Essay: Muslims in Thailand


Muslims form Thailand’s largest minority, and are mainly concentrated in the boundaries of Thailand’s southern region, namely the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Satun. Muslims make up about 3 million or 4,6 percent of the total population of the country. 2,7 percent are ‘Malay’ Muslims of the South. Apart from Malay Muslims, the Thai Muslim community also includes Muslim Thais, West Asian Muslims of the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam, South Asian Muslims from the Indian sub-continent, Javanese and Minangkabau Muslims from Indonesia, and Chinese Muslims who mostly reside in the Northern part of Thailand. While the Muslims in the North of Thailand are ethnically associated to and influences by the Muslims from China, and the Muslims from the central region trace back to Iran and the Indian sub-continent, the majority of Muslims who live in the South of Thailand are sunnis of Malay and Indonesian lineage (Kobkua Suwannanthat-Pian 2008:155).
After the 1997 Constitution was put into effect, Buddhism lost its position as the official religion of the realm, even though almost 80 percent of the population of Thailand is Buddhist (Kopkua Suwannanthat-Pian 2008:155). As a result of this, every person who is born in the country is of Thai nationality and he/she has equal rights and responsibilities, regardless of what religion the person belongs to or the status of his/her parents, even if they are not citizens of Thailand. According to this definition, all Muslims who are born in the Thai kingdom are legally Thai citizens as well as of Thai nationality and also have freedom of religion as promised by the Constitution. (Kopkua Suwannanthat-Pian 2008:155-156). Although the majority of Muslims in the lower South have a Malay ethnicity, they are of Thai nationality. Still, their socio-legal identity has ‘become an emotional issue and the subject of fierce and often bloody conflicts and struggles against real and imaginary efforts of the central government to assimilate them into Thailand’s social and cultural mainstream (Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian 2008:156). The area has never been included culturally or psychologically into the Buddhist Thailand and the central government in Bangkok has consistently run a policy of assimilation and standardization. The area has a very long tradition of resistance to the rule of Bangkok and political violence has taken place at various periods in modern history. The Thai state has been involved in for some of the violence, for example, the 1948 Dusun-nyor incident (in which hundreds of Malay-Muslim villagers were killed in Narathiwat). Although there have been ‘separatist’ elements waging a war against the Thai state since the 1960’s, by 1980 a thousand insurgents were regularly carrying out attacks and even bombings in Bangkok. (Thanet Aphornsuvan 2008:91-98 and McCargo 2007:3-9)
When Thailand’s most popular and powerful civilian prime minister was elected, the security situation in the South become worse, particularly following the placement of a highly popular police force in charge of the security in the deep South. This and other policies coincided with a sudden rise in militancy and the violent resistance to the Thai state reemerged. This was evident from December 2001 and onwards. On January 4, 2004 around fifty militants attacked an army camp, taking a large stock of weapons and achieving an enormous propaganda victory. In the four years that followed, the number of people who were killed in political violence reached nearly three thousand. Two of the worst days of violence took place on April 28, 2004- when more than a hundred men died in a series of attacks on security posts, which led up to a bloody siege at the historic Kru-Ze Mosque- and October same year, when seventy eight unarmed protesters died under Thai military custody, mainly from suffocation, in Natathiwat. These incidents boosted the militant movements. (McCargo 2007:4)
Thailand has undergone a variety of historical events. Many of these arose from the period of British and French colonialism in Southeast Asia. Before the late nineteenth century, Siam (an older expression of Thailand) claimed authority over a large part of mainland Southeast Asia. However, their power was mainly expressed through the tribute and allegiance paid by local rulers. The Malay state of Patani paid tribute to Siam, although it was self-governing. During the twentieth century, the Malay state of Patani was incorporated into the Thai state. However, the Malay Muslims in Thailand’s southern border provinces are very proud of their distinctive ethnic identity as Malays or Melayu, as Muslims, and as people of Patani, which was an ancient kingdom and center of Islamic culture and learning. This has resulted in a rather ambiguous relationship between the people of these territories and the Thai state. (McCargo 2008:1)

Ethnic identity

In the 1970’s the concept of ‘ethnicity’ was controversially discussed between followers of two different approaches, namely the ‘primordialist’ and ‘situationalist’.
Clifford Geertz (1973:255-311) is a well-known example of an anthropologist who uses the primordialist approach in the study of ethnicity. In his book, he argues that in many of the new states in the immediately postcolonial area of the 1960s, people’s primary attachment to others is to those who share the same race, who are relatives, who speak the same language, or whose sense of collective past and future is based on shared experiences of people of the same region, of shared religion, or on a community of shared culture and custom (Geertz 1973:259). With the primordialist approaches, it is argued that through these shared characteristics the members of an ethnic group are emotionally bonded, forming the basis of their awareness of group belonging (1973:258).
The primordialist approach basically regards ethnic groups as having constant and objectively given characteristics, thus seeing ethnicity as an involuntary primordial disposition gained through birth and something that is static. The situationalists argue, that ethnicity is not a fixed entity, but that it becomes relevant only in relation to and in comparison with other ethnic groups, by the process of determining limits and boundaries with reference to the respective other. The situationalist approach thus defines ethnicity as a voluntary quality or a phenomenon that is variable, ‘used strategically by the actors of situations of interethnic contact’ (Lenhart 2002:295).
Barth (1969:9-39) is an influential theoretician of ethnicity, who supports this situationalist understanding of ethnicity. According to him, ethnicity is an endless process of negotiating and renegotiation. He focuses on social processes and emphasizes that cultural traits do not define ethnicity, but instead suggests that the focus of research should be on the social boundaries between groups. According to him, ethnicity must therefore be viewed as an aspect of a relationship, not as a property of a group or a person Eriksen (2001:264).
Although the primordialist school provides a reasonable explanation for the rise and persistence of ethnic attachment, it does contain several weaknesses. First, it cannot give an explanation to why ethnic memberships or identities in fact do change over time. Second, it fails to explain why new ethnic identities, such as Asian American, come into existence among culturally and biologically diverse groups, and also why some ethnic identities diminish or disappear. Thirdly, it somehow disregards historical conditions that have undermined ethnic loyalties (Yang 2000:43).
The situationalist school also has drawbacks, which is that it tends to ignore the ancestral basis of ethnicity, while it is also too easy to define ethnicity as a matter of choice. Ethnic choice is subject to the constraints of an individual or group’s ancestry, which is defined by a society. Therefore, not everyone can choose ethnic identity freely (Yang 2000:47). Each of the mentioned views on ethnicity contains valid arguments, however they do not form a complete definition on their own. It is important to merge these views into a synthesis, because while ethnic groups set ethnic boundaries in a flexible way depending on the context, they also select some primordial features. It is evident that there is a continuation of ethnic diversity based on some primordiality. However, at the same time, the conscious and changing responses of groups and individuals or allegiances to ethnic interests can also be seen.
For most social scientists, it is the symbolic aspects that are fundamental criteria of ethnicity. For example, Burgess (1978:269) argues, that ethnicity is in part made up of symbolic elements or markers, that are culturally defined and used in group differentiation. She refers to cultural content, e.g., language, beliefs, religion, values, customs, norms, territorial content, such as country or region, and biological content, e.g., descent, kinship, tribe, etc. Thus, ethnicity is not merely random, but corresponds to pre-existing objective realities. This idea does not support the idea of innate primordialism, which regards ethnicity as a static, unchangeable entity. The cultural content constituting ethnicity can and sometimes does change suddenly, for instance if it becomes more or less important, or more or less shared.
Thus, in order to form a synthetic definition of ethnicity, it is necessary to amalgamate the prevailing theoretical viewpoints. This is why, I will borrow the one proposed by Burgess (1978:270), which defines ethnicity as follows,
The character, quality, or condition of ethnic group membership, based on an identity with and/or a consciousness of group belonging, that is differentiated from others by symbolic markers (including cultural, biological, or territorial), and is rooted in bonds of a shared past and perceived ethnic interests.
Another aspect of ethnicity is ethnic conflict, which also seems to be a very contested topic among researchers and theoreticians. Geertz (1973:260) believes, that conflict between two ethnic groups, A and B, is unavoidable due to unchanging and essential characteristics of the members of each ethnic group. However, what I would propose is, that ethnic conflict does not merely result from contrasting views or disagreements on some of the primordial traits that constitute the groups’ respective ethnicities. Instead, ethnic conflict can emerge in situations where these disagreements are perceived as threats to their ethnicities, because the traits constituting their ethnic identity are being negotiated or challenged. For example, in the case of the Malay Muslims in the Southern borders of Thailand, it was when they were required to abandon some of their ethnic identity traits in order to become fully recognized citizens, that a new era of ethnic conflict emerged.

Ethnic Identity in Crisis

Three elements that are significant highlight my argument. Firstly, Thailand’s political discourse of ‘Thainess’, which proposes a set of criteria that must be conformed to in order to be called a proper Thai. Secondly, the matter of ‘graduated citizenship’, which involves around the sense of ‘(un)belongingness’ that the Malay Muslims experience from not meeting the informally understood criteria for full Thai citizenship. And thirdly, the alienation of Malay Muslims from the so-called ‘Thai Muslims’, who are viewed and treated differently by the Thai state and society. I have selected these three elements because it is in these that the ethnic identity crisis and conflict is particularly visible.
1. ‘Thainess’

In this section, I will present the conflicting viewpoints on what constitutes ethnic identity of respectively the Thai authorities and the Malay Muslim minority in the South. This is done by focusing on the predominant discourse of Thainess, which the Thai authorities use to assert and propagate their ethnic identity, while also looking into the reaction of the Malay Muslim’s to these policies and how they in return insist on maintaining and asserting their own ethnic identity.
The political discourse of ‘Thainess’ as a collective identity is made up of shared commonality of language, religion and monarchy. Being a proper Thai is to be loyal to three principles or pillars, which are: chat or nation (speaking the Thai language is an expression of membership in the Thai nation), satsana or religion (being Thai means to conform to Buddhism), and phra mahakrasat or devotion to the King. During the second world war, the central Bangkok government aimed to create a unified nation-state through policies of nation-building. Phibun, who was prime minister at the time, and his government sought to mobilize the population under the banner of Thai nationalism, paving the way for a forced assimilation policy with little toleration of minority cultures.
In order to be recognized as a modern and civilized country by the powerful nations, Phibun initiated measures that removed what he regarded ‘cultural, hygienic, sartorial and other deficiencies’ (Thanet Aphornsuwan 2008:106). One of these measures was the renaming of Siam to Thailand. Generally speaking, these policies promoted the ideas of ‘Thainess’ and ethnic Thai nationalism. Numerous ethnic minority groups were affected by these cultural laws and regulations, however the Malay Muslims in the South were most effected. In order to downplay their distinctiveness as ethnic Malays, the government referred to them as ‘Southern Thais’ and ‘Islamic Thais’, and it was invented to emphasize the Thainess of Malay Muslims in the South. It reflected the Thai state’s willingness to tolerate religious difference, but that it did not accept any other significant differences among the citizens of Thailand.
The fact that the Malay Muslims of the three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat were aware of their socio-political history and proud of their ethnic roots, made their social and political status within the kingdom very sensitive. Political stability in the South thus became a significant subject for the kingdom. The Malay Muslims had hostile sentiments against the Thai authorities because of the manner in which the former sultanate of Patani was incorporated into the Thai kingdom in the early twentieth century. In addition, the Thai Buddhist authorities also did not trust them and Malay Muslim stereotypes based on Malay ethnicity were created, presenting a generalized image of a homogenous Malay Muslim community, struggling against the rule of Bangkok.
When Bangkok embraced nationalism as an essential aspect of its nation-building project in the first quarter of the twentieth century, it introduced a forced and compulsory national educational system in the area, which resulted in a serious outburst of discontent among the Malay Muslims. It was feared, that the Malay Muslims would be forced to embrace Thai identity, which meant to become a Buddhist, and so forsake their Malay socio-cultural heritage. In addition, the government later on found it necessary to set up a National Identity Board under the Prime Minister’ Office in the 1980s. Questions were raised like ‘who is Thai’? and ‘who is not a real Thai’?, who should be regarded as fully-fledged citizens and who were merely second class citizens of Thailand.
The new definition of identity meant, that to become a good subject one had to be of Thai descent, a Buddhist and loyal to the king, and had to be measured by his ‘Thainess’ which consists of three pillars: ethnicity, belief in Buddhism and loyalty to the monarch. Not surprisingly, the Malay Muslims in the South felt the most threatened to their concept of ethnic identity and socio-religious heritage, being the most reluctant to submit to the demands perpetrated by the Thai authorities. The result of this Thai assimilation policy was that it interfered with the religious practices of the Muslims in the South by attempting to take all legal matters under Thai law. This meant that the Muslim legal code, which was structured by the Shari’a (Islamic law) and adat (Malay custom) and administered by the Qadi (Muslim judge), was instead to be controlled by Thai Buddhist officials (Scupin 1998:233).
After the Second World War, there remained a firm belief among the Thai leaders that Thai national identity embedded in Thai ethnicity, Buddhism and the love for the country and the king (the last symbolizing the nation). Today, the political discourse of ‘Thainess” is still being instilled through the ‘defense of national sovereignty, preservation of national socio-cultural values and the Thai way of life ‘ and protection of Thailand’s two pillars, the monarchy and Buddhism’ (Kopkua Suwannanthat-Pian 2008:165). This deeply alienated the Malay Muslims as it set their loyalty to the land of their birth against their loyalty to their distinctive Malay culture and customs of their ancestors and ethnic identity. The Malay Muslims, just like those who identify with Thai identity, regard certain primordial features of their ethnic identity as being essential in their self-identification, both as individuals and as a group.
The conflicting views are not on whether one believes that ethnicity is one thing, and the other believes ethnicity is another thing. Both parties agree, that ethnic identity has to contain certain core values, however, it is in these that they differ tremendously. The Malay Muslims’ ethnic identity is based on commonality of the Malay language, or Jawi , Islam, loyalty to one God- Allah, and their Malay ancestry or origin. However, the introduction of the assimilation policies under the ‘Thainess’ discourse, or the concept of Thai national identity, was based on the Thai authority’s definition of ethnicity. It led to a new era of discontent which resulted in armed struggle for independence of the former sultanate of Patani, as it meant an abandonment of what the Malay Muslims perceived their ethnicity to be, namely their Malay heritage and Muslim way of life.
The ethnic conflict resulting from the promotion of ‘Thainess’ did not merely result due to the contradictory views on ethnicity that the Thai society and Malay Muslims hold respectively. It occurred when these primordial traits constituting the Malay Muslim’s ethnic identity were being threatened to be negotiated, by the Thai authorities. This can be argued because prior to the 1920’s, the Malay Muslims were able to accept the identity that was prescribed by the central government, as it was far from a threat to their ethnic identity and did not require them to compromise it. A good subject of Siam was only then required to ‘demonstrate his love for the freedom of the country, his sense of fairness to others and his willingness to compromise his interests for the good of all’ (Kobkua Suwannanthat-Pian 2008:168). It was when the political discourse of ‘Thainess’, based on ethnicity, Buddhism and the monarchy, was introduced that it led to a new era of protest and violent outbursts within the three provinces (Jory 2007:3-24).

2. Graduated citizenship ‘ a sense of ‘(un) belongingness’

Citizenship is usually viewed as a simple question of nationality, or that people either are citizens of a country or not. However, informal notions of citizenship exist, and may even be as prevalent as formal notions. In Thailand, according to the constitution, Malay Muslims in the South are Thai nationals, but do not live up to the informally-understood criteria for full Thai citizenship, leaving them with a sense of not belonging in the wider Thai society (McCargo 2011:833-846).
Malay Muslims in the South feel deeply alienated from the broader society and are not keen on participating in it. Thai Buddhists often claim that the Malay Muslim community is disloyal to the Thai state, and view their religious and social practices as acts of separation from the wider society. On the other hand, the Malay Muslims see the attitudes and behaviors of the Thai Buddhists as a part of a discourse of ‘us’ and ‘them’. They simply do not want to partake in the wider Thai society, which they find unwelcoming, suspicious, unsympathetic and patronizing. This is due to the predominant discourse of ‘Thainess’, which has made it difficult for ethnic minorities, such as the Malay Muslims, to fit within modern Thailand. (McCargo 2011:836). Additionally, while the Thai Buddhists claim that they advocate undifferentiated citizenship in which there are no ethnic privileges, it is in practice characterized by ‘sharply-differentiated modes of (albeit, informal) citizenship that privilege certain groups’ (McCargo 2011:836). Although the successive constitutions (the 1997 and 2007 constitutions) give a detailed description of citizen rights, it is not practiced accordingly.
McCargo (2011:841) describes Thailand as having an ‘extra-constitutional monarchy in which the palace ‘ which may include royal advisers, courtiers and an extended network of those who invoke their loyalty to the monarchy ‘ enjoys considerable informal, unspoken, and unwritten authority.’ Additionally, being a Thai citizen is not a matter of either/or, but a question of degree. Some Thai’s can be considered more citizens than others. Those who hold Thai nationality but to not agree with the shared notions of Thainess are merely ‘formal’ or ‘paper citizens’, and the Malay Muslims often fall under this category. Full citizenship requires holding formal citizenship together with the willingness to embrace Thainess. McCargo (2011:842) distinguishes between three categories of Thai citizens: First, the full citizens who feel completely Thai; formal citizens who suffer from ‘Thai deficiency syndrome’ ; and paper citizens who do not suffer from Thai deficiency syndrome. This has in some cases even resulted in, that some non-Thai’s have been successfully passed as Thai, because they speak the language without accent, and show outward adherence to the fundamental principles of Thai identity. That is, subscription to shared notions of ethnic identity based on the three pillars ‘Nation, Religion, King’.
Many Malay Muslims find this very problematic and look back at their earlier period of an independent Patani state with nostalgia. It is very difficult for the Malay Muslims to express unquestioning loyalty to the monarchy, as it would entail the compromise of their own ethnic identity, which includes loyalty to Allah and previous Patani kings and queens. Another implication of Thainess is a deep attachment to the Thai language, which for most Malay Muslims is only spoken as a second language, acquired for pragmatic purposes. For many Malays, a Thai accent is even considered shameful. However, one of the demands of Thainess, and full Thai citizenship, is that Thai should be one’s mother tongue and language of first choice (McCargo 2011:841-846).
Thus, the concept of full Thai citizenship and Thainess is essentially incompatible with the ‘Malay-ness’ which defines the Malay Muslim’s ethnic identity. Although, both Thainess and Malayness are rooted in their own respective definition of ethnicity consisting of shared religion, language and loyalty, they are unable to share space on equal terms, which has resulted in an ethnic conflict. The Malay Muslims are left with a strong feeling of (un)belongingness, because of the Thai authorities expectations involving them subsuming their ethnicity to a dominant discourse and mindset of Thainess in order to be recognized as a fellow citizen. Even though the Malay Muslims are born in Thailand, hold Thai citizenship and increasingly speak Thai as a first language, they still do not live up to the criteria for full Thai citizenship. (McCargo 2011:843-846).
Given the government’s policy of assimilating the Malay Muslims as Thai Muslims on one side of the border, and the Malaysian government’s politicization of Islam and favoring of Malay identity on the other side of the border, the Malay Muslims living in the South feel a strong sense of not belonging and identity crisis (Jory 2007:25). While the Bangkok Thais view them as khaek or Malay foreigners, they are typically viewed as ‘Thai buffaloes’ by Malaysian Malays. In other words, the Malay Muslims in the South are rejected as marginal by both fellow Malays and fellow Thais, and as McCargo (2011:834) describes it ‘have fallen back on their self-generated identity resources, choosing to assert their specific regional characteristics rather than subordinate themselves to broader notions of nationality’.

3. Thai Muslims versus Malay Muslims – A problem that challenges the identity of Malay Muslims

Because of the historical and cultural conditions of the Muslims in central and northern Thailand, the experience of them has been far different from that of their Muslim affiliates in the Southern provinces. These Muslims of the central and northern parts of Thailand have brought with them distinctive ethnic, religious and social traditions as they have migrated to the country. (Scupin 1998:238) These communities are therefore much more diverse and varied than the Malay Muslims of the South. Another contributing factor to their diverseness is that, unlike the Malays, these Muslims are ethnic and religious minorities who reside in areas with a predominantly Thai Buddhist cultural environment. (Scupin 1998:238).
The majority of the Muslims in central Thailand, particularly in Bangkok, are descendants of the Malays from the southern provinces and parts of Malaysia. The Thai state attempted to integrate the southern Malay provinces by forcefully relocating them to Bangkok and other surrounding areas, and this transfer began in the thirteenth century, according to historical records. (Scupin 1998:238-239). However, unlike the Muslims in the South, most of them refer to themselves as ‘Thai Muslims’ and the Thai language has become the first language and native language of most of them in central and north Thailand. Other factors that have contributed to these Muslims’ extensive integration into the Thai society include mandatory education in Thai schools and intermarriage. Scupin (1998:248) refers to an aphorism often heard in the Thai Muslim community, relating to children of mixed marriages between a Muslim immigrant and a Thai woman, which is as follows, ‘the children of these mixed marriages would adhere to the dress, manners and language of their Thai mothers, but to the religion of their Muslim fathers’. Thus, although the Muslim communities in these predominantly Buddhist regions are ‘identifiable by their needs for a halal-based diet and by their mosques’ (Scupin 1998:249), they tend to take part in the same institutions as their non-Muslim neighbors.
Additionally, the Thai Muslims are an influential group in Bangkok and are very closely tied to political and other elites. For example the Bunnag family, who were Muslims of Persian descent, played central roles in the administration of Siam’s economy in the nineteenth century. Also, the Thai Muslim General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who commanded the royal Thai army from year 2005-2007 (McCargo 2011:834). The office of Chularajamontri has also long been monopolized by the Thai Muslims (McCargo 2010:96). According to McCargo (2011:834), the Thai state have thus managed to secure the Thai Muslims’ loyalty and participation in wider Thai society, and the Thai Muslims have accepted the hybridized status of ‘Thai Muslims’. Their ‘Muslim-ness’ is incorporated into Thai identity, which is in no way a threat or critique of the dominant group and ideology of the nation (McCargo 2011:839).
However, this is far from the case for the Malay Muslims in the South, who regard Thai Muslims as over-assimilated, less devout to their religion and willing to tolerate all the negative features of Thai culture and society. (McCargo 2011:834).
The Malay Muslims in the South draw their identity from three sources: as Malay with their own Jawi language and cultural traditions, as Muslims, and as heirs to the Patani sultanate. These constitute the core traits and values of their ethnicity. The term for converting to Islam in Jawi language is masok melayu, which literally means ‘to become Malay’. (Al Jazeera, 27 February 2012) However, while the Thai Muslims also regard their Islamic religion to hold an essential place in their concept of ethnicity, most of them do not consider it a problem or religious dilemma, to express loyalty to both Allah and the Thai royalty at the same time (McCargo 2011:834). Additionally, many of them only speak the Thai language, and attend schools that are dominated by Thai Buddhists. The Malay Muslims, on the other hand, find this deeply problematic and challenging to their Muslim identity, which has resulted in them responding with showing no tolerance for any Muslim who associated with the Thai government (Al Jazeera, 27 February 2012). Muslims who are thought to collaborate with the security forces or work for the government have been labeled munafik (hypocrites), suggesting that they undermine Islam itself (Al Jazeera, 27 February 2012).
From this case, it is evident that ethnic identity conflict can even arise between groups who share the same religion, the same core or primordial trait in their ethnic identity. However, they differ in some of these ethnic identity traits, for example in the use of language, views on loyalty and culture. The Malay Muslims are constantly challenged on their Islamic identity when confronted with the wide and extensive integration of Thai Muslims into the Thai society, which has resulted in tensions between the two groups. The Malay Muslims in the southern provinces have chosen to strongly assert their ethnic identity and regional characteristics, which has sometimes resulted in violent insurgencies targeting Thai Muslims in particular.

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