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Thailand, Islamic Education in

Joseph Chinyong Liow
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Thailand, Islamic Education in

Islamic education in southern Thailand (the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, Satun, and Songkhla—collectively known as Patani prior to their incorporation into Siam in the early twentieth century)—has traditionally revolved around the institution of the pondok (literally hut, referring to a traditional rural Islamic school). Pondok schools have a long tradition in Malay history. The pondok assumes an integral role in the Malay society of the southern provinces of Thailand and performs the key task of providing religious instruction in the local Malay language. Pondoks are closely associated with Malay-Muslim identity and often act as the center of gravity for everyday Malay social life. Beyond that, pondok are also important repositories for and progenitors of Malay language, history, and culture. Such is the enduring importance of the pondok to local Malay identity, several hundred remain and continue to operate in the southern provinces.

By the nineteenth century the southern kingdom of Patani had become a prominent regional center for Islamic learning. Muslim students from both archipelagic and mainland Southeast Asia would sojourn in any of the several hundred pondok schools in the southern provinces before moving on to the Middle East and North Africa for further Islamic education. Patani was also a region renowned for its religious teachers and scholars. Patani Muslims were prominent educators in major Islamic institutions throughout the Arab-Muslim world. Such was their prominence that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scholars such as Ahmad Patani, Zayn al-Abidin Patani, and Daʾud ibn Abd-Allah Patani congregated in the Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca and taught in the Ulama Jawi halaqah (Southeast Asian Muslim study circles). Back home, tok guru (pondok religious teachers) were instrumental in translating religious commentaries and sermons from Arabic to Jawi (the modified classical Malay script that includes, among others, Arabic and Khmer influences).

Malay-Muslim education institutions have traditionally had tenuous relations with the central government in Siam, and the pondok has been, and continues to be, viewed with a great deal of suspicion and mistrust. Underlying this has been concern that the institution of the pondok has long been a recruiting ground for Malay separatists who have engaged in armed resistance since the early 1960s. Concomitantly, a major policy challenge for Bangkok, not only from the perspective of education and regional development in the south but also for security and conflict management, has been the question of how to integrate Islamic education into mainstream Thai society in a non-threatening manner.

The genesis of the strained center-periphery relations between Bangkok and the southern provinces may be traced to the modernization policies initiated in the early twentieth century. At the heart of this was the state’s attempt to control the means and articulate the ends of education. For instance, the National Education Plan of 1936 declared: “the government has the authority to control the institutes, to administer examinations to the teachers and award them diplomas, to administer examinations to students at the completion of Primary General Education, Junior Secondary Education, and Senior Secondary Education.” The outcome of this process was to be the creation of persons “considered to have the knowledge which a Siamese citizen should have… he is a citizen who is able to earn his living by having an occupation; he knows the rights and duties of the citizen, he will prove himself to be useful for his country by means of his occupation.” It was in this respect that the government was especially concerned about the pondok in the Malay-Muslim southern provinces. Given that these traditional institutions, being essentially religious schools, did not offer academic courses, they were viewed as obstacles to national development. Moreover, because the tok guru (traditional Islamic teachers) of the pondok never taught in Thai and the students never used the Thai language, this institution was considered to have a fractious influence on the broader objectives of fostering national identity and cohesion.

The early 1920s witnessed the onset of almost ninety years of government-sanctioned attempts to integrate, if not assimilate, the Muslim education system of southern Thailand into the national mainstream. It was a process that had a tremendously corrosive impact on center-periphery relations. Early policies enforced integration through the introduction of government schools into the southern provinces and by enactments such as the 1921 Compulsory Education Act that legislated four years of compulsory primary education for all children. These national schools, however, were greeted with suspicion in the Malay-Muslim community. Many parents were not swayed by the provision by legislation of two hours of Islamic studies per week in these institutions—a policy that remains in place to this day. In fact, many Malay-Muslim parents saw the government schools as Buddhist institutions—part of a government agenda to stymie the practice of Islam, undermine the Islamic faith, and convert southern Muslims to Buddhism. Furthermore, the policy of placing Muslim children in Thai schools where Buddhism and secular subjects were taught was also viewed with consternation by the religious elite in the south, as it threatened to undermine their leadership position within the community and imperil long-standing cultural identities. Predictably, Malay-Muslim parents shunned the national schools, which eventually were attended only by a small minority of children of Malay civil servants and aristocrats. The fact that government authorities attempted to strictly enforce the act only meant greater resentment on the part of the Malay-Muslim community toward the central authorities.

In response to the failure of the government-school integration project, Bangkok contemplated the blanket closing-down of the pondok. Eventually, Thai political leaders, no doubt cognizant of the possible ramifications of such a policy, settled for a more calibrated approach of easing Thai language instruction into the pondok through the dispatch of Thai teachers and educational materials to the south.

Although it was never colonized, Thailand experienced unsettled periods of military dictatorship after constitutional monarchy was established in 1932. Over the years, the various military administrations put forward a range of disingenuous policies that were aimed at bringing Islamic schools under the control of the central government. The National Education System and National Education Plan, formulated in 1932 and 1936 respectively, places strong emphasis on the spread of national culture, history, and language. New curricula were drawn up which did not accommodate local languages, religions, or historical narratives. Not surprisingly, from the Malay-Muslim vantage, these initiatives were once again viewed as attempts to impose Thai values in a way that threatened Malay culture, religion, and heritage. The end of the Pacific War, during which Thailand had found itself aligned with the Japanese, offered a fresh opportunity for reconciliation. The democratic administration of Pridi Panomyong (1946–1947) was viewed as sympathetic to the independent and assertive identity of Thailand’s Malay-Muslim minorities. A subsequent spirit of compromise found expression in the not-insignificant concessions that were made to the Malay-Muslim community under the broad rubric of the Patronage of Islam Act already discussed. The return to military rule in 1947 saw a return to policies of forced assimilation. New attempts to transform education entailed the replacement of Malay textbooks and study aids with Thai vernacular material. Broader policies concerning the expression of Malay-Muslim cultural identity were also promulgated. These included policies and legislation that circumscribed the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public and that rescinded sharīʿah law. It has been alleged that during the military administration of Field Marshall Phibun Songgkram turbans worn by hajis were snatched by the police and trampled on, and women wearing Muslim clothing and headscarves were “kicked and jabbed by Siamese police.” Even more drastic was his administration’s attempt to force all schools to adopt Buddhist ethics, a move that inevitably antagonized the Muslim minority, fueling further resentment against Bangkok.

In a further attempt to tighten control over Islamic education, the Ministry of Education mooted the issue of pondok registration in 1958. Again, the raison d’être of this initiative was two-fold: the integration of pondok graduates into the mainstream economy and society on the one hand, and on the other, the monitoring and management of the “threat” arising from suspicions that pondok education perpetuated Malay-Muslim narratives of resistance and separatism. Added to this was the larger subterranean problem of how the pondok and its students were viewed in mainstream Thai society. Prior to these initiatives to restructure Islamic education, pondoks were viewed not as educational but religious institutions. The profile of the typical pondok graduate—well-versed in religious knowledge but lacking an understanding of Thai national history, not conversant in the Thai language, and lacking technical skills––was a matter of consequential concern for the central government.

By the 1960s, the policy of registration was refined with the following objectives: namely, the much-needed improvement of pondok infrastructure and facilities, improvement of the curriculum and pedagogy of Islamic education, and the creation of a proper system of assessment and evaluation that would be in line with national standards. Registration required pondoks to provide information about their schools and, in particular, their curriculum and to abide by instructions from the Ministry of Education regarding the restructuring of the latter. In return, these schools would be provided access to government funds for infrastructural development.

Attempts to integrate, assimilate, and transform Islamic education reached a watershed in 1961 with the Pondok Educational Improvement Program (PEIP), which codified the suggestions made by the Ministry of Education regarding the restructuring of Islamic education. The PEIP aimed to persuade traditional pondoks to register in exchange for financial support and to introduce academic and vocational subjects with the Thai language as the medium of instruction. Within a year of its introduction, 197 pondoks registered, either swayed by the instrumentalist imperative or by an interpretation of the policy as a fait accompli. In 1965, it was decided that pondok that registered and received government aid would be reclassified as private religious schools. By the final year of registration in 1971, more than four hundred pondoks had registered, even though it had not been made compulsory. Several reasons accounted for the initial popularity of the registration program and the support it garnered from the community. First, unlike some previous policies, the PEIP was not an overt attempt to circumscribe the teaching of Islam in the Malay-Muslim provinces, at least not at first glance. To be sure, the spread of Islamic knowledge would be allowed to continue, but with the evident caveat of greater scrutiny by the state. Second, registration was voluntary and not compulsory. Again, this differed markedly from the more coercive policies of previous administrations that did not proffer choices for the Malay-Muslim community. Third, registration came with much-needed subsidies in terms of financial support, teachers (for academic and vocational subjects), teaching aids, and other necessary equipment and facilities.

Predictably, the PEIP was not without its drawbacks. To be sure, there were several controversial facets to the program. Though the PEIP was couched in terms of government support for the modernization and advancement of Muslim education, it nonetheless represented a powerful penetration of the state into a formerly closed system of education. In 1949, the Thai government had as part of its larger “Thai-nization” assimilation program promulgated the Private School Act, which required all private schools to register with the education ministry and to bring their curricula into conformity with government guidelines. But because pondok schools were classified as religious institutions and not as private schools at the time, they fell outside the remit of the act. In light of this, the 1961 PEIP can be viewed as a political machination to achieve, at least in theory, what the Private School Act had failed to achieve in 1949—state penetration into and control over the pondok. The consequence of this was not lost on some at least in the community. No doubt the PEIP facilitated the gradual modernization of Muslim education, but it also meant that education could now function as a medium of integration as patronage gave way to overt control––a fact that further eroded relations with the state. In response, as more than four hundred pondoks registered, another one hundred or so closed down and went underground in protest against the policy. Likewise, just as the government’s policy on the pondok was at heart driven by political considerations, so it elicited a highly political response from the Malay-Muslim community, as the status of the traditional pondok was another issue of contention that was mobilized by Malay-Muslim separatists operating in the southern provinces. Pivotal to the resistance was the perception that the central government’s emphasis on a national Thai curriculum was in fact an implicit enforcement of Buddhist ideology and philosophy, couched in the language of national unity and pluralism.

It is clear that the spectrum of government policies had a significant, consolidated impact on Islamic education in southern Thailand. The piecemeal dismantling since 1961 of the pondok structure of religious education had disrupted “the process by which the Malay-Muslim community used to produce its intellectuals,” by compelling them to adopt aspects of secularism and Thai culture (including Buddhism), thereby diminishing Patani’s status as a center for Islamic education (Pitsuwan 1985: 194). In other words, the policy facilitated government penetration of the pondok. The net effect of this was the erosion of the tradition of excellence in the standards of Islamic education, as pondok schools became instruments and institutions for the expression of broader resistance to perceived Thai colonialism in the Malay-Muslim southern provinces. In the process, large numbers of religious leaders and students were politicized to the extent that Islamic education has for the past four decades been the front line of the contest for identity between Bangkok and the southern provinces. Another inadvertent effect of these policies was the outflow of Muslim students abroad.

The drive to regulate Islamic education continued in earnest into the 1980s under the Private School Act of 1982, which, among other things, sought to improve the management and administration of Islamic private schools. With particular reference to Islamic education (the act was meant to regulate private schools in general and not just Islamic schools), the government had proposed under the act to develop Islamic private schools by elevating standards of curriculum, improving administration, and improving facilities (including teaching materials).

In recent times, the Muslim community has been less resistant to education policies aimed at transforming the structure and curriculum of pondoks. In 2004, the government enacted a successful policy that encouraged Islamic schools to register with them in exchange for financial aid and subsidies. However, education ministry regulations do not permit registration without fulfilling basic requirements such as the provision of proper rooms and facilities, the location and size of the pondok, and the need for tok guru to possess teaching certificates. While most pondoks have met these requirements, a small minority still do not. A more pressing problem for them though, is the question of striking a balance between their need for government funding and their desire to remain autonomous in order to maintain the primacy of religious education.

The modernization of Islamic education in Thailand is, however, not without advantage. Notably, the creation of modern secondary education in the form of madrasahs (modernist Islamic schools that have benefited from funding from international Islamic charities and who have an integrated curriculum that includes vocational subjects) and government-funded Islamic schools has facilitated an increase in the number of Muslim students who have gained entry into universities throughout Thailand. This has been the result of the introduction of examinations for the higher secondary certificate of Thai education that Muslim students take alongside their Arabic-religious education stream, which has allowed Muslim students to compete with their non-Muslim counterparts from national schools for tertiary education positions. Their task has been assisted by the implementation of a quota system for Muslim students entering national universities under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior.

Notwithstanding attempts by the Thai government to engage Islamic schools, the fact remains that for decades the Thai government has suspected Islamic schools of complicity in ethno-nationalist resistance and militancy in Thailand’s predominantly Malay-Muslim southern provinces. Against the backdrop of a reignition of militancy in southern Thailand in the last decade, these concerns have surfaced yet again. Thus far, it has been established with a fair amount of accuracy that some Islamic schools in the south have been mobilized to muster support for a new phase of armed resistance, though detailed information regarding the extent of the problem remains elusive. To large extents this suspicion of the Malay-Muslim community has been aggravated by the persistent inability of Thai government authorities to fully appreciate transformations and challenges that confront Islamic education in Thailand, particularly in the Malay-Muslim provinces, and in Malay-Muslim society as a whole. This lack of knowledge and understanding, however, has not prevented the formulation of negative perceptions in many circles within the Bangkok establishment toward Islamic schools. These perceptions flow from three observations widely held in Thai policy circles. First, Islamic schools encourage separatism by perpetuating Malay culture in an insular and exclusivist manner. Second, the system of Islamic education does not prepare students for modern Thai society, thus further widening the gulf between Malay (communal) and Thai (national) identities. Third, schools teach a radical brand of Islam that legitimizes violence and resistance to the Thai state. Such perceptions (or misperceptions, as it were) have led to the caricaturing of Islamic education that in turn inform policy recommendations such as the dilution of the religious content of the curriculum, or worst, the blanket closure of Islamic schools. At the same time prominent religious schools such as Thamm Witthaya, Pattani Jihad Witthaya, and the century-old Pondok Dalor, all viewed as bastions of Malay tradition and centers of excellence in Islamic education, remain at the top of the government’s list of religious schools suspected of involvement in the southern insurgency. Until the gulf in perception between the Thai government on the one hand and the local Malay community on the other narrows over the issue of where Islamic schools stand in Malay society, it is likely that relations between the center and the periphery will remain strained, and the ubiquitous “pondok” schools of Thailand’s southern provinces will continue to be subjected to suspicions of the Thai state.


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