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Pattani in Modern History

Thanet Aphornsuvan
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Pattani in Modern History

Pattani is the best-known province in southernmost Thailand, where the majority population is Malay Muslim. The history of Greater Patani (Malay spelling) dates back to the ninth century, when the dominant cultures were Hinduism and Buddhism. The population converted to Islam around the fourteenth century, and Patani became a vassal state under the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The Sunni Malay Muslims of the South never assimilated into the Siamese/Thai world. Unlike the Shiite Muslims, who came from Arabia and Persia in the seventeenth century, and who engaged mainly in trade and commerce in urban settlements and were successfully assimilated into the noble class of Siamese by marriage and by serving the Siamese monarchs from the Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century down to the Bangkok kingdoms in the eighteenth century. Siamese kings usually appointed the leader of the Muslim community in central Siam to be Chularajmontri (Sheikhul Islam), overseeing the activities of the Thai Muslims in the kingdom.

Early History

Formerly, the Malay Muslim territories in the Northern part of the Malay Peninsula were ruled under Islamic Malay sultanates—Narathiwat and Yala under the sultanate of Patani and Satun under the Kedah sultanate. The Patani kingdom (ca. 1350–1909) was the largest and most populous among the Malay principalities. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Patani was an important port city for trade between Europeans and Arabs as well as Indian and Japanese merchants. Rich with many Islamic scholars, Patani was also known as the “cradle of Islam in Southeast Asia.” Even though Patani throughout its history was a vassal of the Siamese court from Ayutthaya (1350–1767) to Bangkok (1783–1909), its rajas, or kings, were able to maintain an autonomous role in the government and financial administration of its kingdom and people. Patani, which had rich resources and manpower, revolted against the faraway Siamese court and its indirect dominion many times. Patani thus became the leader and symbol of Malay Muslim resistance to Siamese rule.

In the nineteenth century the Bangkok court definitively subdued Patani and divided the kingdom into seven principalities. The final reorganization of the Patani kingdom took place in 1902, when King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910) imposed direct rule over the vassal states through the new provincial administration. The drastic integration of the peripheral territories came as an attempt to protect the territorial integrity of Siam in the face of British and French encroachments. Patani then became a region or province under the Siamese superintendent commissioner sent from Bangkok. The authority and sovereignty of the Patani raja, including rights and revenues in the kingdom, were abolished. He was given a fixed pension from the Siamese court. Symbolically, the Malay rajas were no longer required to send tribute of the bunga mas (golden tree) to Bangkok. These changes met with fierce resistance from all Malay rulers, particularly the Patani raja, who was subsequently arrested and jailed in the northern province of Phitsanulok for fear of local disruption. The last raja of Patani, Tengku Abdul Kadir Kamaruddin, was released from prison after spending more than two years there. His return to Patani was on one condition that he would refrain from involvement in politics. Eventually in 1915 he left Patani to take up residence in Kelantan, which was under British rule, because he was suspected of plotting rebellion against Siam.

In 1906 Patani was again reorganized. The seven former principalities were reduced to four: Pattani, Bangnara (the old name for Narathiwat), Saiburi, and Yala. More important, Siamese laws were applied whereby shariah and adat customary law were abolished, except where cases involved personal matters of inheritance and marriage. The final and historic turning point was the year 1909, when the Anglo-Siamese Treaty acknowledged the Patani region (plus Satun, formerly under Kedah) to be under Siamese sovereignty whereas the rest of the Malay states were ceded to British Malaya. The treaty thus demarcated the border between Siam and British Malaya, thereby making the Malay Muslims minority citizens of the Thai nation. The treaty also put an end to any hope of the Malay rajas that the British would intervene on their behalf. From then on questions of administrative, political, cultural, and linguistic autonomy became internal Siamese affairs to be dealt with exclusively by the central Siamese government in the other Thai provinces of the territorially defined nation-state.

The Thai Muslims, concentrated in the southernmost provinces, constitute about half of the nation’s Muslim population. The other Muslim communities are scattered around the country, especially the central region. Their relations to the Thai state and society are rather different from those of the southern Muslims. Although sympathetic to the plight of the Malay Muslims of the south, the central Thai Muslims tend to consider themselves Thai nationals and citizens. Their existence thus gives an impression that Muslims are able to live peacefully alongside the Thai Buddhists, except in the Malay South.

Twentieth-Century Uprisings

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Malay Muslims of Patani had formed a popular resistance movement. Uprisings took place in 1909 and 1911, led by Haji—religious leaders who had made a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Muslims rampaged and burned down government offices. One leader of the 1909 uprising was arrested, but the 1911 leaders were not. Though the motive of the uprisings was unclear. These were popular revolts; the leaders were not from an elite family, as in the past.

The next general rebellion, called the Patani Region Crisis of 1922, was suppressed by government forces, which were able to put down the hundred villagers attempting to attack the police stations. This time the government recognized the causes of the popular revolt. Chief among them were taxation, compulsory education, conscripted labor, and the inefficient Thai court system. The government arrested about 150 Muslim protestors but was able to convict only 15 of them of treason and rebellion. The main cause of the 1922 crisis was the government policy of compulsory primary education with no exception for the Malay provinces. In practice, this meant that Malay pupils had to learn the Thai language and curriculum in Thai schools. Such educational practices ran against their wishes to learn in the pondok (traditional Islamic schools) and in the Malay language. It is believed that some of the leading Patani Haji were involved in the movement called Jamaiyatul Fathanmiyah, which was created in 1916 in Mecca with an aim to liberate the Malay people from “imperialism” and “colonizers of all nationalities.” The final goal was to establish a unified Islamic state in the northern Malay Peninsula, including Patani, Kelantan and Terengganu. The 1922 incident reflected the Malay Muslims’ dissatisfaction with the Siamese state and its policies and practices in the region.

The Phibunsongkram Regime

In June 1932 the Siamese absolute monarchy was overthrown in a coup by the People’s Party [khana rasadorn], consisting of military leaders, civil servants, and businesspeople, including four Bangkok Muslims. The new constitutional monarchical system opened up an avenue for direct participation in the government by the Malay Muslims in the deep south. Soon, however, they began to realize that national democratic politics required more effort than they had imagined and would inevitably detract from their own cultural life and beliefs. Democracy was not a panacea for their plight and injustice. Worse, the project of nation building under Field Marshal Luang Phibunsongkram, who came to power in 1938 and changed the name of the country to Thailand, sought to infuse Thai culture into all aspects of life. As a Thai citizen, one had to speak Thai, have a Thai name, and dress in Thai costume. Phibun asserted in 1941 that, “In an effort to build a nation with a firm and everlasting foundation, the government is forced to reform and reconstruct the various aspects of society, especially its culture, which here signifies growth and beauty, orderliness, progress and uniformity, and the morality of the nation.” Furthermore, “Southern Thais” and “Islamic Thais” were to be referred to simply as “Thais.” This was strongly resented by the Malay Muslims, who argued that there is only one Islam. Penalties were prescribed for those who failed to observe the proper national dress, behavior, and etiquette in public places. Government officials refused to deal with those Malay Muslims who appeared in their Malay dress and spoke their own language. Such policies ran against the language and customs of the Malay Muslims. The most offensive law was the repeal in 1944 of Islamic family and inheritance laws (shariah), which had originally been allowed by the first democratic government in 1932. The Malay Muslims responded to this challenge by traveling across the border to the Islamic courts in Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu, and Perlis for justice. Furthermore, the government enforced Sunday and Buddhist Day as public holidays. Muslims were no longer allowed to observe Fridays as public or school holidays. Finally, there were Thai attempts to convert Muslims to Buddhism.

In 1944 some members of Parliament, having failed to get the government to address the issue of cultural persecution, abandoned the Thai political system for asylum in Kelantan, the neighboring Malayan state. The two prominent leaders of the movement for Patani cause were Tengku Mahyiddin, the youngest son of the last raja of Patani, and Tengku Abdul Jalal bin Tengku Abdul Mutalib, son of the late raja of Saiburi. In February 1944 the exiled leaders of Malay Muslims in Kelantan founded the Gabongan Melayu Pattani Raya (Association of Malays of Greater Patani, GAMPAR) aimed at the final liberation of Greater Patani. It received support from Malay groups in Thailand as well as from the Malay Nationalist Party in Malaya. Religious leaders on both sides of the border were calling for a jihad (holy war) against the Thai authorities.

At the same time, inside Patani there emerged another organization, the Patani Malay Movement (He’et alNapadh allahkan alShariat, PMM) under the leadership of the popular Haji Sulong, a native of Patani who had spent twenty years studying and teaching in the Middle East, including Mecca. In 1927 he returned to found a modern Islamic school in Patani. The PMM’s objects were to promote Islam and encourage cooperation among Muslim leaders in order to fight against the government’s anti-Islamic way of life. Phibun, however, fell from power in 1944. The next government, under the leadership of Pridi Banomyong, a key leader of the People’s Party and founder of the Free Thai Movement during the World War II, who was sympathetic to the Muslim cause. The government redressed the wrong doings by issuing the Islamic Patronage Decree in 1945, resulting in the establishment of national Islamic institutions and a Chularajmontri (shiekul Islam) as head of the Muslims in the country. In addition, previous Islamic traditions and practices were reinstated or allowed, including the Islamic family and inheritance laws. More important was the opening of an open dialogue between Malay Muslim leaders and the government over their grievances. But these positive developments were thwarted following the unexpected coup in November 1947, which ended the civilian-led government under Pridi and paved the way for a military-led government under Phibun.

The meetings between the leaders of the Patani Movement and the government in 1947 eventually produced the political demands later known as the “Seven-Point Plea.” Essentially the Muslim plea proposed that a chief officer in Patani should be elected by local Malay Muslims, local taxes should be spent in the region, and that primary education conducted in the Malay language. The Malay and Siamese languages were both to be recognized as official language in the area, which would maintain Islamic laws and customs and a distinct religious court, apart from the civil court system. The plea constituted the first clear demand by local citizens for self-government under decentralized Bangkok rule. The government was willing to accept religious freedom but not special rights or regional autonomy. The Seven-Point Plea would go down in Thai history as evidence of Muslim separatism.

Repression and Rebellion

In 1948 Haji Sulong led a protest against the general election. He was arrested and charged with treason and rebellion against the Thai state. Amid the tense situation in Patani a sudden outburst of violence broke out between the police and a group of Malay Muslims in Duson Nyior, Narathiwat, leading to widespread of clashes in the villages. The two incidents in 1948 became known as the Haji Sulong Rebellion and the Duson Nyior Rebellion. These two uprisings were not directly related or planned. The latter disturbances were purely accident. A group of police spotted a group of Malay Muslim villagers performing religious oil bathing in a welcome ceremony for the returning Haji from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Suspicious of their ill intent, the police tried to disperse the gathering, which led to stone throwing and further clashes between the two. Despite the limited nature of the violence, reports to Bangkok sent an alarm of Muslim uprisings all over the region, including attacks on and seizure of police stations. Bangkok then sent troops and ships to suppress the uprising. Thousands of villagers escaped to Kelantan for fear of capture by government forces. These incidents attracted international attention from many Muslim and Arab organizations and the United Nations. In the meantime, Haji Sulong was sentenced to four years and eight months for attempted rebellion against the state. After his release in 1952, he returned to Patani and resumed teaching at his school. In 1954, after reporting to the Special Branch Police in Songkhla, he went missing, together with his elder son and two companions. He was never seen again.

Disillusioned with peaceful democratic means, the radical Malay Muslims resorted to armed struggle. By the 1960s, various separatist organizations were operating in the southern Muslim provinces. The prominent ones were the Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Pattani (BNPP), which originated in the 1940s with headquarters in Kelantan; the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) organized in 1974. The Bertubuhan Perpaduan Pembebasan Pattani (PPPP), also known as the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), was established in 1968 and is considered the most influential Muslim separatist armed organization in the south. By the 1990s political transformations in the Middle East and the rise of the fundamentalist Muslim groups following the Iranian Revolution had influenced some of the separatist organizations in the area, including the Sabelillah and the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam of Pattani (GMIP). GMIP’s objective is to establish an Islamic state in southern Thailand. In 1989 GMIP joined with other separatist groups to form Bersatu (Unity), or the United Front for the Independence of Patani.


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