The Malay Muslim Identity Fights for Cultural and Political Sovereignty in Southern Thailand

Cultural Treasures: Textiles of the Malay World (Source: http://www.iamm.org.my/cultural-treasures-textiles-of-the-malay-world-2/)

Over the past 80 years, the southern region of Thailand has faced various instances of armed insurgency from its Malay-Muslim population. The conflict is a result of, first, the Thai government’s historical assimilation policies that do not respect nor accept the political and cultural validity of the Malay-Muslim identity and, second, its heavy-handed approach when dealing with the insurgency. Thailand has failed to incorporate this region into its sociopolitical infrastructure, and, as a result, has marginalised a community that is already struggling to protect its cultural and regional identity.

Since February 10, 20 people have been killed in Thailand’s Deep South in shootings and bombings carried out by suspected insurgents. These are the latest attacks in the most lethal conflict in Southeast Asia. With nearly 6,400 people dead, 11,000 more wounded, and more than 60,000 security forces deployed since 2004, this wave of violence is nothing new. The insurgency comes from the Malay-Muslim minority, which has fiercely resisted assimilation policies and a centralised government. In response, Thailand’s government has militarised the zone and seems reluctant to give in to claims of territorial or cultural identity. This is an ethnic-nationalist conflict where Thailand’s inability to incorporate the region into its rigid political and social infrastructures has led to the marginalisation of a community that struggles to protect their cultural identity.

The Malay-Muslim are a majority in Thailand’s five southern provinces, where they comprise 85% of the population. This community has social customs different from those of the Thai Buddhist majority. Being a Muslim and the heir of the Sultanate of Pattani (the historical Malay kingdom that comprised the three southern border provinces) are all essential to Malay-Muslim identity.

In 1909, the region was fully annexed by Thailand and as part of nationalist policies inspired by Western ideas of an exclusive nation-state, the Malay political leadership was replaced by Thai Buddhist officials. They implemented a policy of cultural and political assimilation. Under such system, people from different cultural and ethnic origins living in Thailand were forced to conform to their norms, such as Thai becoming the state-mandated language of the media, business, education, and all state agencies.

This process of cultural and political assimilation was successful in most of Thailand but was met with resistance in the three of the Malay-Muslim dominated provinces. In spite of this, they were subjected to Bangkok’s direct rule. Resentment against government assimilation policies and concerns about protecting Malay-Muslim cultural and religious beliefs turned localised resistance into broad support for the insurgent Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO). Subsequently, the Prime Minister of Thailand at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, implemented a heavy-handed approach to combat the insurgency, by including a martial law in all the southern provinces that gave police and civilian authorities powers to restrict basic rights and provided them with broad immunity from prosecution. This led to a series of oppressive measures employed by Thai officials, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings continued the violence.

Multiple insurgent Malay-Muslim groups, sometimes with conflicting agendas, have made various claims for political and cultural independence. The diverse and decentralised nature of the insurgency has made it extremely difficult to identify insurgents’ demands or initiate dialogue. Indeed, demands have included the removal of Thai security forces from the region and the creation of an independent state or greater local autonomy. Others have no specific political agenda but simply express their displeasure with Thai governance through acts of civil disobedience or violence. On the other hand, the violence in the South was a relatively distant concern for the governing elites in Bangkok until recently. Initially, they believed that much of the violence was caused by personal conflict, drug trade, and banditry and not an ethnic-nationalist struggle. Nonetheless, even though the elites initiated formal peace efforts early this year and set a June deadline for the agreement, the diffuse nature of the insurgency and the lack of clearly identified groups and leaders controlling militant violence complicate the decisions of who could or should represent the insurgents in any dialogue process.

Although the government has made efforts to gain the region’s political loyalty, there is still a lack of representation and denial of participation for Malay-Muslims who have not been able to become politically active in the circle of the governing elite—only 12 members of Thailand’s 500-strong parliament represent the Malay-Muslims. Additionally, they have been granted freedom of worship only in name, and,  to this day, they are denied their Malay-Muslim identity by being called Thai Muslims. What is more, they are not allowed to learn Malay, their own language.

Furthermore, the Deep South in Thailand faces institutional barriers that maintain the region economically underdeveloped. Malay-Muslim communities face poverty, substandard infrastructure, inadequate supplies of land and capital, and low quality of living standards. They also lack education and employment opportunities. They are more disadvantaged than their Buddhist counterparts in educational attainment—despite their status as the majority population in the region—since jobs in the Thai public sector are difficult to obtain for those who do not accept Thai education or learn the Thai language.

The Thai government has failed to successfully incorporate this ethnic minority into its political and economic infrastructure. Thus, the Malay-Muslim population has been deprived of political, social and economic equality. Assimilation policies, heavy-handed approaches to the insurgency and a lack of effort to solve the South’s grievances, seem extremely inappropriate to manage a concentrated and ethnic-religious minority like the Malay-Muslim community. As such, the Thai government must implement policies that are sensitive to the cultural traditions of Malay people. Then and only then will the state be able to control and incorporate this region into its sociopolitical infrastructure. Nevertheless, the current government’s inability to integrate a minority or ethnic group into a democracy is a systemic failure which has led to widespread marginalisation and violence.