Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Misguided Policies Toward Thai Muslims.

Nophakhun Limsamnphun, sometimes ago, wrote this in Thailand’s, The Nation.

If you ask Professor Niran Pantharakit of Mahidol University, an expert on Muslim affairs in Thailand, what went so wrong with the Thaksin government's policy on southern Thailand, where daily violence seems relentless, he would probably say something like: "Too much materialism, politics and economics, but very little spirituality."

Niran, also director of the Sheikhul Islam Office, which groups together the highest Muslim bodies here, told me the other day that the government probably missed the mark because of its inability to perceive subtle issues that fundamentally affect the mindset of most Muslim compatriots.

He was referring to subtleties in differences of history, culture, language and religion between the estimated 6 million Thai Muslims and the kingdom's Buddhist population of more than 50 million. By failing to comprehend the depths of Muslims' historical background, their unique culture, language and religious belief, Bangkok has effectively ignored the "spiritual" elements that bond Muslims all over the world with each other, resulting in misguided policies imposed by the central government at the provincial and local levels in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

Niran also reminded me that about 80 percent of all Muslims in Thailand can trace their origins back to Malayu, present-day Malaysia, regardless of where they live now in Thailand. While the majority of these people currently reside in the 14 southern provinces, there are also significant numbers of Muslims around the country, such as in Bangkok and the nearby Central region, in Rayong [the East] and Chiang Mai [the North].

Hence, it is wrong in his opinion to suggest that there are Siamese Muslims [who are more loyal to the kingdom] and Malay Muslims [who feel closer to Malaysia], even though Muslims in southern Thailand used to have a grudge about the centralization of governance during the reign of King Rama V, in which their former royals were removed from the seat of power.

Afterwards, the difference in religious belief between Muslims and those of other faiths has periodically been used to spur hatred and violent struggles in the South. These struggles seem to have been revived in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks in New York three years ago, especially after Thailand adopted several tough measures along the lines of the U.S.-led global movement against terrorism.

In short, Bangkok has become overloaded with global geopolitical considerations while ignoring the subtle elements and sensitivity of its own people in the South. It has also turned to a security and economic-development agenda, hoping that increased military power and billions of baht in fresh cash pouring into the South will pacify the people and solve their problems.

However, it has become increasingly obvious that it doesn't work that way in the Muslim world, in which materialistic development and economic well-being are considered far less important than spiritual well-being and understanding.

And when it comes to spirituality in Islam, Niran suggests that only well-informed and well-intentioned specialists should be employed to manage the situation in the South, where he believes genuine efforts in re-creating a good understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims are urgently needed to restore peace and order.

Niran's analysis seems to be supported by the Interior Ministry's survey of more than 17,000 residents of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, in which 91 percent of respondents said that the single biggest factor contributing to the ongoing violence in the South, was the difference in ethnicity, religious belief, culture and historical background.

In addition, 81 percent of respondents suggested that many government officials working in the three provinces were inefficient and unresponsive to local citizen's needs.

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