Another article on Asian Racism - this time in Thailand. Enjoy.
Thailand deals with ethnicity
Thailand is not a multicultural country as its leaders often claim. The ongoing conflict and violence in southern Thailand reveal the country’s deep-seated discrimination and injustice against the country’s minorities who have different cultures, languages and religious beliefs. Thailand is a very diverse country with 79 different nationalities and linguistic groupings.
The hullabaloo surrounding the drafting of the new constitution during the past several months on the provision related to whether to declare Buddhism as the state religion is another case in point revealing the insensitivity towards Thailand’s diversity.
As in the rest of Southeast Asia, religious belief in this country is often linked to ethnicity. Approximately 10 per cent of the 66 million Thai population are Muslims and comprise the country’s largest religious minority. Almost all of the Muslim in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are Sunni, with Shiites representing a small percentage. In the case of the Chinese ethnic group, they are either Christian or syncretic Taoist-Buddhists.
It is interesting to note how Thailand has succeeded in assimilating the Chinese. Within Southeast Asia, the Chinese communities tend to have strong cultural identities and societal links amongst themselves. That is not the case, however, for the Thai-Chinese communities. They are different.
Once they arrived in Thailand, they adopted Thai names, took up Buddhism and other aspects of Thai life and norms without any resistance. The estimated 13 million Chinese-Thai citizens are considered well off, both in terms of education and wealth, but they have chosen to follow the local culture and traditions. Any visit to Bangkok’s famous China town, Yaowaraj, would reveal this strong trait. While all the façades and huge neon signs along the main roads stress the Chinese-ness of their cultural heritage, the small alleys or soi and walkways show the other side of them being Thai.
It was only in the past ten years that the government has allowed the teaching of putonghua or mandarin Chinese. After more than half a century of suppression, the government is now enthusiastically promoting the teaching of the once so-called “communist language” which would require at least 5,000 language teachers from China.
In contrast, the Muslims down south live in isolation despite Bangkok’s claim of successful assimilation. They have more contacts with the neighbor in the south, Malaysia, than with their own government. This strong linkage with Malaysia continues unabated today, especially since the 1902 annexation by the central authority in Bangkok of Pattani and six surrounding areas. This places Thailand in a precarious situation.
Within their own communities, they have little interaction with the Thais. The only contact they have would be when the local authorities want to find fault with them. Their children attend religious schools or pondoks near their homes and are taught by religious leaders they know and trust.
Before the tumultuous event of 11 September 2001, the Thai authorities have never attempted to control or monitor the curriculum taught at these various pondoks, assuming that their curriculum must be automatically in line with the Thai national education system to take advantage of the higher education system for students in the provinces.
Since there is no standardized Muslim syllabus, the daily teaching method and its contents are being left to the religious teachers themselves. Many local pondok schools continue to teach Islam as the main subjects and Thai-Malayu as the main language, without sufficient tutoring in subjects such as the social sciences and humanities. Some parents do not want to compromise religious teaching classes with other subjects. As a consequence, children studying in private pondoks are unable to compete with other mainstream students coming from elsewhere, including Muslim children who study in Thai schools.
Thai-Muslims face two dilemmas once they reach their youth. Without proper education and lacking the Thai language ability, both oral and written, they find themselves unable to go for higher education in their own country. Most of them choose to go abroad or cross the border to study in Malaysia and other Muslim countries in the region or in the Middle East and Africa. But those educated abroad eventually end up unemployed upon returning home. A survey conducted by a team of scholars from Prince of Songkhla University showed that 60 per cent of Thai-Muslims youth in 2003 could not get jobs. Inevitably, they become a highly alienated group of youngsters. Full of frustration and a sense of hopelessness, some of them have been targeted for recruitment by either criminal groups or separatist groups.
Thailand needs to change its mind-set in dealing with its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Some senior Thai officials, for instance, including the statesman Gen Prem Tinsulanonda opposes the teaching and use of Thai-Melayu as a working language in the Muslim areas for fear it would diminish their ability to absorb the Thai language.
Besides the Thai-Muslims, other less well-know ethnic groups including the Karen, Mon, Chong, Mlabri and Meo are also struggling to overcome the injustice and prejudice against them. They want to be accepted and treated as equals in Thailand. The only difference is that their struggle continues without media’s attention.
By Kavi Chongkittavorn, Bangkok-based journalist
Asiaviews, August-September 2007