Monday, November 16, 2009

Missing the Nuance in South Thailand

PATTANI - Since the dramatic upsurge of violence in the predominantly Muslim provinces of southern Thailand in 2004, many have simplified portrayals of the ethnic Malay Muslim population. That's led to widespread misconceptions about the spiraling conflict, including that nearly all of the minority group harbor Patani [1] Malay Muslim nationalist sentiment and resentment towards the Thai state.

Whether the international mass media, counter-insurgency experts, human-rights activists, or even accomplished academics, it has become commonplace to assert that Malay Muslims resent the Thai state for its culturally insensitive assimilation and heavy-handed security policies that over the years have undermined their identity and aspirations.

Although these portrayals hold true for many Malay Muslims, they also overlook the affective connection that many in the region have for Thailand, the dearth of passion for the grand narrative of a Patani Malay Muslim nationalist struggle versus the Bangkok-centric Thai state, and widespread animosity towards the insurgents, who have played a prominent role in transforming the region into a war zone.

Patani Malay Muslim separatist movements have long mobilized ethno-religious nationalist sentiment by emphasizing the extensive history of discrimination against and repression of Malay Muslims since the Patani sultanate's loss to Siam, present day Thailand, in 1785, and formal annexation in 1909. Despite this, over the past decade, several researchers have shown that Malay Muslims are not a unified mass that resent the Thai state and aspire for autonomy or some form of special administration.

A few anthropologists have found both rural and urban Malay Muslims who have shown no interest in the historical narrative of Siam's colonization of the Patani sultanate, expressed a fondness for being citizens of Thailand, shared no cultural bond with other ethnic Malays in northern Malaysia, and believed Malay Muslim separatists - who claim to represent the greater interests of this ethno-religious minority - to be a threat to their security.

After spending two-and-a-half years in Pattani town, which has given this writer a perspective with an urban bias, my encounters with Malay Muslims have also confirmed that the "Thai-ification" of this region is not always met with animosity. Many Malay Muslims not only seem to straddle Thai, Malay, and Muslim identities, but do so without resentment towards the Thai state for its centralization policies that have indeed marginalized Patani Malay Muslim identity, most notably through educational and political institutions.

Scholars have asserted for decades that Malay Muslims view Thai government schools, which require the compulsory learning of official Thai and have historically offered no Islamic education, as an assault on Malay language and Malay Muslim culture. With the expansion of the private Islamic schools in recent decades, Malay Muslim parents have preferred to send their children to these increasingly popular educational institutions, which approximately 75% of Malay Muslims in secondary school now attend. Although urban parents with limited education have emphasized to me that they send their children to these schools because they provide both an Islamic and secular education, no one has ever mentioned any animosity towards Thai government institutions for marginalizing Malay identity.

Mixed grievances

As for Malay Muslim concerns for acquiring some kind of special administrative zone for the region, at some coffee and tea shops (and, of course, at seminars and conferences) one often may hear Malay Muslims rail against the government for not allowing Malay Muslims to have more authority over their own affairs.

Several recent university graduates from the Prince of Songkla University, Pattani campus, have even commented that they dream of seeing the region become autonomous from Thailand, and jokingly refer to this university as "Patani State University". Some of these same individuals as well as others are also pushing to see the expansion of sharia law - which is strongly opposed by some sectors of the Malay Muslim population.

At a tea shop I regularly visit, for instance, almost every Malay Muslim ardently opposes this law, which would require a stricter observation of Islam. Moreover, none of these people - who are not university-educated - has mentioned any concern for a special administrative organization that addresses Malay Muslims' unique identity.

Though these same Malay-speaking Muslims frequently discuss their grievances towards the Thai government, they are almost always economic ones. In fact, according to survey research by the Prince of Songkla University's Center for the Study of Conflict and Cultural Diversity (CSCC), socio-economic dilemmas such as widespread unemployment and rampant drug abuse significantly trump the "fire in the south" in terms of the every day concerns of most people in the region.

To be sure, for many Malay Muslims, especially those well-educated, political issues that center on Patani Malay Muslim identity and the Thais state's refusal to decentralize political power are major concerns. Many of these people fear that if left unchecked, the processes of Thailand's nation-state building will only further erode the use of the local Malay language, which is widely spoken but has no written form. CSCC survey research indicates that in approximately 30% of Malay Muslim homes, local Malay is now mixed with Thailand's official language, central Thai.

One young Malay Muslim English teacher even revealed admiration for separatist groups' efforts to protect and salvage the local Malay language. Many others resent that Thai Buddhists and even uneducated Malay Muslims refer to the local Malay language, or Patani Malay, as pasa Islam" or pasa Yawi when speaking Thai.

And for those Malay Muslims who have spent time in the broader Islamic world, other Muslims usually call them "Patani Muslims", thereby heightening their consciousness of being a Patani Muslim. However, it seems that for some Malay Muslims, both educated and undereducated, and especially women, the meaning of "Patani" in the local Malay only refers to Pattani province, not a Patani Malay Muslim nation.

To varying degrees, some of the people who have revealed Patani Malay Muslim nationalist leanings also take exception to the imposition of Thailand's national identity, which centers on the quintessential symbol of the monarchy. While some of these same people have stated that they have respect for the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej, many others - from maids, security guards, teachers, businessmen, school owners, village headmen, construction workers to unemployed drug abusers - have claimed a strong affection for the king.

Presumptuous observers

Portrayals of Malay Muslims that fail to dovetail with the conventional notions, however, are not always readily accepted in intellectual circles. Several Western journalists and academics have played down anthropological observations apparently because they do not fit with their idealist and often simplistic assumptions about an aggrieved minority.

In the highly charged context of "separatist" insurgents fighting to gain political autonomy and to protect and salvage Patani Malay Muslim identity, many intellectuals cannot manage to perceive Malay Muslims at worst as anything less than innocent victims of a Thai state that has treated them as second-class citizens and disregarded their grievances, or at best as noble resistors to the state.

To a large degree, these presumptions of Malay Muslims are acquired through the literature on the conflict and violence, which is almost always written by people who have little, if any, exposure to ordinary Malay Muslims and pay little attention to research on the region that falls outside of these two dominant themes.

For instance, counter-insurgency expert, Peter Chalk, from the RAND Corporation, writes that the current violence in the region reflects "a steely determination on the part of the [my emphasis] local Malay-Muslim population to maintain their unique way of life" [2]. Similarly, Joseph Liow, from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, states "the struggle of the [my emphasis] Malay-Muslims of southern Thailand has always been a mass movement based upon the hope of a mass uprising among the Malay-Muslims of southern Thailand" [3]. A recent article in the New York Times epitomized this romanticized vision of group boundedness by reporting that Muslim villagers are angry at the army for detaining their "brethren" [4].

These preconceived notions of a bounded ethnic minority group that universally harbors bitterness towards the Thai nation-state and are together bent on ethnic preservation and acquiring some form of political autonomy are also transmitted and greatly amplified by the role of prominent Malay Muslim intellectuals - including former National Reconciliation Commission members - and other Malay Muslim nationalist activists.

As de facto spokespeople for the Patani Malay Muslim nation, they tend to overstate the nationalist cares and concerns of ordinary Malay Muslims, frequently speaking about group pride in the ancient Kingdom of Patani, the Malay Muslims unique way of life, and the need for the Thai government to give greater recognition to this identity by, for instance, allowing some form of autonomy.

But by emphasizing to the media, academics, human-rights activists, policy-makers and others that Malay Muslims have a shared sense of grievances resulting from the Thai state's strong-fisted security policies and long-term nation-state building, these cultural preservationists become a critical - non-violent - resource in the Patani Malay Muslim nationalist struggle. Unfortunately, most writers and observers of the south share an overly simplified view of the assumed preoccupations of ordinary Malay Muslims, and thus fall prey to elite Patani Malay Muslim advocates' claims. The complete omission of the role of these intellectuals in the extant literature on southern Thailand that touches on the theme of nationalism reveals the blindness of journalists and scholars to the social disjuncture between these cultural elites - who live both for and off ethnicity - and the scores of Malay Muslims who are unmoved by, or unaware of, their claims.

Loaded agendas

Journalists and scholars have not been the only ones who have slipped into analyses which exaggerate or romanticize Malay Muslims' dispositions towards the idea of a Patani Malay Muslim nation-state and anti-Thai state sentiment. With Thailand's security forces engaging in human-rights abuses against Malay Muslims, human-rights activists have played an increasingly prominent role in demonstrating Malay Muslim resentment toward state-supported security forces.

While documenting violence perpetrated by individuals or groups supported by the Thai state is absolutely necessary, human-rights activists' strong focus on victims of state violence leads to portrayals that systematically downplay the lack of antipathy some Malay Muslims have for the Thai state. By claiming that the Malay Muslim minority group is averse to the presence of troops, however, these activists have a strong argument to support their unwavering commitment to change state policy.

As human-rights activists have rightly highlighted, hostility toward the use of state force is widespread. According to the CSCC, this resentment seems quite intense for some 30% of the Muslim population. Yet this same research center has also found attitudes of indifference or even support for troops among some Malay Muslims - a phenomenon in Malay Muslim society that human-rights activists routinely deny or overlook.

I once asked a human-rights researcher about Malay Muslims' opinions towards Malay Muslims working with the largest state-supported defense group, the village defense volunteers, or chor ror bor. The researcher responded simply: "They [Malay Muslim villagers] hate them." In stark contrast, I have been told by some 30 or so Malay Muslims, including several middle-class nationalists, from various villages in Pattani and Yala provinces, that as long as Muslim chor ror bor do not overstep their boundaries (that is, engage in human-rights abuses), they have no qualms with their state security force affiliation.

Even though many Malay Muslims are widely involved with state-supported anti-insurgency groups, human-rights activists' impulse to represent Malay Muslims as opposing state forces en bloc is clearly shown in their tendency to ignore or sanitize this phenomenon.

The International Crisis Group's report on state-supported paramilitary groups fails to note that approximately 80% of the chor ror bor - which now has more than 51,000 members in the region - is Muslim in membership. Meanwhile, Non-Violence International only mentions near the very end of its recent report on the proliferation of guns in the region that the chor ror bor are mainly recruited from Malay Muslim villages.

By systematically excluding or concealing this important information, these activists add support to their core argument that the Thai state's heavy-handed policies of arming primarily Thai Buddhists is producing more violence, most especially against innocent Malay Muslims, and further alienating the Malay Muslim minority.

The presumptions of foreign journalists and academics about the boundedness of Malay Muslims may lead to assumptions that Malay Muslim chor ror bor and others who work for the Thai state deep down resent this work, not only because of the dangers of being targeted by insurgents, but for selling out to the Thai state. Romanticized notions of "resistance" may lead many intellectuals to perceive this work as a regretful, but necessary, strategy of individuals from an underprivileged minority who are merely trying to survive in an unequal society.

Such assumptions, however, fly in the face of the more complicated reality where, at the village level, Muslim leaders and others often oppose the incursions of insurgents. That's been highlighted in the article "Landscapes of fear, Horizons of Trust", written by CSCC's Senior Research Fellow Marc Askew for the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in February this year.

Moreover, the apparent bifurcation of the socio-political world implied by some accounts - between Thai Buddhist state versus Muslim Malay communal solidarity - does not seem particularly relevant to the Muslim chor ror bor I have encountered. For the chor ror bor I know, Thailand is their homeland, and insurgents who call for ethnic and religious unity in no way represent their political or cultural preferences, which are contingent on a number of factors beyond ethnicity and religion.

The lack of consciousness for Patani Malay Muslim nationalist unity was on clear display following the unresolved June 8 assault on a mosque that left 11 Malay Muslims dead in Cho Airong district of Narathiwat province. As the media and Patani Malay Muslim nationalist activists either blamed state forces for this tragic event or denounced Thai officials' knee-jerk reaction of instantly blaming insurgents, it was striking that the immediate reaction from one Malay Muslim chor ror bor member was that it was the work of insurgents and that "real Muslims" would not do this.
When I told his friend that it was being widely reported by the media that local Malay Muslims are extremely incensed at the Thai state for this, he responded "Yes, the people in that area are, but we aren't."


1. The term "Patani" is used to refer to Malay Muslims who identify themselves as belonging to a Patani nation. "Malay Muslims" is used in reference to all of the Malay-speaking Muslims from Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as four districts in Songkhla province. The term "Patani Malay Muslim" is not used for all Malay-speaking Muslims because for some the term refers only to Pattani province, not a Patani nation.

2. Chalk, Peter. 2008. The Malay-Muslim Insurgency in SouthernThailand:Understanding the Conflict's Evolving Dynamic. RAND Counterinsurgency Study, Paper 5, published by RAND National Defense Research Institute.

3. Liow, Joseph Chinyong. 2006. International Jihad and Muslim Radicalism in Thailand? Toward and Alternative Interpretation, Asia Policy, Number 2, July 2006, pp89-108.

4. Fuller, Thomas. August 31, 2009. Muslim Insurgents Confound Military in Thailand, New York Times, August 31, 2009.

Asia Times By Jason Johnson
Jason Johnson is a researcher and PhD student in the political science department at Northern Illinois University. He is currently based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached at

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