Malay language and conflict in Deep South

 
The liberation movement engaged in armed struggle for the independence of the three southernmost provinces, called Patani by local people, has always cited Thailand’s assimilation policy and its discrimination against the use of local Malay language as one of the main reasons of the armed struggle. 
 
 
The policy of language discrimination in Thailand dates back at least 80 years ago to the Thai Cultural Mandates imposed by then Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram on Thai nationals across the country. These decreed that Thai nationals, whatever their ethnicity, must speak Thai, learn Thai in school, abandon local dress and adopt a western-influenced dress code. This greatly affected people in the Deep South whose first language is Malay. Later in 1947, Haji Sulong bin Abdul Kadir, an influential religious teacher, submitted seven demands to the Thai government, calling for administrative reform of the region. Two of the seven demands were to have Malay and Thai as co-official languages and to allow Malay to be taught in primary schools. The demands led to him being accused of rebellion, arrested, and disappeared. 
 
A poster propagating the Thai Cultural Mandates, produced by the Songkhla's Muang District. The left side shows the "Don't" dress, while the right shows the "Do" dress. 
 
Due to this uncompromising assimilation policy, the state of Malay in Patani has become very weak and marginalized. The Jawi script, an alphabet for writing the Malay language based on the Arabic alphabet, was made irrelevant and confined to matters related to Islam. 
 
After violence erupted 12 years ago, there have been campaigns among the local people for the revival of Malay and the Jawi script, along with campaigns to popularize Malay Patani identity. An old saying “Hilang bahasa hilang bangsa, hilang bangsa hilang agama” roughly translated as “Without language, there can be no race. Without race, there can be no religion.” is repeatedly cited among advocates of Malay. 
 
Prachatai’s Thaweeporn Kummetha discusses how the language, Malay identity and violent conflict are intertwined in the three southern border provinces. Hara Shintaro is an expert on the Malay language and fierce critic of Deep South politics. The Japanese academic has been living in the South of Thailand since 1999, and taught at Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus for many years. Hara defines himself as an outsider who is ‘inside’ the Patanian community. 
 
Hara Shintaro Photo courtesy of halallifemag.com
 
Could you describe the current situation of Malay in Patani?
 
With regard to quality, I would explain that hardly any native speaker of Patani Malay can conduct a conversation for a long time without being influenced by Thai, either in the form of a loan word or phrase, code-switching or even language shift. 
 
The very bitter but crucial fact is that Malay in Patani is so weak that I described it as an ICU patient. The number of speakers is declining, especially in the towns, and the lexicon is also diminishing, replaced by so many Thai loanwords to the extent that almost all conversations between Patani Malays are incomprehensible to Malaysians or Indonesians. The number of those who are not able to write or read in Malay is increasing remarkably, and the use of Thai script for Patani Malay in the social media is clearly observable. 
 
There are debates among civil society on the promotion of the Jawi script, which is predominantly used only in Patani. Some say Patani people should abandon Jawi and adopt Rumi to catch up with the rest of the Malay world. What is your take on that?
 
I support the Jawi script for certain purposes. First, the historical experience of Patani Malays is different from the Malay-speaking peoples in Malaysia or Indonesia, for instance. They officially adopted the roman script at the independence of the country. But the Patani Malay people have never had systematized learning in the Roman script. On the other hand, the Jawi script has been used in the traditional educational institutions in the region such as the tadika and pondok schools.
 
Accordingly, the implementation of a new or foreign writing system such as Roman script, or a concocted Thai-based writing system (which I’m totally against) is not as practical as the promotion of Jawi script, which can at least still be read by the majority of the local people. When we already have a practical writing system, what is the use of introducing something else?  
 
In addition, the script has certain cultural values related to the Patani Malay identity. The Jawi script has lost its status as the main writing system in other parts of the Malay world, even in Malaysia, where the script had been widely used. Patani is, at this moment, the only place in the Malay world where the Jawi script is still more dominant than Roman script. 
 
What do you think of the Thai authorities’ attempts during the past 10 years to support a Malay identity? 
 
Certainly, this level of recognition is better than nothing. But just like other good policies, implementation is not thorough. 
 
The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), especially when it was led by Thawee Sodsong, made significant changes related to the use of Malay language, including the establishment of the Dewan Bahasa Melayu Thailand (Malay Language Council of Thailand). Some people described this as the equivalent of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (the National Institute of Language and Literature) in Malaysia. In a sense it’s true, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the Malaysian institute is protected by three layers of law, i.e. the status of Malay as the national language in the Constitution, the Language Act which prescribes that all the government agencies must use Malay, and the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Act, the act which guarantees the institution itself. In Thailand, the Dewan Bahasa Melayu Thailand has no legal basis whatsoever.  
 
Apart from this, it should be stressed that the implementation of Malay in Thailand is still at a very superficial level. In terms of signage in government agencies, there are quite a few government agencies with no signs in Malay, and apart from this, the signs are only on the façade, not inside the building. 
 
How is Malay in other Malay countries? How has colonization affected it?
 
Since Malaysia and Indonesia achieved independence, Malay (in Malaysia) and Indonesian were picked as the national languages, and their status is clearly stated in their constitutions. Following this, the governments of both countries have been actively promoting their languages with constructive language policies and language planning. This process is crucially important for a language like Malay which had been deprived of the opportunity to develop over time through hundreds of years of colonization, because under colonization, the vernacular languages were not given any official place in the administration (of the colonizers) or in higher education (also dominated by the colonizers). 
 
On the other hand, languages like Japanese or Thai, because of the lack of a colonial experience (though Japan was occupied by the US for five years after WW II), have been developing gradually, and these language can be used in practically every field, including government affairs, higher education and so on, without any need for the governments to intentionally develop the languages. But in the Malay world, as every square inch of the land was colonized, all the vernacular languages were deprived of the chance to develop. The situation only changed after independence when one of the local languages (Malay and Indonesian, in this context) was recognized as the official language of the country.
 
This recognition led to the status of the language being guaranteed in the constitution, as well as state-sponsored development in the form of the language planning. Indonesian is regarded as one the most successful examples of language planning, and now the language can function as a full-fledged language in all aspects. Compared to these strong Malay languages, the Malay of Patani is far weaker, and it’s declining both in use and quality. 
 
Why is Malay important to Patani identity?
 
Language is not always the most important identity indicator for certain people. In some relatively monolinguistic societies, like in Japan or mainstream Thai society, the dominant languages are so strong that they are taken for granted. But in the Malay world, which is highly multilingual, the Malay language has to coexist with other languages, including the languages of the colonizers. In one sense, multilingualism in the Malay world has been beneficial for the development of Malay, as the language has absorbed so many loanwords from foreign languages, including the three most important layers: Sanskrit, Arabic and European languages (especially English and, in case of Indonesian, Dutch). However, the influence of the colonizers’ languages, and the organized immigration of outsiders, especially from China and India during the colonial era, threatened the position of the vernacular languages in the Malay world, especially Malay. The degradation of Malay, from the official language of the Malay Sultanates in the archipelago and the peninsula, to being just one of the vernacular languages, had a profoundly negative impact on the development of Malay. To put it simply, during the colonial era, Malay was deprived of the opportunities to develop according to the passage of time, to the extent that a prominent Malay linguist (who happens to be the supervisor for my master’s degree) described Malay before the independence of Malaysia as ‘the language of coffee shops and markets, with no place given to it either in officialdom or in the higher educational institutions’. 
 
Under such circumstances, I believe it’s very natural for the language, which had been clearly threatened by the outsiders/colonizers, to be regarded as the one of the most important identity markers by the Malay people, and the same thing can be applied to the Patani Malay people. 
 
It is especially so because in Thailand, Malay-speaking communities can disappear in certain cases, unlike in other parts of the Malay world. For instance, Satun Province was a Malay-speaking area about a century ago, but at this moment, only the villages adjacent to Malaysia still speak the language (in the form of the Satun dialect). The native Malay-speaking community in Songkhla city, which, according to a document written by a Dutch officer, was famous for its good Malay language (to the extent that he decided to study Malay there), disappeared a long time ago. 
 
 
Could you recommend ways to promote Malay in Patani? 
 
The disappearance of Malay is not a far-fetched nightmare of linguistic fanatics, but a reality, mainly due to the fact that Malay has no legal status whatsoever in Thailand. 
 
It doesn’t mean that the status of Thai as the sole national language (which I fully respect) should be challenged in any way. However, any effort to promote a language inevitably remains superficial as long as it is not supported by the legal system. For instance, no language other than Thai is allowed to be used as local co-official language in Patani. And in order to do this, some changes in law should happen. 
 
In order to promote Malay in Patani effectively, there must be an open, in-depth discussion. However, the attitudes and assumptions of Thai officials have always been an obstacle. The current restrictions on freedom of speech exacerbate the situation. If someone suggests that Malay should be a local official language, he or she might be immediately labelled as a sympathizer of the armed groups, and might be accused of being a threat to the national security. In short, at least in one aspect, the Thai state itself creates the conditions for the conflict.
 
if we seriously want to promote Malay, steps should be taken immediately. However, the majority of the local people are just happy to blame the Thai state and its aggressive and suppressive policies (especially in the past) for the loss of Malay identity, including its language. They are merely engaged in this unproductive game of scapegoat-finding, while doing hardly anything to promote the quality of the Malay language in the region in a practical way. 
 
The Thai state should be wise enough to fully realize that the language issue is one crucial component of the identity of the Patani Malay (people). By trying sincerely to solve this problem, the state can reduce at least one of the conditions for the armed groups’ struggle. 
 
 
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Tadika is a religious school teaching out of official school hours
Pondok is a traditional religious boarding school