Thai-Muslim Students Abroad Eyed with Suspicion

By Nita Roshita

Yogyakarta, Indonesia and Pattani, Thailand – The seven young people in the room look nervous. They want to know who the interviewer is, why they are being questioned and ask that their names be changed.

“I am sorry if my friends are making you feel uncomfortable; we are worried we might get into trouble if this is published,” whispers Nurul who had agreed to meet after much hesitation.

In Yogyakarta to study for a master’s degree in Education Management at the Muhammadiyah University, Nurul (not her real name) is from Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern Pattani province.

The others in the small rented accommodation in Yogyakarta are Thai nationals, including two more Muslims from the country’s south and four Buddhists.

Five of them are here on higher education scholarships awarded by the Indonesian government. Two among the Thai-Buddhists are here for one year under a cultural exchange programme. One of them is a dancer from the southern Thai province of Narathiwat bordering Malaysia. Before starting their higher education courses, the Thai students are attending the seven-month Indonesian Language and Culture Learning course in the Cultural Sciences faculty of Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University.

We only came to study

They insist they came to Indonesia to study. “I came to study, to be educated and will go home to serve my people. I am a teacher and I will teach children, so why should I be afraid,” says Nurul.

Nana, a Buddhist with a government job in Bangkok who came for a master’s degree in political science, says nobody has the right to be suspicious of her because she only came here to study.

Their concern is understandable. Nearly 3,000 people have been killed over the past four years in separatist violence in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern border provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Thai authorities tend to view with suspicion young Muslims from the region studying in Islamic educational institutions abroad, as they are considered prone to the risk of being radicalized.

According to the Thai Embassy in Indonesia, 300 students from Thailand’s Muslim-majority provinces graduate every year from Indonesian educational institutions. Between 2,000 to10,000 students from the southern Thai border region are estimated to be studying in Indonesia, Malaysia and other Muslim-majority countries in West Asia.

The Thai embassy in Jakarta is said to be keeping an eye on Thai students in Indonesia but Jakarta’s State Islamic University turned down the embassy’s request for names of Thai-Muslims in the university. According to former university rector, Professor Azyumardi Azra, the embassy said it needed the information for its data base. The professor consulted the university’s Thai Students Association who asked him to not comply with the request. “My students feel that the list might be misused,” he says.

Afraid to speak up

The Thai students in the Yogyakarta house are reluctant to speak about the insurgency back home.  Only Hasan, 19, from Pattani, who will study English in Gadjah Mada University, speaks up. Things have changed a lot in the Thai-Muslim south, he says.

“Once you could go anywhere in the three provinces without worry. If you were lost you could ask anyone for directions, but now it is scary just asking for directions. I get nervous every time I walk alone there,” he says.

Hasan came to Indonesia three years ago to study in the traditional Islamic school Pesantren. He thinks that southern Thai-Muslims are alienated from the government and this feeling is being exploited by the insurgents who have given a religious angle to the discontent. “I think religion is just a small part of the conflict. Maybe it is just a political problem,” he says.

Sucharit, a Buddhist from north Thailand who will study English with Hasan, says the southern Thai insurgency is too complicated for him to understand. “I am sorry, I don’t have any idea,” he adds.

Rohman from Narathiwat, who will study Asset Management and Property Evaluation in Gadjah Mada University, looks upset when the microphone is brought near his face and asked if he sees any hope of the situation being resolved.

“I am sorry, I don’t know,” he answers.

Few options to higher education abroad

It is not easy for young southern Thai Muslims to get a higher education in their own country.

In Thailand’s Pattani province, Ahmad Samboon Bualuang, former lecturer in the College of Islamic Studies in the province’s Prince of Songkhla University, laments the lack of quality education in the region.

“If you are from the south, you have two chances to enter a university. You have to pass the entrance exam for the university in southern Thailand or the national university entrance exam. But unfortunately, Thai-speaking Melayu students tend to lose in the stiff competition from students in the other regions,” he explains.

There are only two higher Islamic educational institutions in the south – the state-run College of Islamic Studies affiliated to Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani and the private Yala Islamic College.

Less than 15 percent of Prince of Songkhla University students are from the province and each university in Thailand has on average, only five students from the Thai-Muslim south, he points out.

The reason for the relative educational backwardness of the Thai-Muslim region is complex.

Parents prefer sending children to the Islamic religious school or pondok for traditional reasons. Thai state-run schools are being seen as vehicles of assimilation, undermining the region’s distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. Separatists are targeting state schools. The International Crisis Group estimates that at least 73 teachers and school officials have been killed in the three Muslim provinces since January 2004. More than 30 private schools were burnt down in 2007, according to the Thai Education Ministry.

Critics say a pondok-only education fails to prepare young Muslims for the modern job market and is a contributory factor in the growing Islamic radicalization in the region.

“Students have to attend secular school to be equipped with real world skills,” says Panitan Wattayanagorn, a Thai-Buddhist who teaches at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and is advisor to the Southern Border Provinces Peace-Building Command (SBPAC) set up by the Thai government as a reconciliation promoting institution.

Educated by jobless

It was easier for Nurul to pursue her higher studies in Indonesia where the ministries of education and religion offer scholarships for Muslim students from abroad.

Nurrohamah, another Thai-Muslim student from Pattani who is studying for a master’s degree in Anthropology in Gadjah Mada University, says the English language entrance test to Indonesian universities is easier. The scholarship application procedure is simple and the Indonesian government expedites the issue of visas to the students.

Like many southern Thai-Muslims, Nurrohamah also has a Thai name and is not reluctant to be identified for the interview. She gets 1,200,000 rupiah (about 120 U.S. dollars) per month under the scholarship. “If you can save your money, you can be rich,” she says with a smile. She has two television sets, two electric fans and two bicycles.

However, when the Thai students return home, they have very little chance of finding a well-paid job.

Former Prince of Songkhla University lecturer Ahmad says southern Thai-Muslims face discrimination in the national job market. It is extremely difficult for a woman wearing a Hijab to find employment.

“In their mindset, people from the south are not educated enough. Only the Melayu who can speak Thai fluently has a chance of getting a job,” he says.

The International Crisis Group too notes there are very few job opportunities for southern Thai-Muslims.

Not surprisingly, Thai-Muslims studying abroad prefer finding work in Indonesia, Malaysia or West Asia. “If you are lucky, you will be hired by a Thai company as a translator. And the salary is much better than working as a teacher in the South,” says Nurrohamah.

A Thai university graduate schoolteacher in south Thailand earns about 6,300 Baht (about 197 US dollars). For the same job, a Thai-Muslim graduating from an Egyptian university is paid 7,500 Baht but the pay is only 5,500 Baht if he or she graduated from an Indonesian university.

“And if you work as a translator in Indonesia, you will get paid 20,000 Baht for a start or around 5 millions rupiah,” says Norrohamah.

Under suspicion on return

With few job opportunities at home, many foreign-educated southern Thai-Muslims end up teaching in the pondoks after they return, which puts them under suspicion.

“Daughter, if you have graduated, please don’t come home yet. Things are not safe here,” Nurrohamah’s mother told her. Her cousin was jailed for two months after returning from higher studies in Indonesia on suspicion of being an insurgency supporter. Emergency laws in the three southern Thai provinces allow detention of suspects without trial.

“It was not only him. I have also heard that many who graduated from Indonesia have been sent to the ‘iron-hotel’,” Nurrohamah says.

In Pattani, Mansour Salleh,  former president of the Muslim Youth Organizatin in Yala province says Thai authorities are biased against Thai-Muslims in Indonesian religious schools. Thai intelligence agencies mistakenly link the southern Thai insurgent group Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK) to Indonesia-based Islamic radical groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, he says.

The Indonesian embassy in Thailand has clarified that RKK’s name does not have an Indonesian connection. In Indonesia, ronda means routine village community policing, the former Indonesian Ambassador to Thailand Ibrahim Yusuf said in Bangkok. Thai students in Indonesia joining a ronda should not be suspected of getting militant training, he explained.

Professor Azyumardi of Jakarta’s State Islamic University feels that Thai authorities’ suspicion of Thai-Muslims studying abroad is not helping matters as this only adds to their sense of disillusionment.

International Crisis Group reports say Thai Intelligence agencies believe the Pattani students’ groups in Indonesia have links with the Thai insurgency and are getting militant training in Indonesia. Thai authorities claim that some detained suspects have admitted to being recruited in Indonesia.

At a seminar in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in April 2006 attended by Thai government officials, Prof. Azyumardi observed that Thai-Muslim students in Indonesia were learning a progressive and tolerant version of Islam.

“The Thai government should use them as mediators in the peace process in southern Thailand,” he said.

In December 2006, his university signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University to exchange lecturers and students. Since 2007, prominent Indonesian Islamic scholars and leaders have visited Thailand, including Prof. Azyumardi, Kyai Haji Hasyim Muzadi from Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organization, Nahdatul Ulama and Din Syamsuddin, Chairman of the Ulama Assembly of Indonesia.

Former Indonesian Ambassador Yusuf said the Thai government appreciated the Indonesian initiative and was keen for advice from Islamic leaders on tackling the insurgency.

Keeping hope alive

Nurrohamah hopes to see the day when she can proudly proclaim to be a Thai-Melayu-Muslim. Living in Yogyakarta has made her more open-minded now, she says: “When I was in Thailand, I had a narrow perspective.”

People in Thailand need a better understanding of Muslim culture, she says. “For example, if a soldier enters a mosque without removing his shoes that is not polite. But here in Indonesia, people from different religions know that when you enter a mosque you have to take off your shoes.”

Thai-Muslims in the south must not be made to feel second class citizens, she adds.

However, she does not think the separatists’ demand for full autonomy is worthwhile. “Do they have enough ability to govern themselves? I want to ask the insurgent groups: ‘do you have enough doctors, well-educated people?’ ”

Disenchanted southern Thai-Muslims should fight discrimination not with guns but with education and sound ideas, she believes.

Nita Roshita is a reporter of Radio 68H in Jakarta.

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