Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia and Thailand's Southern Conflict: Reconciling Security and Ethnicity

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia and Thailand's Southern Conflict: Reconciling Security and Ethnicity

Article excerpt

When violence in southern Thailand resumed in late 2001, and escalated dramatically in 2004, no external country was more affected than neighbouring Malaysia. (1) For decades Malaysia has seen developments in Thailand's far south as a national security concern, and has sought to address this by enhanced cooperation with its northern neighbour. However, this has sometimes been complicated by Bangkok's mistreatment of ethnic Malays across the border, with whom the majority of Malaysia's population share a common ethnicity, culture, religion and language.

From the time of Langkasuka, around the first century AD, southern Thailand was a player in the politics of the Malayan peninsula. Three of today's southern provinces--Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat--and four districts in Songkhla, became known as Patani or Patani Raya (Greater Patani) around the fifteenth century. Patani was a regional trading power, one of the leading centres of Islam in Southeast Asia, with close ties to sultanates in Kelantan and Terengganu. From about the fifteenth century the northern Malayan peninsula increasingly came under the influence of powerful Siamese kingdoms in Ayuthia and Bangkok. Siamese forces crushed Patani in 1786 and, despite several rebellions in subsequent years, began to assert strong influence over local affairs. Under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, Thailand ceded neighbouring Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu to British Malaya, but retained the areas incorporating Patani and the province of Satun.

The tri-province region is around 80 per cent Malay-Muslim, in a country that is 90 per cent Buddhist. Seventy per cent of Satun is also Malay, but the province was previously linked to Kedah not Patani, and is more integrated with the rest of Thailand; the majority of its population is Thai-speaking, and it has never been the centre of violent resistance to Bangkok.

Cross-border Linkages

Malays in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have maintained close people-to-people links despite enforced political division. (2) Families in both countries have relatives across the border. The Malay language in the Thai south is almost identical to the dialect found in neighbouring Kelantan and Terengganu, though many Thais incorrectly believe it is a separate language, jawi, which in fact refers to the written Arabic-based script. While the Thai education system has ensured many are now bilingual, Malay is generally spoken at home in the three southernmost provinces.

For decades southerners have crossed the border to attend educational institutions in Malaysia, while some Malaysians have moved in the opposite direction to study at renowned Islamic schools (pondoks) in Thailand. Islamic teachers have crossed the border in both directions. Islamic reform movements have had a similar impact in both regions. In the early twentieth century, the Kaum Muda (Young Group) brought a more orthodox Islam influenced by the Muhamad Abdul movement in the Middle East. Further moves towards orthodoxy began in the 1970s with the dakwah movement. This was a worldwide phenomenon, but in southern Thailand the Malaysian influence was critical--including the growing strength of political Islam, the activities of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM, established in 1971 by later Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim), and the revitalization of the Islamic Party (Parti Islam, or PAS) in neighbouring Kelantan state in the 1990s. (3) When Anwar was sacked and jailed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998, southern Thai Muslims held prayer meetings in solidarity. Tuan Guru Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, Kelantan's state leader, and PAS Spiritual Adviser, was a regular and revered visitor to the south, where he conversed in the local dialect and, at the Queen's invitation, led prayers at a mosque next to the Thai royal family's palace in Narathiwat. (4)

Large numbers of Thai Muslims have also sought employment in Malaysia. …

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