From “Melayu Patani” to “Thai Muslim”: The Spectre of Ethnic Identity in Southern Thailand
By Patrick Jory , Walailak University, Thailand
Published in Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 84, February 2007, Singapore
TIt would appear to be the simplest of questions: Who are the people at the centre of the violent conflict in Thailand’s “three southern provinces”? Judging by the coverage of the issue by the Thai and international media, the statements by the Thai and Malaysian governments, and the work of a large number of academics, particularly those in the field of security studies whose opinions have been eagerly sought, most appear to have concluded: “Muslims”. The Thai government will often add an adjective to this collective name to affirm this group’s nationality, “Thai Muslims” (or, less correctly though a term still widely used, “Thai Islam”). The perception of the conflict as being religious in nature is particularly strong in Thailand. One has only to look at the Thai media coverage of the violence since early 2004, the regular seminars organized to promote inter-religious understanding, concerns expressed to the Thai authorities by the Malaysian government about the “Muslims of southern Thailand”, and visits to Thailand in 2005 by representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as well as the heads of Indonesia’s two major religious organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Merely by the use of these religious labels to represent the actors involved in conflict, despite the Thai government’s attempts to characterize the conflict as not a religious one, it is difficult for the Thai public to imagine it otherwise. Since the conflict has tended to be viewed in Thailand predominantly in religious terms it is inevitable that the solutions that are offered tend to be based on religious considerations.
Yet if the conflict were religious it raises the question why hundreds of thousands of “Thai Muslims” who reside outside the three southern provinces where the violence has been concentrated have not shown greater solidarity with their co-religionists in their struggle with the Thai state. Why then is this conflict consistently represented today using religious terminology?
This paper is an attempt to present a brief historical overview of how the people in the southern border region have been represented. It will give particular attention to the struggle between competing discourses of Thai national identity, pan-Malay ethnic identity, Muslim identity, and a more localized “Patani Malay” identity centred on the memory of the former sultanate of Patani and its associated linguistic and cultural elements.