Friday, September 17, 2010

Let Malay-Muslims protect their language

The Thailand Research Fund (TRF) is planning to take a group of journalists from Bangkok to the Malay-speaking region in Thailand's three southernmost border provinces to show them, among other things, a language project the institution thinks will be a big success.

Together with Mahidol University and other academic institutes, TRF is pushing through this project for primary students in the deep South which combines the use of the locally spoken Malay language, Javi (written in Arabic script), with the Thai alphabet.

Students in this restive region have always been at the bottom of the pile in terms of aptitude test results, and this so-called "mother tongue project" is supposed to help change that. The vast majority of the students in the region are of Malay ethnicity and speak Javi at home until they enter public school, where they are not only exposed to the Thai language on a daily basis but have to speak it in the central dialect.

But is the language barrier the real problem, or has Thailand never given the idea of bilingual education much consideration? Wouldn't it make more sense to teach students in the language they best understand?

In reality, bilingual education - Thai with English - has been employed in public schools for some time. English is the lingua franca all over the world, and that is fair enough. But Malay, in its various dialects, is spoken by nearly 300 million people in Southeast Asia, which is more than half the population of Asean.
But TRF's mother tongue project is treating the Malay language as if the students are preparing for a singing contest at a karaoke bar.

For the sake of good and useful education, we should push for both Javi and Rumi - Malay written in the Roman alphabet, as seen in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore.

If Thai educators take the time to do more thorough research, they will find that for centuries a great deal of local wisdom and knowledge has been written in Javi. This is the kind of knowledge that we shouldn't just throw away but should try to understand and appreciate, if not for application purposes, then for cultural and historical reasons. Let's not forget that Thailand's deep South - or Patani - was once the cradle of Islamic civilisation and education in Southeast Asia. Muslims from all over Southeast Asia came here to study with the Ulema of Patani.

Unfortunately, the post-colonial reality has reduced this once glorious region to a footnote in the context of Thailand's nation-state. But when the Malays voice their objection to certain initiatives that chip away at their cultural heritage and identity, we accuse them of being ungrateful citizens.

Sad but true, Thailand has done the same thing with other regions in the country. Take the Dhama script in the northeastern region of Isaan, for example. Much was written about herbal medicine and traditional healing in this local script. Yet, the Thai state permitted the language and knowledge to die out. The same can be said about the Lanna language and literature of Chiang Mai.

In short, the Thai language has become dominant and cannot accommodate these local dialects. We are moving in the direction of eliminating minority languages. This might bring indigenous peoples closer to Thailand and the state's scheme of things, but there is a price for this. Every time the state destroys a part of local cultural identity, it destroys a part of humanity. Must we "Thai-nise" everything?
The people of Patani are proud of their Javi language and their place in the Malay-speaking world. They are saddened to see the rest of the Malay-speaking community moving to the Rumi system of transliteration. But they do understand that the move toward the Rumi system is necessary in commercial and political terms.

From their perspective, the Thai language, identity and culture are foreign influences and should be treated with caution. This is understandable given the historical mistrust between the two sides since Siam's annexation of the region over a century ago. And we wonder why a new generation of Malay-Muslim separatists has resurfaced after a decade of relative quiet.

Thailand's educators and elite need to be more open-minded if they want to help the Malays in the deep South. If they are willing to listen, they might just learn that the heart of the issue here is not about practicality but about dignity. In this case, the dignity of an extremely traditional society amid the relentless onslaught of modernity and pressure from the state to conform. The people in the South are simply trying to keep what is rightfully and uniquely theirs.

Perhaps Thailand's elitist educators will learn that good intention is not necessarily good policy.

Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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