In The News

Village Renaming Heals Deep Wounds in Southern Thailand

February 19, 2014

On the morning of Feb. 9, 2014, the seafront village of Mengabang in Saiburi district in southern Thailand was bathed in sun and abuzz with activity. Boys and girls in colorful local costumes and festive dress, beaming groups of middle-aged women, and village elders crowded along the main seafront road as they got into formation for a parade. A pick-up truck was converted into a float that looked like a traditional village fishing boat, motorbikes were bedecked with giant fishing nets and traps, and three gigantic elephants ambled along carrying their mahouts (trainers). A young Malay boy performed a traditional martial art Sila to the delight of crowds. One woman in her 20s declared the ceremony to be the biggest celebration she had ever seen.

For many in this community, especially the younger generation, the celebration also came as a welcome respite from the largely bleak and tragic stories of the violent conflict that has plagued these communities in Thailand’s Deep South for decades.

The festive event marked the culmination of a 15-month pilot project by the Center for Conservation for Local Culture and Environment in Southern Border Provinces of Thailand or PUSTA, with support from The Asia Foundation, that embarked on renaming 10 villages in the area.  Several decades ago, many villages in the region were arbitrarily assigned Thai language names in place of their traditional Malay-language names that either had no historical significance to the unique Patani-Malay identity, or in some cases, offended religious and cultural values. For example, one community was named “Pork Rib Village,” an obvious affront to the Muslim residents, all of whom don’t eat pork.

Among the many longstanding grievances of the local population, arbitrarily assigned village names stand as grating examples of the efforts of the Thai State to undermine local Patani-Malay identity through the formal education system, enforcement of government regulations that restrict the use of local dialects, and other centralized policies that aimed to assimilate ethnic minorities. These central government efforts to achieve national harmonization through single identity at the expense of minority identity have long fuelled local resistance against the state.

In the past, there have been several efforts to demand greater space for Malay identity. But in most cases, those efforts were labelled by the state as rebellious or sympathetic to the cause of separatist movement. One of the most striking appeals was articulated by Haji Sulong in 1947, when he proposed cultural self-determination for the Patani-Malay people, demanding that the government endorse Malay as a working language and language of education alongside Thai as the official language. Haji Sulong disappeared shortly afterwards, with the assumption that authorities had sought to silence him. Six decades later, the Malay-Muslim community holds fast to the desire to practice and express its local identity through culture and language. In 2010, a survey of the southern people conducted by The Asia Foundation found that 95 percent of the local population surveyed said that Patani-Malay should be a working language, while almost 97 percent said they support bilingual road signs.

In 2012, with technical assistance from academics from Mahidol university, PUSTA and 10 local villages embarked on a renaming initiative that included local historical research conducted by community members, a series of community forums and village councils, and advocacy with government offices from the sub-district level up to the national level. Their methodical approach reflects a patiently long but necessary and carefully designed process to engage communities at every step of the effort. It ensures a sense of ownership of the project, which, when success is achieved, contributes to the positive psychological impact of the initiative on local communities. In late 2013, the government officially approved the renaming of the 10 villages to restore their traditional Malay names.

The PUSTA initiative faced a daunting legacy of earlier efforts to assert local identity since the Haji Sulong appeal, including occasional force or intimidation by government agencies, which has long undermined local effort to assert local cultural identity. When the village renaming initiative started in 2012, the PUSTA team visited pilot villages to conduct inception discussions with religious leaders, community leaders, and other members of the villages. The team was frequently asked: “If we take action and be part of this project, will we be targeted by security officers?” or “Are we going to be branded as separatists?” These questions were symbolically answered on the day the new village signs in Thai, Malay, and English were installed in Mengabang and the other nine villages. The restored names are official, with the signboards paid for by the state, with government officials and security personnel joining in the celebration event and clearly struck by the joy and excitement.

The village renaming initiative demonstrates that the only basis for the state to rebuild relationships with the local population is to address the grievances that have long been the driving force behind the conflict. At the celebration event, Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong and secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre affirmed his support for expanding the village renaming initiative to other villages across southern Thailand. SBPAC’s endorsement helps to restore confidence among villagers in the state’s willingness to respond to the demands of the local population for the expression of Malay-Muslim identity.

This marks a positive conclusion for the pilot project and a promising indication of continued progress effort. But in the context of deep mistrust between state and local community, committed organizations like PUSTA will continue to serve as crucial interlocutors between state and community, providing technical assistance, communicating on a regular basis with government and security agencies to avoid misunderstanding, and boosting the morale of community members, and ensure that peaceful efforts of this kind are not viewed as threats to national security in some quarters, but rather recognized and supported as the most effective remedies for such deeply felt grievances.

Santi Nindang is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Thailand. He can be reached at santi.nindang@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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