Friday, October 22, 2010

Never mind religion, autonomy is the issue in Thailand’s deep South

Yacob Raimanee has been the imam of the provincial mosque for more than a decade. Being the spiritual leader of the Pattani Central Mosque is a prestigious position and anyone who occupies it can expect to find himself rubbing shoulders with local and national leaders.

Just a week ago there was an attempt on Yacob's life. Several shots were fired at him from a few metres away but the bullets nipped his cap as he bent down to unlock his front door.

As with other violent incidents, security officials were quick to blame the attack on a new generation of Muslim insurgents bent on carving out a separate homeland for Malays in the southernmost provinces. To date the insurgency has left more than 4,200 dead, mostly ordinary people and government officials.

When a senior figure such as Imam Yacob is targeted, it is no surprise that more eyebrows are raised than usual. Security officials and the political elite in Bangkok are concerned for the well-being of their man in the deep South but are also wondering if the conflict in this highly contested region has reached a new threshold.

But Yacob is much more than a senior public figure. He is seen as a man of substance, a person who the Thai social and political elite can turn to in times of trouble. And the relations between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state have never been anything but troubled.

For as long as anyone can remember, Yacob has been the go-to man for the Thai state. Be it foreign dignitaries or Muslim journalists from Arab countries, Imam Yacob will defend the legitimacy of the Thai state in the Malay historical homeland known as Patani. He often points out to foreign visitors that Muslims in Thailand have more freedom to practice Islam than the Muslims in their respective countries.

There is nothing wrong or incorrect in his claim of religious freedom in Thailand. But this is beside the point when one takes into consideration the historical tension between the Thai state and Patani. The dispute has more to do with Thailand's nation-state construct, which leaves little room for the Malays in the deep South.

Originating from Bangkok, Yacob is very much a Thai Muslim. Like many others he is living proof that Thai Muslims can climb to great heights on the Thai social ladder. And it is true, there could be no limit for a Muslim in Thailand, just as long as he/she doesn't question the legitimacy of the Thai state and the three pillars - nation, religion and monarchy - on which it was built.

That Yacob has also obtained a certain social standing among the Malay-majority community is also testimony that riding on the coattails of the Thai state has its rewards. It reflects, too, the dynamics and complexity within the Malay-speaking South, where historical memories are long.

Locals, for instance, still refer to certain families that sided with the invading Siamese during annexation a century ago as "traitors" and often point to how the state continues to reward these families with top bureaucratic positions.

The Thai state, on the other hand, tends to see things in black and white.

Individuals or institutions with strong Patani Malay nationalist views are seen as a threat to Thai nationhood, like the separatists. Such a narrow mindset discourages frank and open debate on sensitive issues such as identity - in this case Patani Malay - historical and cultural narratives, and how to reconcile these differences.

But it would be misleading to assume that the Malays of Patani are united and all singing from the same song sheet. Globalisation has taken its toll on Patani and the end result is a number of fault lines within the Malay-speaking community.

Divisions exist along the lines of religious affiliation (traditional Shafi'i jurisprudence, orthodox Wahabi, Tablighi Jamaat, or even Shi'ism). They also occur according to the extent of one's loyalty to the state - whether one embraces the Patani historical narrative or opts for the official state version.

Today, one can't really go anywhere without hearing about the tension between the orthodox and the traditionalists, who accounted for about 90 per cent of the local Muslim residents in the deep South. The orthodox tend to shun the Malay-ness of Patani and opt for a more puritanical interpretation of Islam, while traditionalists see their Malay identity as being inseparable from Islam.

Both camps often complain about more or less the same things - students' low test scores, lack of social mobility, lack of commitment from the state in formal education, inadequate representation in the bureaucracy, and so on. But beneath the usual criticism of the state, there is a sense of bitterness as the two sides compete over resources, scholarships and funding for their students, their schools and their associates.

One advantage the orthodox community has over the traditionalist Shafi'i is that the insurgents behind the ongoing violent separatist campaign are from the latter camp. However, this doesn't mean that all traditionalists are armed militants on a mission to secure a separate homeland for the Malays of Patani.

But as donor agencies and countries sit down and look at the proposals from Muslim organisations and foundations of this highly contested region, it is very likely that they will go for a safer bet.
The Nation, Bangkok

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