Can Thailand’s southern crisis really be understood in terms of cultural and linguistic difference?

This is the question that was left hanging in the air at last weeks ANU-hosted seminar on “The Crisis in Southern Thailand: Cultural Policy, Gender Issues and Reconciliation Prospects“. As the title suggests, the discussion was primarily on cultural issues. Considerable emphasis was placed on the potential for appropriately designed bi-lingual education as a longer term solution to the southern crisis. A variety of causes of the conflict were briefly canvassed, but the key emphasis was on the barriers to effective communication between the Malay speaking population in the south and the Thai speaking national majority. The Thai state’s insensitive imposition of Thai-language education was identified as an important underlying contributor to the conflict. To some extent, these linguistic issues were placed in the broader context of economic marginalisation and there were calls for addressing health and welfare deficiencies in the south. There were also, inevitably I suppose, references to the “sufficiency lifestyle” of residents of the southernmost provinces. This lifestyle, we were led to believe, is under threat from capitalism and consumerism, as the desire for mobile phones swamps traditional Islamic values.

The most interesting discussion came in the brief question period. One audience member asked why other culturally and economically marginal minority populations in Thailand (such as the “hill tribes” in the north) had not reacted in the same way as the south. The answer was that, whatever their religious or cultural differences, the “hill tribes” did succeed in various forms of integration with the majority population. This was not the case in the south where cultural differences were more profound. In my question I referred to the argument put by McCargo that key dimensions of the southern conflict could be understand in terms of the conflict between Thaksin and the “network monarchy,” with Privy Councillor Prem playing a key role. Specifically I asked about the views of Prem and the monarch on proposals for bilingual education. The answer avoided the issue, merely restating the importance of an alternative linguistic approach to education. There was however a very brief passing comment that perhaps Prem’s opposition to the use of Malay as a “working language” was based on a misunderstanding. During question time there was also some comment about the violence perpetrated by the large number of paramilitary Rangers who had been posted to the south. That was about as close as the seminar got to talking about politics!

Of course cultural factors are important. But framing the southern conflict primarily in terms of cultural difference is an overly safe option that avoids addressing some of the trickier political issues. We all recognise that a delegation such as this has some constraints on what they can say, but when the issues are as important as this a little more departure from the accepted script would have been very welcome.