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A Sound Language Policy is Needed to Improve Ethnic Relations PDF Print E-mail

A Sound Language Policy is Needed to Improve Ethnic Relations

                             Gothom Arya


            According to the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, out of 1.1 million people of the three southernmost provinces, 0.9 million or about 82% speak Melayu thin Thai (local dialect) as mother tongue and about 0.3% speak various minority languages such as Chinese, Ulaklavoey and Mogen. The Thai speakers there can be sub-divided into Paktai (11%), Takbai (6%), Thai Klang (1%) and Isan (0.3%) speakers.


           However, if we look at the languages spoken in contemporary Thailand, the Tai family language is spoken by a vast majority of 87% whereas the Melayu thin Thai is spoken by 1.9%. Percentage-wise, this figure is slightly lower than that of the Northern Khmer spoken in the region of Surin, Srisaket, Buriram etc.

            About a month ago, a doctoral candidate from Georgetown University USA came to interview me for her thesis and we discussed among other things the problem of language in border provinces of the South. Two weeks later, I was pleasantly surprise to receive a book she sent me as a gift. The title is Fighting Words: Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia, edited by Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly. I would recommend it to the attention of policy makers especially those who are in charge of education and security policies. The book tells us in short that to solve ethnic conflict such as the one in the South, we need a sound language policy. Let me now present some of the data and ideas of the book.


           In the nineteenth century, the people speaking standard Thai constituted no more than 15% of the total population. Nowadays, more than 90% can speak, read and write in standard Thai. With the great success in developing a national language, I would argue that the country's leaders should now make a critical effort to preserve our linguistic diversity.

            Language is an important issue in any ethnic conflict. It is the main marker determining the membership in an ethnic group and the lost of language identity is tantamount to the lost of ethnicity. Language policy has tremendous effects on education, economy, and politics. It can determine who has better chance to succeed in school, who has greater opportunities in economic advancement, who has more say in political decisions, who has better access to public services and who is fairly treated by government agencies. Language issues, like religious issues, can be the driving forces behind ethnic mobilization against the established order perceived as unjust.

             There are many examples pointing to the failure of language policies in the region. At the time of independence, Urdu was spoken by 7 percent of the population in Pakistan, while Bengalis and Sindhis constituted 56% and 12% respectively. Clearly, the choice of Urdu as the national language favored some groups and alienated others. The language issue was the main driving force behind the secession of East Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh. 

               The language policy that favors the majority can be a political platform to easily win an election. The case in point is Sri Lanka where a Sinhalese party, proposing Singala as the only official language, won a competitive election precisely thanks to that policy whose implementation led to Tamil grievances and eventually to the fight for an independent Tamil state. An unsound language policy to gain short-term electoral advantage can become a long-term disaster for the country.

                The struggle for power at the centre of the country during the post-independent era of Burma dominated the struggle for power between the centre and the nationality groups in the periphery. As a result, the elites at the centre took it for granted that the promotion of Burmese language as a national language would forge a national identity and the problems in the periphery would eventually subside. Many nationality groups however resented the Burmanisation campaign and started armed struggles. Although many groups have now signed cease-fire agreement with the junta who now renamed the country ‘Myanmar' and has been propagating the fantasy of the cultural unity of the ‘Myanmar' peoples, many nationality groups still demand a federal state if not autonomous states of their own.

            In India, the national language issue has been handled with sensitivity and the creation of states with certain language homogeneity has helped to diffuse some ethnic problems. Singapore leadership has the vision of a multicultural society. Although more than 75% of the population is Chinese speakers, Bahasa Malaysia is accepted as a national language and English as the de facto official language. This language policy in Singapore has been successful at least in creating stability and the sense of fainess.

            In the South of Thailand, the study of Malay language is not offered in public secondary school and the language is seen as inherently suspect by Thai authorities. It is about time to develop a sound language policy if we want to have a harmonious multiethnic society in the southernmost provinces.


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