Pattani Muslims in Thailand: No Easy Way Out

Every Thai government, whether democratically elected or through the military coup d’état always find it difficult to ignore radical Buddhist northerners’ demand of a hard-line approach towards the predominantly Muslim south

Pattani Muslims in Thailand: No Easy Way Out

Mohamad Radytio - Indonesia

A constitutional referendum was held in Thailand on 7 August 2016 on the Junta-backed draft constitution. There was also a separate question in the referendum asking the voters to approve the junta-appointed senate to jointly vote with the House of Representatives for selecting the Prime Minister in which the result of the general referendum was a big yes. But there was an interesting outcome in one  region of the country, which in fact was connected with the country’s Muslim population.

Voters from three of Thailand’s Deep South provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat--also known as the three Southern Border Provinces (PBS)--and four districts of neighboring Songkhla province had overwhelmingly voted down both the questions with bigger “no” margin in that referendum. Despite the low voter turnout of only 30 per cent of the 1,991,267 eligible voters, the Thai PBS preliminary vote count estimated that 407,820 people voted against the draft constitution while 246,365 voted in favour.

On the second question on the referendum asking whether voters approved the junta-appointed senate to jointly vote with the House of Representatives to select the Prime Minister, 401,415 people voted against it while 234,789 voted to approve it. It is pertinent to say the result of 2016 referendum differed greatly from the 2007 constitutional referendum in which about 70 per cent of population in each of the three Deep South provinces voted in favour of the referendum.

This region is largely populated by ethnic Malay Muslims, and has been the place where separatist groups seek to gain independence from central government in Bangkok. This region’s struggle has roots from the former Malay Muslim originated Sultanate of Pattani. Thai rule over the historical Pattani region was confirmed by the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. Until well into the 20th century, the government in Bangkok had interfered little locally, relying on local officials for the implementation of policies within the Patani region.

This included an exemption in implementing Thai Civil Law, which had allowed Muslims to continue their observance of local Islamic laws regarding issues on inheritance and family. However, by 1934 Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram set in motion of a process of Thaification which had as its objective the cultural assimilation of the Patani people, among other ethnic groups in ThailandAt a glimpse, this big no vote in this part of Thailand can be interpreted as a popular rebuttal against Bangkok. Yet, close examination proves it to be more complicated.


Historically, Pattani Muslims in modern times have more attached with the Thai royalty than towards the Bangkok government in general. Throughout King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s era, the royalty has made many outreach attempts toward the south. Queen Sirikit was known to have frequently visited Pattani region, spending nearly a month on one occasion.

This is because general perception, sometimes peddled by the Palace, that Thai royalty is a sacred institution guarding all sections of Thai society while the government is corrupt, cruel and ineffective one. This perception largely reinforced within the Pattani Muslim society since 2005, when Thaksin-led government conducted a wide-scale and fierce crackdown against separatist groups in Pattani with excessive forces, to the disagreement of King Bhumibol and the Privy Council and later by public ‘condemnation’ by the king itself.

So, when the palace-backed military junta’s constitution was rebuked by a firm margin in the Pattani region, question arises: why?

A group of Pattani politicians named Wadah Faction had criticized the clause of constitution, specifically Section 67 in which they emphasized that it actually “put Theravada Buddhism above the country’s other religions.” The section was written into constitution as a result of Buddhist lobby initiative, who among most other northerners (similar demography whic has become Thaksin’s main supporters) has not only said the country’s Thai identity is inherently tied with Buddhism but also claiming the need to maintain hardliner approach toward Pattani and the insurgents. In essence, they ask for more crackdowns on the Muslim south. On paper, this was translated into inclusion of Section 67 to the now approved-constitution. Even though Northern Thai region also voted down the constitution (mostly because Northerners, who firmly supports Thaksin, still resents the Junta’s coups against Thaksin-controlled democratically elected government), many observers feared that the fact that Junta choose to include the Section is a symptoms of Junta’s appeasement attempt toward the northerner Buddhists.


Local leaders of restive deep-South have persistently demanded at least a level of autonomy from the central government of Thailand for the Pattani region and some of the separatist insurgent movements have made a series of demands for peace talks and negotiations. Political uncertainty in Bangkok has made the case worst where each administration follow different path on solving the political problem in deep-South.


It is not the first time northerner Thai Buddhists asks for –and get- heavy crackdown against the south. As a matter of fact, since 2004 Thai government along with Thai military factions who said to be close with Thaksin and his supporters has repeatedly attacking Pattani separatist groups and also dismantling local governments in Pattani, and this very same “hard-line approach” not only failed but also perpetuating the violence incidents in the south, as many in the general population feels government’s indiscriminate crackdown justifies the separatist group’s terrorist actions toward Thai state symbols and apparatus and, as a consequence, notion of independence from Thailand.


To be fair, what Thai state is facing now is separatist groups whose way of taking revenge against state oppression seems not bothered to bombing civilian places such as banks and supermarkets, groups who are also recorded for forcing their own views on the general population of Pattani, which abhors the way Bangkok handled their territory but also despises the separatist groups. Yet, hard-line approach was just not working and will only aggravate the problem. Thai state needs a new approach to deal with this problem.


Indeed, every Thai government, whether democratically elected or come through the military coup d’état always find it difficult to ignore radical Buddhist northerners’ demand of hard-line approach toward predominantly Muslim Deep South Pattani region. Since the draft charter has passed the nationwide referendum but rejected by Malay Muslims of entire Deep South these contradictory situation might lead to more violence in the restive region. Suffice it to say here that if the Thai state apparatus and its elite genuinely want to solve the separatism problem in the region; it is in their interest to learn the shared co-existence model from other South East Asian neighbors and implement it with honesty and sincerity.

 

Last Mod: 21 Eylül 2016, 12:14
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