In December last year, the new leader of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Nur Abdurrahman, gave an interesting interview with the Turkish newspaper, World Bulletin.

In this interview, Nur pointed out the diverse sources of migration into Patani, including Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Nur highlighted his own descent from migrants from Istanbul, who arrived in Patani during the time of the Ottoman Caliphate. He stated, ‘I am originally a Turk and an Istanbulite’, a background he learned from his grandfather, who spoke Turkish and wore a red fez. Nur’s grandfather also used to say that one day the Turks would arrive in Patani to liberate it from Siam.

Nur was born in 1948. His grandfather would have lived through the First World War, during which Turkey was at war with Britain. This was a time when the Caliphate loomed large in colonised Muslim imaginations, including in the former Siamese Malay tributaries–Patani, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.

The Ottoman Sultanate claimed the title ‘Caliphate’ to assert leadership over the global Muslim community, which it argued was oppressed under colonial rule. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II declared a global Holy War, urging Muslims in the British Empire to rise in rebellion against their oppressors.

Nur asserted that Patani Malays’ ‘ancestors saw the Ottoman caliphs as their own caliphs’, and that the Ottomans supported Patani resistance against Siam.

Nur’s purpose was to urge today’s Turkish government, through the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, to pressure Thailand on Patani’s behalf.

What he revealed about his grandfather, however, reveals a deep sense of connection between Southeast Asian Muslims and the Ottoman Caliphate in the early decades of the twentieth century. Due to upheaval over the Caliphate in India, Britain and the Netherlands were both nervous about Turkish agents inflaming passions in their Southeast Asian possessions. So was Siam, in relation to Patani.

British sources reveal some associations between anti-Siamese rebellions in Patani, and Turkey or Turks living locally. In 1922, Turks claiming to be jewel traders were suspected to be secret agents and deported, just as some Patani villages staged an anti-tax uprising against Siam. Rumours spread that an Islamist secret society had been established, with branches in Patani and the Malay states along the coast to its south. These sources also report a widespread belief among Malays that Turkish warships would arrive to free Patani from Siam.

The Ottoman Caliphate was extremely important in the popular political imagination in Siam’s former tributaries, as it had been across Muslim Southeast Asia since it came under colonial pressure first from Portugal, then Britain and the Netherlands.

In 1915, rumours spread through Kelantan that Turkey would defeat Britain in the war, and Turkish flags were reported to be flying in Terengganu that same year. In 1928, rebels who rose against forestry regulations in Terengganu used the Turkish flag as their symbol, raising it over a police station which they occupied, seizing all the guns.

Repeated references to Turkey in sources on Siam’s Malay tributaries hint at resistance to Siam being imagined as a Holy War, just as resistance to Britain often was. In Terengganu, forest rebels projected a Turkish connection to situate their struggle on a larger map of Muslim resistance to colonial rule. Istanbul served as a lodestar for these rebels, an exemplary centre whose prestige infused their struggle with Islamic authority by association.

Is Nur Abdurrahman doing the same thing? If so, he is drawing on a practice with very long roots–in Patani, and elsewhere in Muslim Southeast Asia.

Amrita Malhi has researched the Caliphate in Southeast Asia for her PhD thesis on an anti-colonial forest rebellion in Terengganu in 1928. She is interested in Holy War mobilisation in Siam’s former Malay vassal states.