Thailand's peaceful southernmost district is open for business and reaching out to its neighbours.With the ASEAN Economic Community slated for launch in 2015, people in Thailand's southernmost district, Betong, hope to reap the benefits. The local government is taking steps to build ties with neighbours and attract tourists.
This month, locals anticipate crowds of visitors as the district holds its largest-ever Vegetarian Festival – a signature cultural event whose roots go back centuries. It will be held from October 13th to 24th.
The district hopes the festival will inject fresh momentum into an economy that has been held back by insurgency in the Deep South, despite the relative lack of extremist activity in Betong.
Speaking at a press conference held to announce the event, Adinan Pakbara, deputy secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), said the district has been comparatively free of violence but is nevertheless bearing the economic brunt.
"The current unrest in the three southernmost border provinces that flared up in 2004 has had very little direct impact on Betong or its economy and investment opportunities, but has nevertheless caused growth here to stagnate," he said.
Tourism could help turn that around, with Betong continuing to be a magnet for ethnic Malays and Chinese from Malaysia and even Singapore.
A window into an ancient world
Those arriving for the Vegetarian Festival will receive a glimpse into a world of unique customs and ancient rituals – including mah song spirit mediums, who pierce their cheeks with a variety of objects and perform feats such as walking across fire or climbing a ladder made treacherous with blades.
Such festivals, rooted in a traditional period of Warrior God worship by the island's large ethnic Chinese population, originated in 1825 in Phuket. Held in the ninth month of the lunar calendar, it features colourful processions. Participants wear white and adhere to a strict vegan diet in order to foster good health and good luck.
Phuket still hosts the largest of the festivals, though the tradition has spread to other towns across in southern Thailand. They are a particularly popular attraction for tourists from the People's Republic of China, who saw their own ancient customs brought to an end during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
In addition to tourist events, districts on either side of the Thai-Malaysia border have been teaming up in the arenas of education and sports to prepare for a future of tighter ASEAN co-operation.
Educators from Betong and ten districts in neighbouring Perak State of Malaysia signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in September, agreeing to work together to prepare students for the advent of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.
Under the wide-ranging MoU, the two sides agreed to co-operate in educational development, a textbook-management system using online "cloud-computing" technology and organising a future academic seminar to prepare for the imminent establishment of the AEC.
The AEC measures are expected to transform education in the region by allowing a free flow of certified educators across national borders of all ten ASEAN member states.
Leading the Thai delegation was Narin Saro, Director of Yala Primary Education Service Area Office 3, which has jurisdiction over Betong. At the signing ceremony, Narin told Khabar, "We signed the MoU at this time to show our commitment to forge a closer relationship, with increased understanding and co-operation".
Betong also hosted the 29th annual Thai-Malay Border Games in late September, with competitors coming from Hulu district, Perak and Baling district, Kedah.
The games included a 7km "mini-marathon", as well as soccer, badminton tournaments for a variety of different age groups and the historic Thai sport sepak takraw, which incorporates elements of football, volleyball martial arts and gymnastics.