[lg policy] Thailand: Language might be the key to peace in the South

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Nov 6 16:45:31 UTC 2015

Language might be the key to peace in the South
The Nation November 6, 2015 1:00 am
The authorities' enchained minds must open to fresh ideas for ending the
discord, first and foremost by safeguarding Malay Muslim identity As much
as our policymakers would like us to believe that the conflict in the
Malay-speaking South stems from the militants' distorted view of Thai
history and Islam, they have never come close to gaining the support of the
local populace. Yet that has been the objective all along, aimed at
undermining the insurgents' "legitimacy".

Between late 2001, when uprisings began anew in the region, and January
2004, when the violence exploded full-bore, authorities in Bangkok referred
to the militants as "sparrow bandits" - minor criminal nuisances, in other

Then, on January 4, 2004, a group of insurgents stormed an Army camp and
made off with more than 300 military-grade weapons, and suddenly the
political underpinnings of the conflict could no longer be denied.

However, even while acknowledging the political nature of the insurrection,
the authorities have insisted that these are nothing more than isolated
troublemakers and it's just a matter of time before the disturbance is
quelled. They have repeated this line so often that they have come to
"believe their own propaganda".

To admit otherwise would necessitate compromises, but ceding any ground to
the militants remains out of the question, even today, after more than
6,000 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence.

If there is any hope in the gloom, it is that the official mindset has not
been an obstacle to creative ideas and meaningful proposals for peace and
reconciliation coming from other segments of society.

Several civil organisations and academics have come up with sound concepts
for moving the stalled peace process forward, and encouragingly, they have
found some receptive ears in government.

Alas, not everyone in authority is convinced, and minds for the most part
remain closed to the notion that a political solution is needed.

The ongoing violence in the South is the result of the Thai government's
refusal to accept a specific historical and cultural narrative and
acknowledge that the Malay Muslims have a separate identity that must be
honoured. They have their own language and beliefs, but these have been
repeatedly challenged by their membership in the Thai nation. And they fear
they might lose that identity through assimilation, as imposed by the state.

At a recent seminar at Chulalongkorn University organised by the Institute
of Security and International Studies, academics and linguists suggested
that a definitive policy on language for southern Thailand could pave the
way to settling the conflict.

If properly applied, such a policy could have both a practical and a
symbolic impact, since it would address a key grievance among the Malay
minority, panellists argued. At the same time it would support national
unity and social cohesion, they said.

The authorities need to understand that language policy involves much more
than bilingual education (although in itself that would be a good start).

Should the Malays be concerned about the loss of identity? They need only
look to the North and Northeast, where local dialects, written and spoken,
have faded due to natural and enforced assimilation. The loss of the local
tongue represents the diminishing of culture - shared stories, myths, even
cooking recipes - and thus a depletion of what makes us who we are.

It is entirely understandable why the Malays of Patani are sceptical over
the lip service paid them by the state. Officials say they appreciate, even
admire, the local culture, and then, rather than helping to preserve it,
actively work to undermine it.

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