Around 50 Thai Air Force planes “bombed” the largely Muslim southern with paper birds on Sunday as a symbol of peace for the restive region where nearly 500 people have been killed since January.
Villagers stared into the sky awaiting the deluge of an estimated 100 million paper birds, one of which was signed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and carried the promise of a scholarship or a job for the finder.
Children ran around in excitement in one village as the plane appeared several thousand feet overhead at the time promised, and although the unloading of the birds was invisible to the naked eye, the paper birds descended.
Unfortunately the wind blew them beyond the village.
“I’m really disappointed,” said 11-year-old Fatima Sulhong. “All I saw was the plane flying over.”
Thaksin’s bird campaign, just weeks ahead of a general election, caught the imagination of the predominantly Buddhist country, even in Bangkok where sympathy for the Malay-speaking south is limited.
Everywhere people huddled in groups to fold birds — they were meant to be doves, a symbol of peace, but most turned out to look more like cranes — after Thaksin called on all 63 million Thais to make one.
In the end, estimates of up to 120 million accompanied five Hercules C-130 military transport planes crammed with bags of paper birds, made out of everything from bank notes to plastic, to southern airports for reloading onto smaller planes.
The gesture, done this weekend to mark the birthday of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has done little to mollify the Muslim leadership of the region, once an independent sultanate that still chafes under the rule of remote Bangkok.
“The paper birds are not a traditional symbol for us,” said
Abdullaham Abdulsamad of the Narathiwat Islamic Council. “It’s a different culture. Our people do not understand what the birds stand for.
Even so, hundreds of people in villages throughout the region who spend much of their lives trapped fearfully between aggressive soldiers and determined militants turned out to stare upwards.
“I am very impressed that the Thai people around the country would fold birds for us,” said Malorya Benarlawee, a 30-year-old Muslim in a region of rubber tappers and palm farmers where development lags much of the rest of the prospering country.
“At Friday prayers, we ask for peace.”
Possibly the biggest single airdrop of paper in history was
meant to sow peace, harmony and goodwill in the three southernmost provinces, where an insurgency began in January with a raid on an army camp in which 300 assault rifles were stolen.
The mood in the region, where a low-key separatist insurgency was fought in the 70s and 80s, soured yet further in October after 85 Muslims died after a demonstration.
Most died of suffocation or were crushed in army trucks in which they had been stacked “like bricks” and the paper bird drop came just days after police insisted they needed greater powers