Google blog on Thailand's language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 24 15:09:36 UTC 2007

ICG, Southern Thailand and the coup

April 23rd, 2007 Republican, Guest Contributor

[This is a comment by regular New Mandala reader, Republican, on the
International Crisis Groups recent report on southern Thailand:

Over the last year one could be excused for having grown used to the
disparagement of democratically elected government in Thailand by Thai
academics, the foreign Thai Studies community as well as various
international institutions. Prestigious centers of Thai Studies such as
SOAS and the University of Washington host talks by the coup plotter
Sondhi Limthongkul; the UNDP waxes lyrical about the wonders of the kings
sufficiency theory; foreign academics try to convince us that
strengthening the monarchy will actually make Thailand more democratic,
and the international Thai studies community is already preparing to
honour the king at the 10th International Thai Studies Conference. But
even I was surprised by the International Crisis Groups enthusiasm for
Thailands current royalist-military dictatorship in its report on the
violence, Southern Thailand: The Impact of the Coup, released last month.
When an independent organization such as the ICG, whose job is supposedly
to impartially propose ways to resolve violent conflict, suggests that a
military dictatorship under the King as Head of State has a better chance
of peacefully resolving the crisis in the south, then even someone who has
imbibed too deeply of the stagnant waters of Thai Studies scholarship such
as myself has to raise their eyebrows.

The reports argument is that the coup opened the way for improved
management of the conflict in the Muslim South (p. i). More than that, the
ICG actually awards the government high marks for its initial efforts
(p.23). All this despite the fact that, as the report itself admits, the
violence has escalated under the current government, not declined. For the
ICG, as for so many others, anything was better than the former
democratically elected government, even a dictatorship, and this
partiality shows throughout the report.

Just consider the appalling bias the report shows in regard to the
September 19 coup. In one sentence it casually states that over 80% of the
Thai population welcomed the coup (p. 4). The source for this
extraordinary statement is in fact an article published in the Bangkok
Post TWO DAYS after the coup took place; ie. the research for the poll
must have taken place on the day after the coup took place. Assuming that,
like the researchers at the ICG, one is willing to trust a poll published
by one of the leading anti-Thaksin English language newspapers, conducted
within a single day after the military has carried out a coup dtat and
imposed martial law, then if over 80% of Thai people supported the coup,
why on earth stage a coup, when an election was only a month away? But
this seems beyond the comprehension of the ICG, which obviously prefers
not to put its trust in election results. If this is the quality of the
research conducted by the ICG one would be justified in questioning how
far one can trust the rest of its research on the conflict in the south.
(On a related point, one has to question the ICGs wisdom in relying
substantially on the daily English language newspapers, published in the
restricted media environment of a royalist dictatorship, as source
material for such an important report).

Then there is the ICGs gullibility regarding what it calls the sincere
efforts (how can the ICG know? a military regime that has just carried out
a coup can be sincere?) of the government (note: not military regime) to
reach out to the southern Muslims (p.4). The ICG appears to have been
blind to the way that the regime, desperate to gain some legitimacy from
the international community after its overthrow of a democratically
elected government, used the issue of the conflict in the south to try and
regain support from the international community by pretending to wave an
olive branch at the insurgents. Politically the conflict in the south had
the same function for the regime as the new Suwannaphum airport: it was an
issue by which to discredit the former Thai Rak Thai government. The
historic apology by Surayudh on November 2, was the clearest example. As
the ICG admits, the Thai population at large did not approve of the
apology. But how can the ICG fail to see the significance of this? A
royalist-military regime does not NEED support from the population, but it
does need support from the international community. The ICG might give the
dictatorship high marks for gestures such as these made deliberately for
the television cameras, but anybody who knows the game that is being
played would understand that it was a cynical act of public relations. The
ICG swallowed it, in the face of all the evidence that the coup has
actually led to a dramatic worsening of the conflict. Common sense would
suggest that a royalist dictatorship might not be the best way to solve
such a complex problem, but that seems to be lost on the ICG.

We are by now familiar with the bias of many scholars and international
organizations towards royalism and members of the royal family compared
with their general repugnance towards the democratically elected Thai Rak
Thai government and Thaksin in particular. In the ICGs report part of this
bias is apparent in what is lacking: the report makes no mention of the
juntas constant invocation of the king as protection against criticism
(everyone, including the southern Muslims, were free to criticize Thaksin,
but just try criticizing the real head of the current regime); it seems
oblivious to the fact that lse majest might cloud our understanding of
what is happening in the south or in Thai politics generally; it fails to
mention the significance that Surayudh was a former privy councilor nor
that Sondhi Boonyaratklin was a Palace loyalist. Why is the report not
more critical of the very obvious bias of the Queen and the Crown Prince
towards the Buddhist victims of the violence? The ICG condemns Thaksin for
his hardline approach to the violence in the south, but where is its
condemnation of the Queens frequent provocative statements, including her
wholehearted support of weapons training for local Buddhists in the
region? The ICG is always willing to criticize the democratically elected
Thaksin (who did not enjoy the luxury of being protected by lse majest),
but refuses to make any comment critical of the monarchys involvement in
the crisis, particularly in the aftermath of the overthrow of a
democratically elected government carried out in the name of the King. Of
course, such criticisms can not be made in Thailand, but the ICG is not
bound by lse majest. Why can the ICG not mention such things in a report
which is supposedly independent?

Another example is the ICGs discussion of the issue whether the state
should support the Patani Malay dialect. The ICG report claims that
attempts to introduce the Patani Malay dialect as an additional language
in state primary schools and to promote its use in government offices have
fallen flat in the absence of high-level political support Why is the
report so vague? What is the high level political support that was absent?
Did the ICG not know that the proposal was publicly rejected soon after it
was proposed (in the National Reconciliation Councils 2006 report) by Gen.
Prem Tinasulanonda, Chairman of the Privy Council, representative of the
King, and widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the coup.
Given the Kings well-known concern for the purity of the Thai language one
would have to assume that Prem represents the Kings own thinking on this
issue. Why did the ICG not mention this in its report? If not, then the
ICG failed in its basic duty of fact-finding. The information was freely
available. Or did the ICG know, but prefer not to say? If so then the ICG
has been even more negligent for not revealing the true reason the
proposal was rejected. The ICG is never reticent to attribute and condemn
policies proposed (or rejected) by Thaksin; why the silence on role of the

The subject of the Thai language is one very close to the heart of the
king. If one goes back and looks at the phraratchadamrat,
phraboromrachowat, birthday speeches, etc. one will find that maintaining
the purity of the Thai language is a recurring theme. Those who listen to
the morning radio news on Or. Sor. Mor. Thor. will know that after the
coup a new segment was introduced urging Thais to love the Thai language,
to use it correctly, in order to honour the king. (Actually, there is a
thesis here for someone to write about how the kings insistence on the
importance of the Thai language to Thai identity and the education systems
systematic neglect of the English language has had the effect of rendering
most Thais prisoner to a conservative, feudal Thai language discourse
dominated by the ratchakan state, and thus largely unaware of liberal
ideas carried through the English language. On this point the Patani Malay
nationalists are absolutely right about the political objectives of Thai
linguistic policies).

In fact, the real crux of the problem is that the ICG has failed to
understand the political significance of the September 19 coup. If it did
then it would be far less confident about the regimes ability to
successfully handle the situation in the south. Essentially September 19
meant the return of the ratchakan state with the King at its head and the
military as its guardian. Everything the regime has done since September
19 has been to ensure that a democratically elected government will never
again threaten this status quo - through to the latest proposal by the
Constitutional Drafting Panel for an appointed Senate, which would
essentially mean that the Senate would return to its earlier pre-Thaksin
function of being an organ of political control for the monarchy and its
network of cronies over elected politicians. The question is then whether
the ratchakan state and its feudal culture of authoritarianism, hierarchy,
intolerance of diversity and lack of transparency (through the use of lse
majest) would be more successful in dealing with the difficult problem of
the south than a fully democratic government, where the ratchakan are the
servants of the elected government, not its master.

Now, if one is to be honest one must admit that the three southern border
provinces are the least royalist part of the country (this is another
inconvenient truth not mentioned in the ICGs report). This, perhaps more
than anything else, is the real obstacle to national integration. If one
reads Ibrahim Syukris popular history of Patani the true villains
responsible for Patanis subjugation are the Thai kings. One should not
forget that it was the founder of the Chakri dynasty that destroyed
Patanis independence in the late eighteenth century. The present kings
grandfather abolished the Patani sultanate, imprisoned its last sultan,
and negotiated the treaty that secured the historic Patani heartland as
part of the Thai nation-state. These facts are staples of Patani
nationalism. The royalist nationalism which has returned with a vengeance
after the Thaksin interlude, while tolerated in other parts of the country
is unlikely to endear the local Malay Muslim population to the Thai state
post-September 19.

So the conflict in the south, if it is to be resolved, is unlikely to
improve under conditions where the Thai monarchy is once again at the
centre of Thai politics, and the military and the ratchakan, untouchable
through their association with the monarchy, carry out its bidding. What
this means is that, like so many other problems in the country, the
situation in the south must wait for a democratic solution to problems at
the centre. If the ICG had grasped this basic fact instead of heaping
praise on a royalist dictatorship then it could have made a real
contribution to an understanding of the situation in the south.


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