by the organizers along the way,” he said.

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