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Kingdom of Conflict

By Bertil Lintner

This examination of southern Thailand's chequered past couldn't be more timely.

History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani, by Ibrahim Syukri. Silkworm Boooks, Chiang Mai, 2005. 115 pages

Hardly a day goes by without yet another bomb attack or assassination in Thailand's Muslim-dominated deep South. And the violence, which has claimed at least 860 lives in the past year and a half, shows no sign of subsiding despite government initiatives ranging from brutal military crackdowns to attempts at dialogue with the dissidents and appeals for national reconciliation. The crisis has affected Thailand's reputation as a safe and stable recipient of foreign investment and tourism. It has also caused a rift between Thailand and Malaysia, its neighbor and partner in Asean.

Anti-Malaysian protests were staged in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand after former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested creating an autonomous region in the southern provinces as a solution. Anti-Thai demonstrations have been held in front of the Thai embassies not only in Kuala Lumpur but also in Jakarta and Dhaka to protest against the treatment of Thailand's southern Muslims. There is even fear that Thailand may be drawn into a broader Islamic struggle, as activists elsewhere have posted graphic images of arrested and dead Thai Muslims on the website, an Islamic electronic news bulletin read by Muslims worldwide.

The conflict may have escalated in recent years and become more internationalized than before, but unrest in Thailand's south is nothing new. The three provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat once formed Patani, an independent Muslim sultanate populated by ethnic Malays. Even after its Thai annexation in 1832, however, Patani had its own monarchs until 1902, when Abdul Qadir Qamaruddin, the last ruler, was deposed and imprisoned. Patani was then carved up into three provinces, and administered from Bangkok.

Ibrahim Syukri outlines his view of that process in this book, which was originally written in Arab-script Malay and published in the early 1950s in Pasir Putih, across the frontier in Kelantan. At the time, it was suppressed in Thailand as well as in what was then British Malaya because it was seen as a potential threat to bilateral relations between the two countries. Few copies survived, but an English translation was published in 1985 by the Centre for International Studies at Ohio University, and now, for the first time, in Thailand by Chiang Mai's Silkworm Books.

No one knows who Ibrahim Syukri was, though it is obviously a pseudonym. But, as historian David Wyatt points out in his newly-written introduction to the book, we can tell that he clearly was a native of Patani, well-educated in the local traditions and culture. It is also apparent that the author had obtained a degree of Western-style learning, even including some knowledge of English (which he would have had great difficulty obtaining in the Patani region.)

Whatever the identity of the author, and despite the fact that he wrote the book half-a-century ago, this outline of Patani's history should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in establishing peace in Thailand's troubled south. It is important not because it is an objective historical study, which it is not, but because it reflects the way in which many, if not most, southern Muslims perceive past and present injustices against their community.

"The sovereignty of the Malay rulers of Patani was abolished through trickery by the Siamese kingdom in 1902 [and] its Patani Malay subjects were changed to citizens of the state of Siam-Thai," the author writes. Even Western historians would argue that Patani ended up on the wrong side of the border because of historical convenience. In 1909, the British and the Thais signed a treaty, which marked the formal transfer of authority to Bangkok in return for the abandoning of Thai claims to the Malay states of Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan.

The territorial dispute between Thailand and the British colonial power in Malaya was solved, but the new border caused an internal conflict in Thailand that continues to this day. In December 1947, the Thai police burned the village of Kampung Belukar Masahak and arrested scores of young Muslims in retaliation for the killing of a Thai official in the area. Ibrahim Syukri quotes an article that appeared in the Singapore Straits Times shortly afterwards, in which the reporter, Barbara Wittingham-Jones, stated that "although the Thai-Siam have oppressed the Patani Muslims so terribly for 50 years, nevertheless the principle of Siamizing the Malays in Patani has not yet succeeded."

Little has changed since then, but it is Thailand's strength that a book like this can now be published in the country. And that could be the beginning of a meaningful discussion about the roots of the problem in the South and what the way forward should be.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, August 2005

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