by Mark Woodward and Mariani Yahya*
Thai-Buddhist colonialism? That is a strange concept, but it is reality as far as the Malay-Muslims of the “Deep South” of Thailand are concerned.
Edward Said noted that the representation of political- and military-subject people as less than fully human is among the basic elements of the culture and ideology of colonialism. He also observed that despite other differences, in this respect all colonialisms are the same. In the introduction to Culture and Imperialism he wrote:
Each great metropolitan center that aspired to global dominance has said, and alas done, many of the same things. There is always the appeal to power and national interest in running the affairs of lesser peoples. There is always the same destructive zeal when the going gets a little rough, or when the natives rise up and reject a compliant and unpopular ruler who is ensnared and kept in place by the imperial power; there is the horrifically predictable disclaimer that “we” are exceptional, not imperial. (p. xxviii)
Today, we generally think of colonialism as a Euro-American phenomenon. It took less than a day in Pattani in far south Thailand to learn that this is not the case, and that almost everything that has written about the insidious nature of colonialism applies to Thailand as much as it does to Britain, France and the United States.
Thailand is generally known as a Buddhist kingdom, but the south part of the country – which consists of three provinces—Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala—has an overwhelmingly Malay Muslim population. Every day they struggle to preserve and assert their cultural and religious identities in the face of more than a century of domination and marginalization by the Thai state.
On a recent trip to the three provinces we realized that we had come to a strange and dangerous place as soon as we arrived in Narathiwat from Bangkok. Our cell phones showed “no network” and soldiers with AK-47 automatic rifles lined the airport entrance and exit. We did not learn until later that one could not activate a cell phone without approval from the Thai military and roadblocks every 5 km or so are rather common.
When we arrived at the only 4-star hotel in Narathiwat, the atmosphere was almost eerie and dense with silence. We found that we were the only guests and that the staff was vaguely uncomfortable to see three obvious foreigners, two Malays (who are Muslim) and one white person.
In a region that is predominantly Muslim, there are portraits of the Thai royal family everywhere. Most road signs are in Thai and the Malays are expected to adapt the language in their daily lives. They are expected to accept the royal family as benevolent patrons.
During the span of four days, we spoke with local Muslim religious leaders and academics and quickly learned that the insurgencies that have plagued the provinces have little to do with “global jihadism” and everything to do with Thai political and cultural imperialism.
On a visit to the Al Furqan mosque where close to thirty people were gunned down mafia-style during prayers on 8 June 2009, the air was thick with humidity and anxiety. Will there be masked men attacking us from the surrounding forests or will the imam of the mosque who carried a pistol underneath his sarong sprint into action? Questions like these flashed through our minds.
It is not clear who carried out the attack, though most villagers around the mosque suspected Buddhist paramilitaries financed and armed by the Queen Sirikit of Thailand—who the Thai government portrays as a model of Buddhist virtue—had something to do with it.
The Thai military informed us that most of the Buddhist populations of the region are people who have been resettled from poverty-stricken regions in Northeast Thailand to bring Buddhism and Thai culture to the south. Buddhist temples are nestled in the midst of army camps and some monks carry automatic weapons to protect Buddhism.
During a meeting with the Thai military, Lieutenant-General Keresri (who is in charge of civil, military and police affairs in the region) told us that the people of the region were not Malays, but Thai Muslims. He described majority of the residents are “simple people who do not know much about civilization and only want to pray in the mosque five times a day and sit in the village.” He described the Thai army’s mission as being to “win their hearts and minds.”
We could not take photos of the military base camp. It seemed like something from Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War story. The meeting with the General was a revelation. He insisted on using an official interpreter, though he speaks English well. It seemed not to occur to him that the conversation could just as well have been conducted in Malay. Even if he did, he chose to use English. Language use is an element of domination.
He then “invited” us to visit a training and re-education camp. An aide took us across the road and showed classes being conducted about raising chickens and farming fish. Malays domesticated chickens thousands of years ago and have been raising fish in ponds for centuries. He explained that the classes were intended to teach people about domestic production. When asked if these techniques could be used for commercial purposes the answer was: “These people are not interested in that. They just want to live in the village, if they have enough to eat, that is good enough for them.”
The general’s statement echoes the “the myth of the lazy native,” a phrase coined by Malaysian scholar Syed Hussein Alatas. It was one of the cornerstones of British colonial ideology in Malaysia. The Thais made the British myth their own when they annexed the Malay territory that is now the “Deep South”.
The real purpose of the camp soon became clear. Army officials would “visit” graduates and ask them about the activities of “criminal gangs.” When asked if the “criminal gangs” are jihadis, he said: “No, just criminals.” Thailand would not like to be associated with jihadism or to be known as a center of Islamist activism. Few of the people at the training camp asked to be there. Most were “invited” from villages nearby in which insurgents are known to be active.
Colonialism at its worst is a systematic attempt to colonize the ordinary residents and to devalue their culture, religion and language. This seems to be exactly what is happening in these three provinces.
The Malays, who have a long tradition of sophisticated Islamic scholarship, refuse to send their children to Thai government schools. They continue to send them to traditional “pondok” or small religious schools, many of which teach a combination of Islamic and “modern” subjects. As Thailand emerged as a nation state in the early decades of the twentieth century, it has consistently attempted to impose Bangkok-centered religion, language and culture onto its border regions. The Malay Muslims of the Deep South have consistently resisted these efforts.
There are 3,400 mosques in Thailand and out of this, 2,300 of them are located in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. Because of this, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently tried his best to back a suggestion by his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak to grant autonomy in the region. However, when Mr Najib raised the sensitive issue in a recent interview with a Thai daily, he was countered by strong opposition from the hawks in the Thai establishment and armed forces.
The Malaysian government is doing its best to work together with the Bangkok administration to make the autonomy concept materialize in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. The shadowy insurgency, which operates in scattered semi-autonomous cells with no visible centralized leadership, wants the restoration of the old Pattani state.
The Islamic Sultanate of Pattani, which included Malaysia’s Kelantan and Kedah states, was once a thriving commercial and cultural hub. In 1902 all three provinces, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, were annexed by mainly Buddhist Thais. This sparked decades of tension that spiraled into a full-blown insurgency five years ago that has killed close to 4,000 people.
According to a Thai-based Wikipedia page, most Thais describe resistance fighters in the South as violent Muslim extremists but they are known as freedom fighters or jihadists by the Malay Muslims. With more than 60,000 Thai army troops now stationed in the three provinces, it is apparent that Said was quite right about colonialism, but failed to consider how his observations might apply to colonial states other than those in Europe and America.
*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Madah University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, both in Yogyakarta Indonesia. Mariani Yahya is a Journalism Lecturer at the Management Development Institute of Singapore. She holds a Master in Science Degree in International Relations.