Thursday, July 02, 2020

Colonists’ light touch let people live in harmony

Mar 01. 2019
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Re: “Shameless farang still praising colonial thuggery”, Have Your Say, March 1

The British Empire was far from perfect, but one thing that can be said for it was that it provided a framework for disparate peoples to live in harmony under relatively neutral British administration. 

Once the British left and fledgling democracies took their place, the rights of the minorities began getting trampled by the majority. 

In Cyprus, for instance, Muslim Turks and Christian Greeks lived peacefully together under British rule, but after independence that was no longer possible, even under a constitution that guaranteed the rights of the Turkish minority. The eventual result was a Turkish invasion and the partition of the island.

In British Malaya with its multiracial population, local religions, customs and laws were respected where they didn’t conflict with the key principles of British criminal law. British colonial officers were recruited from the UK in their late teens or early 20s to serve in the Malayan Civil Service for their entire careers, ensuring they gained a thorough understanding of the peoples and cultures in their area. 

They were also required to learn local languages, which could be used freely in government offices, even though English was the main official language. Interestingly, Thailand under absolute monarchy administered its three majority Malay southernmost provinces in a similar way to the British, ruling with a light touch and allowing local Muslim customs to take precedence over Thai law in matters such as marriage and inheritance.

However, after the transition to constitutional monarchy in the 1930s, nationalist leader Plaek Phibulsongkram embarked on a programme of Thai-ification across the country, abolishing Muslim courts and Malay-language schools and imposing Thai as the sole official language. 

Given the ongoing insurgency in the South, it is arguable that assimilation has been far from successful and that the light-touch administration practised by both the British in colonial Malaya and in the Thai South by the monarchy would have worked better. 

George Morgan

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