Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fear block sharing of Thai deep South treasures

Amid the bloodshed and violence in the southern border provinces is a wealth of cultural treasures waiting to be understood by outsiders who have come to know the Malay-speaking region through television footage of daily occurrences that could never encapsulate the essence of this historically and culturally rich region.

From Dike Hulu to puppet theatre, from Rong-ngeang performed on stage to the everyday life of the village people, the culture of the deep South - the historical homeland of the Malay people of Patani - has so much to offer.

Beside its culture, what makes this region stand out from the rest of the country is the fact that the Malay language - Patani dialect, of course - is still widely used in spite of decades of the relentless policy of assimilation that many locals in this historically contested region are uncomfortable with.

While the local Malays are very much a part of Thailand, they also see themselves as part of the greater Malay-speaking world. The Patani dialect is employed as well as the use of Jawee - Malay written in Arabic text - which is employed in their teaching of Islam. A great deal of texts and scriptures passed down from generation to generation was done so through the Jawee script.

From local history to theology, as well local culture or traditional healing and medicine, Jawee was the chosen language through which this knowledge was passed down.
Of course, modernity has offered the local people alternatives in various areas, such as in the health-related field. But one can't overlook the contribution that local knowledge and wisdom, as displayed in the pages of these old texts, locally known as ketab, have made on the local culture when one takes into consideration the absence of modern technology and laboratories.

Think of the time invested in finding a cure for a certain illness as a healer or traditional medicine man goes from plant to plant, tree to tree. Their humanity is displayed on the pages of these ketab through the language of Jawee. There is no Google search and cut-and-paste here. Letter by letter, word by word, this knowledge is scribbled down in texts that, sad to say, are slowly losing their relevance because of modernity.

The old-school healers and linguists were united by faith. It doesn't mean that knowledge and its usage were exclusively for Muslims, however. It just means that when these men - healers, teachers, linguists and the like - carry out their work, Islam is always at the heart of their craft. Grace from God is requested by a medicine man as he carries out his craft. Humility, an important virtue in Islam, must be upheld and successes are attributed to the Creator.

But this comprehensive and holistic approach does not exist in modern medicine, unfortunately. Doctors may have a code of ethics but faith and moral order don't seem to have any room in modern medicine. It has become a private matter between the patient and his Creator, while the physicians who used to "facilitate" such arrangements are no longer in the picture.

Today, a person can be cured of one thing by modern medicine but if his mind is not in tune with his health, other problems can surface. Mind and matter are inseparable in one's life.

Islam also provides a platform for other cultural assets such as language. Malay (Patani dialect) is widely spoken and Jawee (standard Malay written in Arabic text) continues to be used by the local private Islamic schools, as well as the traditional madrasah, locally known as pondok, or ponoh in the Patani dialect. The deep South is one of the few remaining communities in the Malay-speaking world where Jawee is still being used. Others have gone to Rumi, a legacy of the colonial past.
The local Jawee is a cultural treasure. But for many policymakers, Jawee is an obstacle to modernity, as well as nation-state building. This explains why few outside the region support the idea of preserving these cultural assets.

The state pays lip service to the preservation of Jawee as the authorities look for ways to win the hearts and minds of local residents. But few debate seriously about the need to preserve it in a systematic and academic manner.

The bottom line here is that the state never really learned to appreciate the ponoh and the private Islamic schools as institutions, much less the contributions of the Patani Malays. They failed to see how these institutions helped form the basis for the Patani Malay society. Instead, the lens through which the authorities see these institutions is national security.

The pondok and the use of Jawee have been with the Malays of Patani for centuries and Islam was the platform that brought these two items together. For the Muslims in the deep South, Jawee and Islam are inseparable.

Thailand has a policy of promoting education and gives importance to educating its people. But these initiatives will not be appreciated if it doesn't take into consideration the importance of the cultural assets of the local people.
The problem with the state's approach is that their attitude is very centralised, or state-centric, and gives little room for input from the local communities themselves.

Policymakers and academics often think they know what's best for the Malay community and few take the time to really understand them or else they would know that Islam, Jawee and Malayness are inseparable.

Locals take pride in small things that are often overlooked by outsiders. Besides the classrooms of the Islamic schools, there is a strong sense of ownership and empowerment when they see the signposts of their villages, schools and mosques written in Jawee.

Education is important and the idea of promoting it should be open up to other stakeholders. More could be done so it could reflect the needs and desires of the local community whether Malay, Lao, Khmer, Mon or Chinese. The state should not feel threatened by the use of Jawee. Instead, they should see Jawee as a national treasure of Thailand.

By Solahuddin Samaun graduate from the Nasional Malaysia University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia - UKM) with an MA in Malay language studies. He is currently a researcher in language and culture. The Nation, Bangkok

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