Wed, May 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Dagger-makers vie to craft a king's blade

The `kris' is a small, hand-crafted dagger with a wavy blade that is deeply rooted in the Malay culture of Thailand's deep south. Next month the finest one of those made by some 20 artisans will be presented to Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej to celebrate his 60 years in power


One might question the appropriateness of presenting a dagger to Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to mark his 60th year on the throne next month.

The gesture sounds doubly suspect when the weapon is coming from villages in Thailand's troubled deep south, where more than 1,200 people have died in government crackdowns, revenge killings, explosions and beheadings since January 2004.

But in Balukaluwa village in Raman district of Yala Province the special gift of a hand-crafted kris makes perfect cultural sense.

"Traditionally, the kris was the personal weapon of the sultan. It should only be worn by someone with great power," said Sakon Yotmannee, a Raman district officer who will preside over a competition planned for Sunday.

At least 20 artisans from Balukaluwa and other southern towns will enter the contest to choose the region's first kris fit for a king.

The winning weapon will be presented to King Bhumibol to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ascension to the throne on June 9, 1946.

The kris is a small dagger with a wavy blade whose cultural roots are in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the weapon has long been a symbol of virility and strength.

The dagger, and the fairly sophisticated metallurgy technology that goes in to making it, might have completely died out in Thailand's deep south if not for the royal family.

"The art of kris making disappeared in Thailand for a generation," said Teepalee Atabu, one of the new generation of kris makers in Raman district.

Teepalee secretly studied kris-making with his "guru," Tuan Bukut Long Salee, one of the last Raman kris artisans who died two years ago.

Teepalee was teaching kris-making as part of a vocational training course held at the Chang Hai Buddhist temple in nearby Narathiwat in 1999, when the famed place of worship was visited by Thai Queen Sirikit.

"When she visited the temple and saw villagers studying kris-making, she encouraged the government officials to help us preserve the art as an important handicraft," Teepalee recalled.

Since that royal visit, nobody has prevented southern villagers from kris-making, even though the production remains illegal under Thai law.

The Raman district was formerly famed for its kris artisans, who sold their products in Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala -- Thailand's three, majority Muslim, southernmost provinces -- but also across the border in Malaysia.

Kris-making was banned in the area during World War II, under the iron-fisted rule of Thailand's military dictator Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkhram.

Plaek, an ultra-nationalist, outlawed all forms of weapon-making in the troubled southern provinces while also forcing residents to stop wearing Malay sarongs and speaking the Yawi (Malaysian) language in an effort to impose Thai culture on the area.

The deep south, once an independent Islamic sultanate, was first conquered by Bangkok in 1786, but only came under direct rule of the Thai bureaucracy in 1902.

A separatist struggle has simmered in the area for decades, fueled by the local population's sense of religious and cultural alienation from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state that remains today.

Kris-making, although more an offspring of Brahmanism than Islam, remains an essential aspect of the deep south's Malay identity.

Ironically, kris-making technology is also threatened in Malaysia and Indonesia, which may prove good news for the new kris artisans of Raman district.

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