My thoughts recalled my visit to Southeast Asia some time back on the invitation of then Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Malaysia, Mrs. Rosy Senanayake. I wanted to crossover by land the Malaysia-Thailand border, though many friends advised me it was too risky. Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand is a major problem in Southeast Asia.
Though I had the visa to travel to Thailand from Malaysia, I stopped my journey from Kuala Lumpur at the Butterworth station and visited the Penang Island of Malaysia, the one-time British colonial capital of Malaysia. I thought of the risk at that time as the turmoil was very high in crossing the Malaysia- Thailand border. I had to study more ground realities and situations before I stepped into the border.
While I was waiting for the Kuala Lumpur Express at the Butterworth station, there was a Malay young lady waiting for the same train at the next table. My casual chat with her had given me a chance to weigh the ground realities better than I assumed. She was from the neighboring Keda state of Malaysia bordering Thailand’s Muslim province.
When I spoke to her about the political unrest of Thailand’s southern Muslim areas, she came out with sorrowful stories. She told, “The Muslim province in southern Thailand was annexed by Thailand in 1902 as a buffer against British Malaya” and she further went on, “the Islamic Sultanate of Pattani is considered by some to be the cradle of Islam in Southeast Asia”.
She told about the history of the origin of the Muslim insurgency in Thailand. She said with a smile that the southern Thailand Muslims are only a reflection of Malaysia’s rural Muslims.
I little understood her worries and as she had visited these areas, she was not only well informed about the problems but emotionally attached to those areas and problems too. She came out in a disappointing voice that the Thailand government’s oppressive policies had not been beneficial to the Muslims. She pointed out, “the southern provinces of Thailand where the Muslims are located are some of the country’s poorest and undeveloped provinces to date”.
She continued, “The reason for this is the corrupt officials pilfered funds earmarked for development. The mis administration of the government combined with the high- handedness of the army personnel aggravated the alienation that was already prevalent. The daily life in the urban areas was affected by common banding and lawlessness making it difficult for the authorities to differentiate activities from that of the separatists or militants”.
After a brief interval I asked her what their needs were if the situation was prolonged without any solution. She thought for a moment and came out with the fact that southern Thailand remains relatively poor, alienated, and misunderstood by Bangkok’s government and military officials.
The Muslim way of life is based on survival and they are not benefiting from the development of large industries in their provinces.
She also pointed out importantly that in fact, as these industries continue to expand, the Pattani are being pushed farther and farther out of their markets. Agriculturists were needed to teach the small-scale land owners how to get the most out of their land. She further went on to say that the Muslims do not object to the government or its representatives but they do object to the oppressive and exploitative nature of these entities’ presence.
She enumerated some of the flawed policies of the government such as, the village fund programme and legalization of lotteries in the area which are against the tenets of Islam.