A Land Left Behind

By Grace Cantal-Albasin

PATTANI, Thailand – About a week after the April 28 bloodbath in Thailand’s Muslim south, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made a trip to the region and promised villagers jobs, free education, and livelihood projects. The move was apparently aimed at winning their hearts and minds.

Thaksin could do no less. After all, he was getting bad press for his military commanders’ use of excessive force in ending a standoff with Muslim militants holed up inside a mosque in Pattani days earlier. Elsewhere in the country, people were shocked and alarmed at the military assault that killed 32 men inside the Krue Se mosque.

Mending fences with a disgruntled Muslim minority has been long overdue. Yet it took an upsurge of violence, heavy casualties, and media criticism of the military’s mishandling of the security situation in the south for the government to embark on a diplomatic campaign to appease the Muslim Thais and address their grievances.

The official gesture, however, was too little, and came too late in calming the turmoil and winning back the people’s trust in the government.

“The southern problem is so complex and has become so explosive that a mere economic blueprint, no matter how well intended, cannot deliver an instant solution,” said former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan in a commentary in ThinkCentreAsia.org.

Indeed, this part of Thailand has been left behind by the rest of the country for far too long that quick fixes are no longer possible. Even the belated efforts to have the country’s three provinces that are predominantly Muslim play digital catch-up by way of information technology projects are being hampered by the growing security concerns, as well as the sheer lack of basic infrastructure such as reliable telephone service.

But those tasked with ensuring that such projects succeed here are trying to make things work. They know information technology or IT has become essential if one wants to make a mark in the modern world. Explains Muhammad Azmee Abubaka, manager of a pondok (traditional Islamic school) here: “As the world keeps up with globalization, the Muslims have to be there also. It is vital that the children here should have the knowledge and be able to apply it when they go out. We can’t lag behind. We have to compete globally.”

IT and traditions
Azmee says his pondok, the Klonghin Islam Witya School, needs about 45 computer units. So far, however, the school has only eight, most of them donated by government agencies and wealthy residents. The computer units have no Internet connection, not only because subscriptions are expensive, but also due to the unreliability of the phone service. The school’s students, though, are nevertheless all eager to use the computers. Asked what they thought about computers and the Net, the students said these are vital tools to gain more knowledge from other parts of the world.

Hadji Abdulrahman Daud, chair of the Islamic Council of Pattani province, meanwhile says that for the last two years, the national government has been sponsoring select students from various schools in southern Thailand to attend summer computer classes. Five to 10 students aged 13 to 15 participate in the program each summer. There is one computer center in every province where the summer computer clinic is conducted. After the month-long program, the students are asked to do an on-the-job training in various offices.

“Even the army has extended help to the schools by donating some computer units to pondoks around these Muslim provinces,” says Abdulrahman, an adviser to the governor for Islamic Affairs in Pattani, whose office coordinates with the central government the various projects intended for the Muslims.

Abdulrahman say the government is also training volunteer teachers to teach basic computer lessons to students in the different pondoks. But he says the schools have to be registered with the education ministry and follow the prescribed curriculum in order to avail themselves of this new program.

According to Professor Peerayot Rahimullah of the Prince of Songkhla University, there are only 60 traditional pondoks in the southernmost provinces that are not under the supervision of the government, out of the estimated total of 400 Islamic schools in the south of Thailand.

The Ministry of Education is regulating the pondoks to make sure that these teach not only religion but also other secular subjects such as mathematics, science, and even the Thai language. The government fears that the schools, which use Malay and Arabic languages in teaching their students, might be a breeding ground for religious extremism.

But lawyer and vocal Pattani resident Neeraman Sulaiman says that the reason why Muslim families send their children to Muslim-run schools like the pondoks is precisely to have them educated according to their traditions and religion. He says that since only a few can afford enrolling their children in privately run Muslim schools, many Muslim Thai children are forced to go through the regular educational system that follows the Thai curriculum.

“Look at us,” laments Neeraman, “we are Muslims yet we speak Thai and we cannot anymore speak our own Malay language or worse, even the oldest one — the Yawi.”

Bangkok may not know best
It’s a sentiment that an increasing number of Muslim Thais share, and which may make them look with suspicion at the government’s recent efforts to improve the economy in the Muslim south. Peerayot, a political scientist, points out that while the Muslim Thais have been clamoring for change, they want to be genuinely heard and “not just to kowtow to the central government’s mandate, which goes against the teachings of the Muslim faith.”

“We want fair governance, not governance based on the Buddhist views,” Neeraman also says. “It should be governance based on our views, not on the views of government leaders who are Buddhists pretending to know Islam and who give mandates contrary to what is in the Qu’ran. They are dictating on us how to go about our lives that run against the Qu’ran.”

Neeraman cannot help but feel resentful over the disparity in the development of provinces in the south. Compared to the Muslim-dominated provinces in the deep south, the so-called upper southern provinces like Phanga, Krabi, Hat Yai, Surat Thani, and Nakhon Si Thammarat have better infrastructure and business opportunities.  Phanga, where Phuket is located, and Krabi are particularly well developed because they are tourist hubs, with Internet connectivity not a problem at all. Of course, in Bangkok and the country’s other major urban centers, IT has been part of the everyday life of many people in the last decade.

Deprived of opportunities that are in abundance in the more affluent regions, especially those nearby, it is easy to understand why the minority Muslim population in Thailand’s deep south feels alienated from the rest of the predominantly Buddhist country.

Surin Pitsuwan, himself a Muslim, says, “There is an urgent need for an attitude change at the very top level of government. For the past three years the southern people have been treated to daily doses of provocation and arrogance.”

“An impression that ‘Bangkok knows best’ and that every problem must be seen and managed from the perspective of the center, without any regard to local considerations, is very pervasive and very much a source of tension,” he said in his ThinkCentreAsia.org commentary.

Escalating violence
There had been sporadic violence in the south following Thailand’s all-out support to the U.S.-led war on terror. But organized and coordinated attacks against government and civilian targets began on January 4, 2004 when a group of attackers simultaneously torched 20 schools and killed four soldiers while stealing more than 100 guns from an army depot in Narathiwat province, in the border with Malaysia.

In the weeks and months that followed, militants launched almost daily attacks on Buddhist monks, government officials and security forces, disturbing the long-standing harmony between the dominant Buddhist and minority Muslim populations.

While some analysts hinted at the revival of a dormant separatist campaign, not a few recognized that the unrest was partly a result of years of neglect by the central government of the region’s socio-economic needs; as well as its lack of empathy and understanding of the Muslim Thais’ unique situation.

“Communal violence does not break out just because of different beliefs and races. It erupts when one ethnic group exploits another, leaving the losers behind economically, politically, and socially,” Sanitsuda Ekachai said in her column in the Bangkok Post, where she is assistant editor.

“The cure is in returning to the locals their sense of control. And dignity. Pumping in money only widens the gap, and persecution just adds fuel to the fire,” she added.

Peerayot, for his part, says the violence in the south can be traced to what he calls unfair governance and the deep-rooted resentment of the Muslim people who were conquered from the Malaya Kingdom in the late 1700s during the reign of King Rama I.

He says the Muslim Thais, who have a closer affinity with their southern Malay neighbors, never really fully assimilated into the Thai society. From the 1960s to the 1970s they waged a separatist campaign. A shift in government policy in the 1980s that gave Muslims some political and economic rights reduced the secessionist fervor, resulting in relative peace in the1990s. But as the economic gap between the Muslim south and the rest of Thailand widened, many Muslim Thais began to ponder why they were in such a rut. They noticed that even within their own areas, they were not calling the shots.

Neeraman, whose father served as senator three decades ago, notes that most local officials in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat are Chinese businessmen who usually do not share the Muslims’ aspirations. While there are Muslim politicians in Parliament, the community is underrepresented in provincial and local government levels.

One result has been the concentration of wealth among only a few and growing economic despair among far too many Muslim Thais. An engineer here says one reason why Internet use is still not popular in Pattani and the two other Muslim-dominated provinces is because only the rich can afford to buy computers and get Internet service.

Fear and loathing
And so the people’s disenchantment, stoked by radical elements, came to a boil on April 28, when dozens of armed men attacked military and police targets. Some 108 of these assailants were killed in separate clashes with government security forces in the provinces of Songkhla, Yala, and Pattani on that fateful day. Five soldiers were killed.

The government was quick to squash speculations that a religious conflict was brewing and asserted that the rash of attacks had no ideological basis and was in no way related to the increasing terrorist activities in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thaksin insisted that the instability was purely domestic, instigated by drug lords and some disgruntled politicians. But later on, the government admitted that separatist forces may have been behind the coordinated attacks.

Since martial law was declared here in January, there has been heavy military presence around the Muslim areas. Soldiers and police patrol either on foot, by car or motorbikes around the cities and towns. Army escorts of politicians and government officials can be seen milling around hotels in the area.

Some residents and students feel secure and protected by the presence of the soldiers, but many feel ill at ease. One university student remarks,  “I can only wish the military would go away because fear is what I have in my heart. As I see them I fear that the violence could never be stopped.”

With the tension refusing to dissipate, Muslim professionals living in the region fear retaliatory attacks from irate non-Muslims or possible arrest. They are afraid authorities might label them as suspects in the continuing violence, noting that arrests without warrants have become common here in Pattani and in the other Muslim provinces.

Small businesses are reporting slow sales as a result of the unrest. A young bakeshop-and-eatery owner says fewer people are eating at her small restaurant because they would rather stay home than risk their safety in public places. She observes, “This street used to be so busy then, but now fewer people are seen hanging around because violence has been occurring almost every day here.”

All these are bound to spell more trouble for the Muslim south’s economy.  And that may just mean more delay for a successful bridging of the digital divide between the likes of Pattani and the rest of Thailand.

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