Intersection: Weapons of Less destruction: Thailand’s Bulletproof Monks

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Thailand is at war with itself. The death toll runs deep into the hundreds, but it has been the violent slaying of Buddhist monks that has shocked the nation to its core.

Over the past two years, seven monks – some young, some elderly – have been murdered and many more injured in the country’s restive south, which borders Malaysia. Several of these attacks have involved Islamic fundamentalists riding on motorcycles and wielding swords, hacking their orange-robed victims to death or swiftly beheading them. “These were continuing attacks by a group of people that is trying to create conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims,” the now ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced.

While over 90 per cent of Thailand’s 63 million people are Buddhist, the majority of the remaining 10 per cent are Muslims residing in the southernmost states. Scared monks are fleeing their temples and escaping to the north. But some are determined to stay. In response to the attacks, the government introduced martial law in selected districts of the three affected provinces.

Offering monks protection, the Monkmobile has been welcomed by concerned ranks of the Thai government as well as the monks themselves. The concept is simple and the product inexpensive. A police motorcycle is coupled to a sidecar made from 20mm-thick polycarbonate. This is the monk’s impenetrable capsule, and inside he is clad in a bulletproof jacket. The floorplate is bomb resistant, rendering useless the coarse explosives fused by mosquito coils that many of the terrorists employ. The police rider is protected by front and rear armor plating and has an angry-looking M16 assault rifle at his disposal.

So far, the Monkmobile has performed well; no attacks have succeeded since it was introduced. In an industrial suburb of Bangkok, some 600 miles north of the danger zone, Intersection went to meet its inventor.

Major Songphol Eiamboonyraith left the Thai army to develop training weapons that fire rubber bullets and manufacture bulletproof vests for the police. These weapons, resembling everything from ordinary guns to ‘Q’-style walking sticks and microphones, have become highly valued in the country’s drugs war, where the Yaba amphetamine was fast becoming one of Thailand’s chief exports.

Alongside the manufacture of bulletproof materials and wound-not-kill weaponry, Major Songphol’s factory produces motorcycle and car parts for Honda and Suzuki. “That is our main business,” he says, “and so creating the Monkmobile was a natural progression.” Precipart Co, the Major’s engineering enterprise, is a non-descript affair: half whitewashed concrete buildings, half outdoor corrugated iron shacks. There are many staff at work, largely women, operating old-fashioned cutting and drilling machines. The major’s office is adorned with photographs of his early military inventions, including tanks and other deadly vehicles. These hang adjacent to a much attended-to Buddha personification. His reasoning behind the Monkmobile is straightforward: “I designed it for mankind,” he says. “My inspiration was the Popemobile.”

The Monkmobile costs the commissioning Thai government about $2,500 per vehicle. Monks are also kitted out with a full range of bulletproof paraphernalia including the vest, a fan and a food bowl – all in orange, of course. “It comes to about $400. It’s very cheap because it’s made from a special metal: carbon and titanium. This is much cheaper than Kevlar, and also more effective and durable,” explains Major Songphol. “Kevlar ages badly and can be pierced by a knife. This can’t. It’s twice as heavy as Kevlar, but the monks don’t need to wear it for long periods, only when they are in transit.”

Ever since the Sultanate of Pattani, a southern Islamic kingdom, was annexed by an expanding Buddhist monarchy over a century ago, some have called for a separate Islamic state. Revolts in the 1970s and early ‘80s were suppressed with brutality. Buddhists hold most of the top civil service and police posts in the area, which puts them at odds with the populace. Many say the problem is ethnic. The southern provinces are mainly Malay, not Thai. The assailants who decapitated a monk in May 2004 left a note saying: “If you continue to arrest innocent Muslims, we will kill innocent Buddhists.” But those who wounded two policemen two months later threatened to “kill innocent Thais” if “innocent Malays” were harmed. This demonstrates how confused the issues are. Others point to Thailand’s economic growth, which has left the southern provinces trailing.

Major Songphol is only too keen to reveal who he believes is behind the unrest. Himself a devout Buddhist, he announces: “The Muslims are trying to destroy everything in the south of Thailand. Business and tourism. They got the budget from outside. Malaysia doesn’t like Thailand or Indonesia. It wants our tourism. Malaysia has been strengthening its armed forces, purchasing submarines, MiG 29 jets and M72 tanks.” He opens a newspaper and points to pictures of Malaysia’s latest military acquisitions. Then his assistant leans over and says, in hushed tones, “you cannot trust the Muslim people. Very dangerous. They lie in wait. In the night time, they can kill you.”

With Precipart Co so opposed to Islam, what of the Muslims working under Major Songphol’s roof? “There are some. No more than ten people. We are watching them.” He adds, “they don’t respect the king or queen. That is a big problem.”

The seething paranoia at his company runs very deep, with the Major and many of his senior staff choosing to wear the vests they manufacture and drive in heavily protected cars. The Thai government appears just as scared, having cancelled plans to send Israeli-trained Thai soldiers to Iraq for fear of upsetting the local Muslim populace. Meanwhile, the Buddhist monks of southern Thailand caught in this racial and religious crossfire continue to ride in their polycarbonate cocoons.

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