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THAILAND: Malay-Muslim Insurgency – Lessons Learnt

BANGKOK, Jan 17 2012 (IPS) - Teachers’ Day on Jan. 16 was a sombre affair in Thailand’s troubled southern provinces where memories are strong of 155 educators killed over the past eight years in an insurgency led by Malay-Muslim separatists.

Yet, this grim fact – which has placed this Southeast Asian nation among the top four countries in the world for ‘teacher assassinations’ in a United Nations study – has not cowed all public school teachers from the Malay-Muslim community, the largest minority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

Risking death, these teachers have played a pivotal role in a path-breaking initiative: bilingual education in a clutch of public schools located in remote villages across the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, home to the Malay-Muslims, near the Thai-Malaysian border.

This four-year lesson of hope, covering close to 300 students in primary education, has proved that Malay-Muslim students taught subjects like basic math and social studies in their Malay dialect score far better marks than Malay-Muslim students compelled to study the same lessons in the Thai medium.

“This improvement has been more dramatic than we expected,” says Kirk Person, a director of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a United States-based global network that promotes the development of ethnic minority languages and is working with Mahidol University to lead this effort. “It is pretty spectacular.”

Spurred by the success, the experiment is set to be extended to 15 more public schools this year, Person told IPS. “They will also be in remote villages, where the students are Malay-Muslims and the teachers speak and teach in the local Malay dialect.”

This small crack in the education system held under the grip of Thai nationalism is winning support from the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), a powerful local authority tasked with finding a solution to the conflict pitting government forces against a shadowy network of Malay-Muslim separatists.

“We want to have more public schools use the Malay language in their classes,” Piya Kijthaworn, deputy secretary-general of SBPAC, said in an interview. “It may not contribute directly to peace, but it will let the local people express themselves and it is also important for their identity.”

While such openness is welcome by Malay-Muslim educationists, they are far from sanguine about it precipitating change in the region’s 1,640 government schools. The latter stick to the Bangkok-driven curriculum, insisting on the Thai language as the sole medium of instruction.

“Thai governments are still not accepting the use of the local Malay language as a working language for the people in the south, even though it is their mother tongue,” Abd Shakur Dina, assistant manager of the Chariyathsuksa Foundation School, revealed. “The government needs to be open to the use of Malay by the locals, because it is part of their identity.”

“The place to begin is the school system,” he explained to IPS. “The students will do better if they can study science, math, social studies and other subjects in their mother tongue. The low results they continue to get are because of this problem.”

It is a view articulated in mid-2006 by a Thai elder statesman. The Thai government should make Yawi – the Malay dialect of the local Muslims – an “official language” in the south, declared the findings of a government-appointed national reconciliation commission headed by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

That recommendation was shot down by Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief who heads a powerful council of advisors to the Thai king. “The country is Thai and the language is Thai… We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language,” Prem said at the time.

Such opposition to the cultural and linguistic identity of the Malay-Muslim minority in public spaces is at the root of the conflict. Public schools, consequently, have become a fault line in this ethnic dispute.

Public schools are being targeted by the current crop of insurgents in the same way a previous generation did in the 1960s and 1970s. The schools are considered agents for a Thai assimilation policy that compels Malay-Muslims to take Thai names and learn the Thai language.

The conflict has roots in the annexation of the three southern provinces in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was then known. These provinces were, until the annexation, part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani, now in Malaysia.

The current cycle of violence, raging since January 2004, has resulted in over 5,200 deaths and injuries to over 10,000 people, including imams (Muslim preachers), teachers, bureaucrats and community leaders. While Buddhist monks, soldiers and policemen have also been targeted, the majority of the victims have been Muslims.

Heavily armed Thai troops have been fingered for a range of human rights violations, from arbitrary arrest and torture and extra-judicial killings to the deaths in military custody of 78 Malay-Muslim boys and men.

The insurgency has not been completely in vain and compelled the government to listen to Malay-Muslims demands.

“The escalation of the conflict has opened the space for the cultural issues to be considered by the Thai establishment,” says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Thailand analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Bilingual education in public schools would not have been possible in the past.”

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