|Class dismissed in Thailand's
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - As violence in the south of Thailand
threatens to spiral out of control, the government has
begun sharpening its knives, with it's latest plan
involving a crackdown on Islamic schools in the region.
The thinking behind this crackdown on
pondoks, as the Islamic schools are called, stems
from a theory that pondoks have become a
"breeding ground for Islamic militants", and hence, the
only solution is either to reform them - by having them
join the education mainstream - or close them.
Bangkok has embraced this authoritarian approach
since the recent spell of unrest began in the
predominantly Muslim provinces of Thailand's south on
January 4 after assailants attacked a major military
camp in the province of Narathiwat, killing four
soldiers, and escaping with more than 300 weapons.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is among those
pushing to consign the pondoks in the southern
provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun, Songkhla and
Yala to the history books.
The Thai army is also
marching in step with Thasksin's view. On Saturday, a
military source was quoted in the Bangkok Post newspaper
saying: "Southern insurgents and their allies commanded
more than 3,000, mostly teenage followers, who were
given weapons and guerrilla warfare training in the past
Placing blame where blame
Since the January 4 attack, senior
military officials and government ministers have been
floating a number of theories to explain the recent
violence. But this clampdown on the religious schools
has given rise to a tide of concern, particularly in the
wake of the confusing messages from the government about
who the actual perpetrators of the violence are.
The list of new suspects appeared to keep pace
with the increasing frequency of the violence, which has
resulted in 42 deaths, including the gruesome murder of
three Buddhist monks and the killing of soldiers,
policemen and local bureaucrats. This spurt of unrest
has also resulted in injuries to 23 people and the
torching of public buildings and 21 schools.
Bangkok's desperate search for the assailants
can be understood given rising casualties due to the
violence. After all, the death toll over the past seven
weeks in the Muslim south is much higher than the
estimated 50 deaths of government and security officials
over the past three years.
Thailand's south has
witnessed bursts of unrest since the early 1970s, when
Thai Muslim rebels launched a separatist struggle. This
region - home to the majority of Thailand's 6 million
Muslims out of the country's 63 million people, most of
whom are Buddhists - was once an independent Muslim
kingdom until it was annexed by Bangkok in 1902.
After blaming the usual suspects - bandits and
criminal elements - the government then trotted out
accusations linking three Thai Muslim separatist groups
with the violence and, subsequently, added on Muslim
militants from neighboring countries to this list of
Then on Friday, Thaksin broke
new ground with another theory when he told reporters
that Bangkok felt that disgruntled state officials were
behind the violence.
But as with the previous
theories floated by the government, Thaksin was unable
to back his charge that "government officials [are]
involved", with relevant details, such as how many are
suspected and from which arm of the bureaucracy they
Little wonder that the government's
decision to clamp down on the pondoks in the wake
of such uncertainty has given rise to one question: have
these Islamic schools become convenient scapegoats for
an administration frustrated by its inability to find
out who is behind the violence in the south?
A cautionary tale
Currently there are
some 550 pondoks - 300 of which offer an Islamic
education while the rest use the dual curriculum of
religious and secular lessons.
As such, an
editorial in Thursday's The Nation newspaper, cautioned
Thaksin about the danger of such a "heavy-handed
approach", since the closure of the schools could
trigger widespread resentment among southern Muslims
toward the central government.
authoritarian approach targets all pondoks
indiscriminately, assuming they all foster militancy
among students and that these youths have the potential
to become terrorists," the editorial declared. "Such
insensitivity will prove counterproductive as it seems
to confirm many Muslim southerners' suspicion that the
government is bent on weakening [their] social fabric."
Muslim scholars are also concerned, saying the
pondoks are a pillar in shaping the identity and
culture of Thailand's Muslims.
schools are very significant and have played a historic
role for the Thai Muslims," said Imtiaz Yusuf, head of
the religious department at Bangkok's Assumption
University. "It is true across the rest of Southeast
Asia where you find Muslim minorities, like in the
Furthermore, these schools can be
credited for generating "a very impressive" amount of
Islamic literature and religious scholars, he added.
"The government needs to recognize this before it tries
to enforce the change."
According to Nimu
Makaje, vice president of the Islamic Council in the
southern province of Yala, the government's move against
the schools has resulted in confusion, since "people are
not sure what the policies are and what kind of change
will take place".
"The people who run the
schools are also not ready to register their
institutions," he added.
today, extremists tomorrow?
which function outside of the education mainstream,
specialize in teaching the unique language that Muslims
in the area speak, aspects of that region's rich culture
and heritage and its connections to Islam.
since last year, these Islamic schools, which are
largely privately owned, have come under a cloud of
suspicion after reports that the Islam being taught in
the classrooms had begun to propagate the more
intolerant and arch-conservative Wahhabi strand of Islam
from Saudi Arabia.
The searching of
pondoks for separatists and the interrogation of
teachers since January indicate how preoccupied Bangkok
is with the "danger" that it says is posed by these
This mindset exposes the government's
inability to grasp what matters to Thai Muslims, Surin
Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and one on the
Muslim minority's high-profile public figures, has
argued in the press.
"The appeal of the
traditional Islamic education is still very strong," he
wrote in early February. "It must be realized that in
the pondoks today are not tomorrow's extremists
separatists, but a future leadership that can offer hope
for the region."