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Perception Divide in Deep South

                                                Gothom Arya


When two ethnic groups, such as Buddhist Thais and Melayu Muslim Thais in the South, are living in the same area, they will have to adjust themselves to accommodate each other. Harmony or divide will develop depending on the perception one group has about the other. Of course, the perception of others is complex and varies from one member of the group to another. Still, it is worthwhile formulating negative perceptions that seem to exist so that we can gauge the divide and reflect on ways and means to bridge it in order to achieve greater harmony. But I am on a shaky ground here. Many would advise that we should gloss over negative perceptions just to avoid stirring up bad feelings and further disunity. Many would point out correctly that I am in no position to formulate accurately negative perceptions as this would need a systematic survey. Anyhow, I shall take the risk to present what I have heard, so far, as a first step toward further understanding.

Buddhist Thais represent the minority group in Deep South. It is normal that they feel insecure and the normal tendency is to regroup geographically into Thai (as oppose to Muslim) villages or in municipal areas. Now both ethnic groups are increasingly sending their children to separate schools. The tendency toward segregation is worrisome as it re-enforces the ‘us-them' divide. To overcome this divide, I would like to suggest that we should adopt the goal of ‘security and opportunity for all' and encourage as much social interaction as possible.

I once met a former student of mine who is Chinese Thai, native of Pattani and now a high-ranking official. He quickly informed me that ‘they don't want to be Thais, they don't want to speak Thai'. Another retired Central Thai teacher who spent 35 years in the South wrote to us: ‘why do we have to learn a local language not spoken anywhere else, why don't they learn Thai and be integrated into the present world? Other ethnic groups in Thailand agree to speak central Thai which is our official language, can't they do the same?' On the other side of the divide, I heard comments like these: ‘with our Melayu Muslim name, we are less well treated by officials', ‘why do they have to change the names of our villages? Sometimes the translation was done without knowing the meaning of the original word', ‘we want our children to learn Thai but after six years in school, how come they can't even read and write in Thai', ‘you know, my Thai is not strong, please don't laugh at me if I say something wrong'. The language is an important issue that has to be dealt with sensitively. To overcome this divide, I would suggest the goal of quality multi-lingual education that provides a good command of three languages namely Thai, Melayu, and English to every school children.

Our retired teacher wrote ‘they think the land is theirs and tell everyone that Chinese descendants and Thais always take advantage of them despite the fact that they offer the hospitality of land'. On 29 August 1963, Marshal Sarit gave the following speech in Yala ‘This province has been within the Thai periphery since Sukhothai period, so we can consider that people of this province have a very thick Thai blood'. Marshall Prapas was quoted as saying ‘if you want to separate go by yourself, we won't give you the land to take away'. On the other side of the divide, historians refer to the Lankasuka Kingdom (Lang-ya-hsui) mentioned in the Chinese annals as being a prosperous Kingdom in this area in the 7th century A.D. Islam came to the area in the 10th century A.D. even before reaching Malacca. According to the legend, the Raja of Pattani was converted to Islam around 1457 A.D. In my opinion, the discourse on who owns what land at what time is not helpful and should be left to historians. Suffice to say that the land is our common heritage and together we have the task to make it prosperous and peaceful for generations to come. No country would recognize a new separate Pattani. Therefore, we are bound to live together with love rather than hatred.

When I first heard about the concern of Buddhist Thais, expressed through an opinion pool, that Melayu Muslim Thais are too prolific in producing offspring, I thought it was a joke. Later, I was told of this concern by many others: a van driver, a monk, and also our retired teacher whom I quote: ‘the number of children born is frightening, they have many children as they consider them as the gifts of God but they neglect to raise them well while putting the blame on government.... So, as Thais are fleeing from death, there will be only them remaining on this land'. I asked my Muslim friend about this and got an affirmative answer, he says ‘our religion is not in favour of family planning', he added however, tongue-in cheek, "but there are ways and means'. He did not elaborate and I pretended to understand. Here the Thais' concern seems to be valid, not on the ground that the Melayu Thais plan to crush them out by the weight of an overwhelming population, but in the sense that Melayu Thais should adopt discretely certain birth control methods to be able to have healthy and wealthy family.

This brings me to the last divide of the day (there are so many others): religion. Apparently there seems to be unanimity that we all enjoy religious freedom. But let's listen again to our retired teacher who I think summarizes well the negative perception as follows: ‘they blindly believe their religious leaders. They think there is no future in this world: only the next world is real. The leaders keep them in the dark and in a close community so as to hold power over them. They receive financial support from rich Islamic countries because of worldwide Islamic solidarity...As a result, there are extremists who project themselves as fighting for right causes but in fact are just creating trouble in the land'. I disagree with her when she blamed it on Muslim leaders. I believe that the great majority of them are persons of integrity who live a frugal life. They command the respect of their peers because of their proven good conduct. However, I would like to beg them to use their leadership to renew their efforts to bring understanding and love to the land: to bridge the divide for that matter.

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