By The Nation
Soldiers raiding a traditional Islamic boarding school in Pattani’s Mayo district on January 28 forced the students at gunpoint to lie on the ground as they searched for contraband – and came up with nothing apart from 11 Cambodian students
overstaying their visas.
A witness mistaking the school’s night-time physical
exercises for some sort of combat training called in the authorities. The odd hour for exercising was easily explained: Classes start early each day and leave no other time for sports and related activities. But suspicion was enough to bring in a squad of heavily armed rangers and soldiers, all dressed in black. The students, ages 16 to 26, lay prone, hands tied behind their backs. For some reason the troops decided one student should be further constrained in fishing net.
It was just one more incident in the South’s 15-year separatist insurgency driving the wedge deeper between the Muslim religious community and the state. These Islamic boarding schools (ponoh, or pondok in standard Malay) hold great esteem in the hearts of the Malay Muslims of a region they call Patani. Beyond being mere centres of learning, the schools are bastions of faith,
culture and identity, all of which is cherished and protected.
But, just as long days of study leave no time for exercise, Thai
history allows no room for a people so distinctive from the masses.
Thai history is the story of a
united nation within colonial-era borders, everyone abiding in
harmony with one language and a single identity. However, while immigrants from abroad readily assimilated into this mythic narrative, the Malays of Patani have resisted because of the prices demanded – denial of their own cultural roots and acceptance of the falsehood that Thais are superior to all other nationalities in the region.
Most people in the border provinces would prefer instead to break away from Thailand and form their own nation or a new province of Malaysia.
After the raid, Pol Lt General Surachat Hakparn, chief of the Immigration Bureau, zeroed in on the Cambodian students, ludicrously suggesting they might have been training locals in the use of firearms. It’s an old and often-debunked claim. Certainly the southern insurgents need no such help. The knowledge and means of running a guerrilla war is passed from one generation to the next. And Cambodians and others regularly come to study in Patani, a region the late statesman Surin Pitsuwan referred to as the cradle of Islamic education in Southeast Asia.
Surachate is simply trying to attach some importance to the valueless raid, to cover the state’s embarrassment. He has transferred immigration officials who were accused of letting the Cambodians youths into Thailand. That too is fallacious thinking. The southern border is far more porous than he seems to believe and daily movement of trade goods is so immense that curtailing it would be nearly impossible.
For lack of a hard border, people of many nationalities come and go at will, almost all of them completely innocent in their intent. Now, though, with the botched raid on students doing their exercises and amid accusations of false arrest and inhumane military tactics, we suddenly have an immigration problem on our hands.