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Commemorating Malay-Muslim Icon Haji Sulong: Inspiring Hope for Lasting Peace in Southern Thailand

October 14, 2015

By Hadee Hamidong and Julian Juarez

On the evening of Aug. 14, 2015, the family of the late Haji Sulong—the revered voice of Malay-Muslim cultural identity and nationalism—convened a public event to commemorate the 61st anniversary of his unsolved disappearance. Haji Sulong’s efforts to secure the rights, recognize the unique cultural identity, and articulate the core grievances of the Malay-Muslim minority population of Thailand’s southern border provinces secured his iconic status in the context of the subnational conflict that has gripped the Deep South for a century.

Members of Haji Sulong’s family assemble in front of his home, which served as the venue for the commemoration event. Photo/Wartani

Members of Haji Sulong’s family assemble in front of his home, which served as the venue for the commemoration event. Photo/Wartani

After studying and teaching in Mecca, Haji Sulong (1895-1954) returned to Pattani in 1927. He opened an Islamic school (pondok), became the first president of the Provincial Islamic Council of Pattani, and emerged as the champion of a non-violent movement that called for Malay-Muslim autonomy and recognition of and respect for local identity. He authored the seven-point petition of Malay-Muslim demands that was presented to a commission of inquiry convened by the central government to investigate the circumstances of the local population at a time of growing Malay-Muslim nationalism and resistance to central government authority in southern Thailand. The petition called for autonomy, increased language and cultural rights, and the application of certain elements of Islamic law in southern Thailand – demands that remain largely unchanged among the core grievances of the Malay-Muslim community today.

The petition campaign led to the arrest of Haji Sulong in January 1948. After his release from prison in 1952, he was ordered to abandon his public activism to subject himself to police checks. In 1954, authorities instructed Haji Sulong, his eldest son Ahmad Tohmeena, and others close to them to report to a police station in Songkhla. They disappeared en route and were never seen or heard from again. In the six decades since their disappearance, responsibility has never been claimed, nor has anyone been brought to justice in connection with the case. His disappearance ignited social and political tension within the Malay-Muslim community, fueled greater resentment toward the Thai government, and brought significant hardship for Haji Sulong’s family at the hands of the State. The episode and its bitter legacy remains one of the root causes of Malay-Muslim grievances and protracted conflict in Southern Thailand.

While the anniversary of Haji Sulong’s disappearance has for years been quietly marked by the Malay-Muslim community, a persistent climate of violence, fear, and insecurity has discouraged public commemorative events. This changed in 2014, when Haji Sulong’s family convened a first-ever public event, which in turn inspired confidence to hold a second event in 2015, with greater public participation.

Haji Sulong commemoration

A participant views the art exhibition at the commemoration. Photo/Wartani

Held in front of the home of Haji Sulong, the evening program featured readings by distinguished poets, a panel discussion, and an art exhibition that paid tribute to Haji Sulong’s life. More than 400 people attended the event, including local civil society leaders, government officials, and members of the international community.

Panelists candidly discussed Malay-Muslim identity issues, while participants described historical grievances that remain largely unchanged from those articulated by Haji Sulong more than 60 years earlier, and thoughtfully addressed the prospect of a peaceful settlement of the southern conflict. The panel included the son of Haji Sulong’s best friend, Chaen Suebsaeng – who was a Buddhist leader of the local Chinese community – underlining Haji Sulong’s commitment to multi-culturalism and an inclusive society in southern Thailand.

For many years, the efforts of those inspired by Haji Sulong’s quest for a peaceful political solution to the southern conflict achieved little success, with violence escalating in the absence of peaceful alternatives. Since the resumption of the conflict in 2004, acts of violence have claimed more than 6,400 lives and injured over 11,500 people. In recent years, steps taken by central government agencies and officials to acknowledge and address historical Malay-Muslim grievances, and a short-lived peace process in 2013, have offered glimpses of hope in alternatives to violence. Significant gestures on the part of the central government include an allocation of resources to restore Haji Sulong’s residence – an important acknowledgment of his stature and significance to the Malay-Muslim community.

Panelists describe local grievances that remain largely unchanged since the disappearance of Haji Sulong more than 60 years ago. Photo/Wartani

Panelists describe local grievances that remain largely unchanged since the disappearance of Haji Sulong more than 60 years ago. Photo/Wartani

Distinguished poet Zakariya Amataya, a native of Narathiwat and recipient of the 2010 Southeast Asian Write Award, wrote and recited a poem entitled “Home” as a tribute to Haji Sulong.

The last stanza captures the stature of this iconic figure; the spirit of the commemorative event to which The Asia Foundation and other partners contributed; and the hope that future peace efforts may be guided by the values that inspired this martyred hero of the Malay-Muslim community.

This is the house that built faith

That lights the lamp to illuminate learning

His obscurity must come to an end

Illuminated wisdom, thought

Will lead them from the dark,

Though he who built the house has forever departed into timelessness

(Poem translated by Noah Viernes)

Hadee Hamidong is The Asia Foundation’s 2014-15 William P. Fuller Fellow in Conflict Resolution. Julian Juarez is a student at Willamette University and a former classmate of Hadee’s during his Fellowship in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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