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Language and the Southern Thai conflict

I walked away from my recent visit to southern Thailand thinking about language and politics.

Simply put, local Muslims are mostly fluent in Thai, but few Thai Buddhists can speak even rudimentary Malay.

This is one factor in the renewed insurgency; not a causal force, but it gives the average Patani Muslim less reason to take the risk of supporting the Thai state.

Southern Thailand’s Greater Patani region (a de facto unit of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and parts of Songkhla) has been a site for numerous forms of unrest since its formal inclusion into the Thai

state a century ago.

Most notably, there was a separatist conflict in the late 1970s.

Violence returned to the Patani region in 2004 but this time the conflict lacked a public face. In place of separatism, violence has

taken the form of terrorism.

The perpetrators of these acts are attributed to a range of players - extremist Muslims, drug and arms networks, militias, politicians, and Thai security forces.

The population of Patani is about three-quarter Muslim who speak a local form of Malay. In recent decades, an impressive expansion in education has resulted in most of the area’s Muslims

becoming fluent in Thai.

This Malay bilingualism is an important step towards integration, development, and participation. But this effort to integrate has not been matched by a gesture among regional Buddhists to reciprocate.

Perhaps I am predisposed to find this a problem. For one, I study Indonesian politics, so I approach Pattani from the Malay world.

When I visit the Patani region, I try to speak Malay whenever possible and am often met with empty stares by ethnic Thais (interestingly, many older ethnic Chinese are trilingual).

Second, living on Canada’s west coast, I have been taught French from an early age, despite there being no French communities near my home. Granted, if I meet someone from Quebec and

attempted to speak French, they would roll their eyes and continue in English.

But the effort matters. The geographical equivalent for Thailand would be someone speaking choppy Malay in Chiang Rai, but I am not prepared to go that far. At a minimum, for the Thai

Buddhist population in the Patani region, basic Malay should be expected.

Perhaps not fluency, but enough to show that coexistence is a joint effort. Until now, the weight of adaptation has fallen on the shoulders of Muslims.

If a minority makes an effort to adapt to a majority, but the majority does not reciprocate, they are open to partial charges of assimilation. Not a strong version, as the Thai government allows

Malay to be taught at the pondok but there is no affirmation of the minority, merely tolerance.

In parallel, there is not widespread rebellion, but also little sympathy for the Thai state.

In a small way, I think a measure of bilingualism would help mitigate the current hostilities.

Most of Patani’s Muslim Malays do not support their radical minority. They reject separatism, violence, and fundamentalism.

But at the same time, they lack sufficient reason to take a risk and stand for the Thai state. This is because the Thai state does not stand for them.

When violence occurs, many local Muslims blame Thai actors, even when evidence suggests otherwise. They lack reason to give the Thai state the benefit of the doubt.

A shift in language policy would not end the conflict, and it is too dangerous for Muslims to openly support the state. But it would create sympathies, as the battleground for local support

takes place in private conversations, not public declarations.

NGO programmes, security reports, academic studies, and the Thai media emphasise the Muslim problem in Thailand’s deep south. Aid programmes focus on Muslim communities, suggesting

that the problem lies among their ranks.

Recognising the efforts of local Muslims to adapt, and the lack of reciprocity from the Thai Buddhist population, illustrates a new way of seeing the unrest. Thailand’s Muslim problem is also a Thai problem.