Friday, January 22, 2010

The problems of ethnic minorities in Thailand and Malaysia are a result of bureaucratic ignorance

Issues of identity that governments can't understand

They might not realise it, but Thailand and Malaysia have a lot in common when it comes to nation-state building. Both have adopted a deeply ethnocentric attitude and don't seem to realise how this has become problematic.

And at this juncture in their development, both countries are choking on it. Neither has shown a willingness to address the root of the issue and instead continue to dish out the usual wishful-thinking rhetoric about how all of us should co-exist peacefully and that the state is not going to tolerate any sort of violence.

But if the Thai and Malaysian governments and bureaucracies take a good look at themselves, perhaps they will come to the realisation that they are the problem, and the problem stems from the requirements they place on citizens in their attempt to construct a nation.

For Malaysia, closely associating the Malay identity with Islam has helped certain stakeholders, such as the ruling Umno Party, which bills itself as the party of the Malays. But as the recent spate of religious violence has shown, this foundation rests on shaky ground.

While the Malaysian government has institutionalised the link between Malay nationality and Islam, Thailand makes it harder for non-Buddhists to identify themselves as being "fully Thai". State ceremonies and functions here are always associated with Buddhism or Brahminism, but never other religions.

Since January 8, Malaysia has been rocked by a series of firebomb attacks against nearly a dozen churches and one Sikh temple. The attacks come amid a dispute over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians. Yesterday, vandals tried to torch a Muslim prayer room, perhaps in response to the earlier attacks. The tension began after a court ruled on December 31 that non-Muslims were entitled to use the word "Allah" as a translation for "God" in the Malay language.

The dispute centres on a court ruling that favoured the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, which argued that it had the right to use the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition because the word predates Islam and is commonly used by Christians in other predominantly Muslim countries such as Egypt, Indonesia and Syria.

Many ethnic Malay Muslims in Malaysia believe the word should be exclusive to them because, in their country's context, Islam is inseparable from Malay ethnicity. If you are Malay, you are a Muslim.

Likewise, Thailand's state apparatus permits little room for the Patani Malays in the deep South to feel part of the Thai nation. The only common ground is citizenship, which is not enough because the state has made "Thai" such a loaded word. Besides dressing a certain way or embracing certain ideas and values, such as kwam pen Thai, or "Thainess", the Thai identity comes with a historical narrative in which the heroes and heroines are spelled out to them.

And in a region such as Patani - the Malay historical homeland that once was an important commercial, cultural and religious centre until annexation reduced it to a mere province of Thailand - kwam pen Thai has a tendency to rub locals up the wrong way. And the armed insurgency has its roots in this discontent.

But this is not rocket science. Surely Thailand and Malaysia know that their "racist" policies have to give way to something that allows "others" to be part of the nation.

In spite of the insurgency - which seems to have no end in sight - there is nothing to suggest that the Malays of Patani want to separate from the Thai state.
General election turnout in the deep South remains the highest in the country compared to other regions. Even in football matches, Malay Muslims cheer on the Thai national team with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the country's people, who may call themselves Thai but in actuality may be descendants of Chinese, Lao, Mon, Khmer, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. And let's not forget the stateless hilltribes who become Thai only on the postcards we sell to foreign visitors.

Confine them to the hills so we have something to show the tourists, seems to be the bureaucracy's stance. Unfortunately, the state doesn't understand that zoos are for animals, not humans. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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