Minorities in Thailand and current Issues:


                                                                      By M. Abdus Sabur


                                                                     Secretary General, AMAN



This short paper has been prepared based on the information, ideas and analysis derived from three main sources: a. consultation with 30 youth from various regions. b. review of papers written by a number of researchers and scholars, c. The Thai English Dailies of Thailand, the Nation and the Bangkok Post.


Though in Thailand  minorities include Muslim, Hindu  and Christians but this paper mainly deals with the Muslim minority in southern Thailand partly because of recent incidents which have attracted attention within and outside world. The first part of the paper gives a brief background introduction to the Muslim majority in the southern provinces of Thailand.  The second part identifies the underlying causes of conflict and the third part highlights the impact on the local population.


Brief Introduction


The Muslim majority of the southernmost provinces of Thailand include Pattani, Yala, Naratiwat, and Satun. Of the total population, Muslims constitute approximately 71 percent and are known as Malayu. People in Satun speak Thai but in three other provinces they speak Malay and Yawi. The remaining population is made up of Thai and Chinese Buddhists and Christians.  Songkhla is also considered as a southern province but Muslim population is about 19%. Some of the villages bordering to Pattani and Yala speak Yawi. The Thai Buddhists who live in the urban municipal areas primarily come from outside of the area and work as government officers and/or entrepreneurs.  The Chinese, most of them who live in semi-urban towns, work as merchants and only in the Betong district of Yala do a substantial number of Chinese live in close proximity to each other.  The life of common rural Thai Buddhist is similar to Muslims in terms of occupation and economic livelihood.


The Malayu population, though predominantly a vibrant Muslim culture, demonstrates through local customs and traditions such as marriage ceremonies, dance and arts, a complex mix of Buddhist, Muslim and early Langkasuka Hindu cultures.



Area and Population of the Muslim Provinces of Southern Thailand




(sq. miles)



Muslim (%)

Rural (%)
























71 (average)

86 (average)

Source: Thailand, National Statistical office, 1982.


Age Wise Population of Various Religious Groups in the South










































































60 +






Source: Thailand, National Statistical office, 2002


This region enjoys a hot climate and heavy rainfall throughout the year, therefore rendering the land fertile for agriculture, rubber, fruit orchards, rice, and coconut and palm trees.  The majority of the farm land is owned by Thai Buddhists who have large holdings for plantations and agricultural work, with Muslims farmers often remaining as small and marginal farmers.  Those Muslim people who do not produce enough to support their families will supplement their income through laboring in plantations, and through the fishing and mining industries.  Quite a significant number go to Malaysia for work.


The Underlying Causes of Conflict in the South


There has been quite a number of research and occasional papers written on the Thai Muslims and Southern Muslim dominated region. Among them I have consulted; ‘The Political Integration of Thai-Islam’ by Omar Farouk 1980, ‘Islam and Malaya Nationalism: A Case Study of the Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand 1985 and ‘Islam and Violence: A Case Study of Violent Events in the four Southern Provinces’ by Chaiwat SathaAnnad 1986, ‘Coming of Islam to Thailand’ by Jaran Mulaleem 1998, ‘The Predicament of Thailand’s Southern Muslims’ by Carool Kersten 2004 and ‘Under the Same Sky People are Dying in the South 2004, published by The Same Sky Ltd 2547.


Analysis of these papers and consultation with the youth highlight the following issues:


Ethnic, Linguistic and Religious Identity


People in the southern most provinces are distinct in terms of Malay ethnic identity, the widely spoken Malay and Yawi languages, and the Islamic way of life.  Due to their geographical proximity with Malaysia, continued communication, visits, religious education and inter-marriages, the southern people seem to identify more with Malay than Thai.


The Thai government has been trying to integrate the Southern people into the national mainstream through unifying the administrative and education system but it is has not been successful so far.  Most Muslim families want their children to study in traditional Ponoh for religious education but gradually the private Islamic schools have grown in numbers and now incorporate elements of secular education.


The mainstream Thai education curriculum does not conform to the life style, culture and aspirations of Muslim people.  Rather, the system tries to imprint a consciousness of Buddhism and most of the parents feel hesitant to accept such a system.


A Sense of Belonging to old Pattani – A Muslim Ruled Sultanat


In 1785, The Pattani Sultanat faced subjugation by Thai expedition.  After the 1789 uprising Pattani was transferred to the responsibility of Songkhla province. In 1816 Pattani was broken up into seven smaller principalities.  During the reign of King Rama V in 1902 this region was integrated into Thailand.  Despite this integration, Pattani continued to be ruled by a Muslim governor for the next fifty years.


The Southern people’s sense of belonging to the once prosperous Pattani Kingdom is still alive today.
They cannot forget the sad history of repeated division and disintegration of the territory due to British and French colonial power play with
Thailand, and their subsequent incorporation into the Buddhist majority Thailand.  A number of rebellions were suppressed, many nationalist and religious leaders were imprisoned, and a large number of Malay Muslims from the South were transmigrated to Bangkok and other parts of Thailand.


In January 1947, Hajji Sulung submitted a seven point plan to the Thai government which included; the appointment of a Malaya Muslim High Commissioner; an 80 percent quota of Malay-Muslims in regional government positions; recognition of the Malay language; the application of Islamic law; full authority for the provincial Islamic council; and control over regional financial revenues.  In November 1947, the military coup led by General Phibul led to the exile of Prime Minister Pridi and the first Chularajamontri Cham Promyong.  In January 1948 Haji Sulung was arrested.  The proliferation of separatist movements then started in the 1960’s with the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) being the most prominent.

Though the southern problem has existed for the last 100 years, the conflict was seen more as a political one fought vertically from both sides.  According to Dr. Chaiwat Satha Annad, “when one looks at the history of the South from a Bangkok perspective it is a history of rebellions. When we look at the history of the South from the Southern perspective it is one of freedom fighters”. 


The Thai Modern Nation State


After the abolition of the absolute monarchy, Thailand experienced prolonged military rule through the process of making a modern nation state.  The country has made serious efforts towards integration and unification through a unified administrative and education system.  Under General Phibul, the Thai government promulgated a series of cultural mandates which included the prohibition of any designation other than Thai, the prohibition of the use of any language other than Thai, and the decree that homage must be paid to Buddha’s image.  Under this modern administrative system the Muslim people of Thailand lost their customary right to self rule and were put under the control of Buddhist bureaucrats who often came from outside the region and were insensitive to their religious practices, traditions and cultures. 


The confrontation policies of General Phibul strengthened polarization among Malay nationalist Dr. Surin Pitsuwan who identified education as the central issue for the emancipation of Malay–Muslims and for their sense of recognition as a distinct Malay ethnic identity.  The Malay-Muslim population remained outside of the mainstream Thai education system as they perceived it as an attempt to weaken Islamic teachings and to imprint Buddhist orientation on students.  This confronted the Southern Muslims with the challenge of either being loyal to their faith or to their state.


A number of rich and educated Muslim politicians have been elected to Parliament and Senate recently and are trying their best to minimize the gaps in understanding and improve the situation of the Southern people.  It is difficult to assess though, how much confidence they enjoy from the young generation and the local population in remote rural areas.


Unemployment and Poverty


Over the last 20 years Thailand has achieved significant economic growth but large numbers of rural and urban poor have not reaped the benefits. Muslim people from the South, particularly youth, often go to Malaysia for both seasonal and permanent work.  This is primarily because jobs in the Thai public sector are difficult to obtain for those Muslim students who did not ever fully accept the Thai education system or learn the Thai language. 


From among the 20 participants (12-15 years old) of a focus group discussion organized by the Youth Coordination Center of Thailand, 50 percent were drop out students.  The primary reason provided for this was due to a lack of money to support learning and the need to get financial support for family members.


Regional and International Political Climate


After the end of the cold war the world witnessed increasing numbers of conflicts between the powerful United States of America–Britain led alliance and the Muslim world.  Such incidences as the occupation of Iraq and its increasingly chaotic situation often creates a strong conviction among Muslim youth to forge international solidarity in the fight against hegemonic powers and their allies.  Indeed, many of the outstanding conflict areas of the world are centered on the Muslim population and their aspirations for self determination, self-rule and independence which have long been met by strong suppression by the nation state and very often supported by western democracies.  Palestine, Kashmir and Mindanao are just a few examples.


Violence in Southern Thailand


One of the youth described Southern Thailand as a “sleeping volcano that time to time becomes active”.  Long held grievances and discontent in the minds of the local people have not been given an outlet for venting; therefore, this will always and inevitably lead to an outburst. It has happened in the past, it is happening now, and it will happen in the future if underlying causes are not adequately addressed.


Some violent incidents are attributed to corruption, the underground border trade and drug trafficking.  Among the actors, bureaucrats, law enforcement agencies, the underground mafia, politicians, and outlawed insurgents are believed to be involved.  Among the under ground groups, PULO, the New Pattani Liberation organization, Mujahideen Islam Pattani, and the Barisan Revolusi  Nasonal are cited.


Some observers believe that outside forces are involved and instigating much of the violence such as Al – Queda links.  It is difficult to ascertain who the leading actors are, as it is undoubtedly a complex reality. To find an answer to this problem will require multi-dimensional approaches. 





Nature of the Recent Violence


In a renewed campaign, both from the insurgents and government, there has been a loss of life and property in the Southern provinces.  Among the targets, military and police posts, schools, government offices and commercial sites, and Mosques and Temples came under attack.  On January 4 ‘04, a group of assailants killed four Thai soldiers and burnt eighteen schools in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. Three months later another fourteen schools were burnt.


During simultaneous clashes at several police posts on the disastrous morning of April 28th, one hundred and seven Muslim militants and five soldiers were killed in various districts.  The fleeing youth militants were pursued by the army to the Krue-Se Mosque where the army officer in command proceeded with the order to fire at the mosque.  Hundreds of civilians watched in horror as thirty four young militants were shot and killed.  Most of them killed were only in their 20’s.

On 25th October, the Tak Bai massacre became another black chapter of Thai  history. Seven Muslim youth were shot dead and 78 were killed because of suffocation while transporting them after arrest  from Tak Bai to the detention center in Pattani and Songkhla.




Included among more than five  hundred plus victims were mostly Muslim youth and  students, farmers, Buddhist Monks, police and military personnel, government officers, school teachers, village headman and members of local government.




Spread of Fear and the Widening Understanding Gap:


Southern Muslims never fully accepted the incorporation of the Muslim region and the dismantling of Islamic forms of governance.  They disagreed with the Thai government’s policy and insurgent groups have been fighting against those policies ever since.  But this time, according to Dr. Chaiwat Satha-Annad, the conflict is crossing from a vertical dimension to horizontal dimension. He cited an incident which occurred on January 22nd 04 where a sixty four year old monk was murdered in Bachho, Narathiwat. While returning from his morning alms-begging, two men on a motor cycle used a long knife to slit the monk’s throat.  Dr. Chaiwat observed that this knife not only cut through the monk but it also cut through bonds between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.  The once vertical conflict between government and insurgents has now grown between religions. This gap in understanding between the Buddhist and Muslim population is most alarming and may take a long time to rebuild.


Martial law was granted by the government on January 5th ‘2004 which gives law enforcement agencies wider power for arrest and detention. 




Restricted Movement:


Students feel that their movement has been restricted. Their dormitories can be searched at any time and arrests can be made arbitrarily.  They can also be subjected to torture and long periods of detention without trial. This fear has resulted in many students migrating to Malaysia in order to seek refuge.


Main Stream Education Comes to a Halt:


Due to the burning of schools, classes had to be suspended. Approximately 4,000 school teachers, who are also common targets of attack, demanded better protection and increased incentives to stay in their schools. Around 1000 teachers have lodged requests with the Education Ministry for a transfer to a more secure region.  Only 40 percent have had their requests granted. Teachers have shown little interest in the economic incentives which include life insurance worth 500,000 baht and a 2,500 baht per month salary increase.


Economic Down Trends, Unemployment and Increasing Poverty: 


Though the government declared an allocation of more resources to redouble efforts for local development it is difficult for government officials who are working in an environment of insecurity.  One of their principle challenges is to mobilize local people and effectively implement the development projects.


Due to continuing violence there is reluctance on the part of investors to work in the South which is limiting prospects for economic strengthening and jobs creation.


Families who lost their loved ones, in many cases the only earning member was killed, are deep in poverty.  The children, the youth and women members of the family are unable to cope with the situation and they need psychological counseling.  A family of eleven members in Ban Suso, under the Sabay-oy district of Songkhla province lost their only son who was 19 years old. The head of the family, a worker on a rubber plantation cannot earn enough to feed the family.




So far there has been no study nor is there any hard data available about the number of youth and adults that have migrated since the conflict started in January this year.  In an unprecedented announcement Malaysia offered to provide temporary shelters for Thai nationals seeking refuge in the wake of the unrest in the southern provinces.


Normally, people from the Southern region go to Malaysia for four reasons; Education, work, to visit relatives and for business.  According to a preliminary government survey, it is estimated that about 10 percent of working age youth go to Kelantan, KedahPerlis, Trengganu for work. There is also a large community from Pattani who have settled in Kuala Lumpur.  According to participants of the youth consultation approximately 20-30 percent of youth have left for Malaysia to work and study. According to a village headman of the Telingchan sub-district, approximately 600 youth from his area have gone to Malaysia and 90 percent of them are Muslim. Because of the conflict some Muslim students are also moving to Bangkok for study.


Responses from the Government


  • Government’s  immediate response was to declare Martial Law to restore law and order situation.


  • The second step was to declare economic package in order to create employment and improve the economic condition of the Southern people.


  • Government setup inquiry commission to investigate the military operation in Kruse Mosque and tak bai massacre and allocated fund to compensate the families who lost their loved ones.


  • Government initiated dialogue with Malaysia to strengthen cooperation to solve the border problem.


Responses from the Civil Societies


  • Civil society organized forum and urged the government for restrain and not to use excessive force instead called for dialogue  and to address the under lying causes.


  • Various University teachers signed a letter and sent to the Prime Minister and in response to that The Prime Minister had dialogue with the academicians and listened to their proposals.


  • Youth for Peace, a coalition of youth from various regions conducted a series of regional meetings to raise awareness about the problem in the south.


  • A team of Senators visited Tak Bai and released a report in which they demanded the responsible officers be brought to Justice.



Though the vast majority Thai people want peaceful solution to the Southern problem but a consensus yet to be emerged. During the live television interview with the Military commander who was in charge Kruse
Mosque operation, simultaneously an opinion poll was conducted . more than 97% expressed the support for the commander’s action.


If an opinion poll would have been conducted in the South the result possibly would have been just opposite. It shows how people are polarized.


Any major reform in administrative system to offer autonomy to southern provinces would require understanding of the majority Thai people. So there is a long way to go.


Possibilities of overcoming present crises


  • The situation is definitely complex. There is no easy way out. The Thai government and the people want to find solution maintaining the integrity of the nation state.


  • It seems most of the Southern people don’t want complete separation therefore there is a hope of reconciliation.


  • Government strategy to improve economic condition of the southern people is a good initiative but not enough. There is a need to address the issue of bilingual education, to be sensitive to Malay cultures and consider and offering option of integrating Islamic education.


  • Possibly there is need to evolve a political and administrative frame-work within the Thai nation state under which southern provinces will have Muslim administration and enjoy autonomy towards developing program to address the region specific needs and aspirations of the Southern  people.


  • People to people communication  at horizontal level could be the starting point.


  • For evolving political framework there is a need to identify Muslim representatives who would in a position communicate with the militant at the same time could negotiate the genuine demands of the Southern people in a peaceful environment.


  • Chaturan Commission recommendation to withdraw martial law and offer amnesty to the militant could be other integral part of a comprehensive peace process.


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