Language and Educational Policies: Improving Ethnic Relations in the South of Thailand

The resurgence of violence in the border provinces of southern Thailand started with the attack of a military camp of Joh-I-Rong district, Narathiwat province on January 4, 2004. By the year 2015, more than 5,000 people had perished in this violent and protracted social conflict. I would like to call the ideology behind the insurgency “local patriotism” with the aim of achieving an independent state.This ideology is not new but seems to have occurred in the past rather naturally in many places at different times.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and practiced in Thailand and there is no religious conflict as such in the South (although local patriotism is often strengthened by religious sentiment). Moreover, it is firmly believed that Islam is a religion of peace. However, being Malay is often identified with being Muslim and Malay groups in their militancy do not hesitate to use religious sentiment to win over the local population to their cause. So, we need to look at the possible grievances stemming from the perception that patriotism is not respected and the Melayu language and religious teachings are not adequately offered by the Thai state. This article will touch on the issues, specifically, language policy and the teaching in schools of Islam in the South.

The need for a sound language policy

According to Mahidol University’s Institute of Language and Culture in Asia, out of the 1.1 million people of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, 0.9 million or around 82 per cent speak Melayu thin Thai as their mother tongue (the local dialect), and around 0.3 per cent speak various minority languages such as Chinese, Ulaklavoey and Mogen. The Thai speakers there can be sub-divided into Paktai (11 per cent), Takbai (6 per cent), Thai Klang (1 per cent) and Isan (0.3 per cent) speakers. But if we look at the languages spoken in contemporary Thailand, the Tai family of languages is spoken by the vast majority with 87 per cent in this group, whereas the local Melayu or Melayu thin Thai is spoken by just 1.9 per cent. Percentage-wise, this figure is slightly lower than that of the Northern Khmer spoken in Thailand’s northeast provinces of Surin, Srisaket, and Buriram, etc.


A doctoral candidate from Georgetown University in the United States came to interview me for her dissertation, and we discussed among other things the problem of language in the border provinces of the South. Two weeks later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a book she sent me as a gift. The title is Fighting Words: Language Policy and Ethnic Relations in Asia, edited by Michael E. Brown and Sumit Ganguly (MIT Press, 2003). I would recommend it to the attention of policy makers, especially those who are in charge of education and security policies. The book tells us in short that to solve ethnic conflict such as the one in the Thailand’s Deep South, we need a sound language policy. Let me now present some of the data and ideas in the book.

In the nineteenth century, people speaking standard Thai constituted no more than 15 per cent of the total population. Nowadays, more than 90 per cent can speak, read and write in standard Thai. With the great success in developing a national language, I would argue that the country’s leaders should now make a critical effort to preserve linguistic diversity.

Language is an important issue in any ethnic conflict. It is the main marker determining the membership in an ethnic group and this means that the loss of language identity is tantamount to the loss of ethnicity. Language policy has tremendous effects on education, the economy, and politics. It can determine who has a better chance to succeed in school, who has greater opportunities in economic advancement, who has a greater say in political decisions, who has better access to public services and who is fairly treated by government agencies. Language issues, like religious issues, can be the driving forces behind ethnic mobilization against the established order that might be perceived as unjust.

 There are many examples pointing to the failure of language policies in the region. At the time of its independence, Urdu was spoken by 7 per cent of the population in Pakistan, while Bengalis and Sindhis constituted 56 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. Clearly, the choice of Urdu as the national language favored some groups and alienated others. The language issue was the main driving force behind the secession of East Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh.

 A language policy that favors the majority can be a political platform to easily sway voters in elections. A case in point is Sri Lanka where a Sinhalese party, proposing Singala as the only official language, won a competitive election precisely thanks to that policy whose implementation led to Tamil grievances and eventually to the fight for an independent Tamil state. An unsound language policy to gain short-term electoral advantage can become a long-term disaster for the country.

 The struggle for power at the centre of the country during the post-independent era of Burma dominated the struggle for power between the centre and the nationality groups in the periphery. As a result, the elites at the centre took it for granted that the promotion of the Burmese language as a national language would forge a national identity and problems in the periphery would eventually subside. Many ethnic minority groups however resented the Burmanisation campaign and started armed struggles. Although many groups have now signed cease-fire agreements with the junta who renamed the country ‘Myanmar’ and propagated the fantasy of the cultural unity of the ‘Myanmar’ peoples, many ethnic minority groups still demand a federal state, if not autonomous states of their own.

 In India, the national language issue has been handled with sensitivity and the creation of states with certain language homogeneity has helped to diffuse some ethnic problems. Singapore’s leadership had the vision of a multicultural society. Although more than 75 per cent of the population have Chinese as their mother tongue, Bahasa Malaysia is accepted as a national language and English as the de facto official language. The language policy in Singapore has been successful at least in creating stability and the sense of fairness.

In the South of Thailand, the study of the Malay language is barely offered in public secondary schools and the language is seen as inherently suspect by Thai authorities. It is about time that a sound language policy is developed if we want to have a harmonious multiethnic society in the southern-most provinces.

A small group of Muslim boys attend religious school session to read Koran in a local mosque in Thailand's Deep South.

A small group of Muslim boys attend religious school session to read Koran in a local mosque in Thailand’s Deep South.


 Basic Education to Suit Local Needs in the Deep South

Both for the respect of local culture and to maximize pupils’ learning outcomes, I would like to propose the introduction of bilingual education in Thailand’s Southern-most provinces. Children should start learning basic skills in reading and writing as well as basic subjects, such as mathematics and social science in their mother tongue: in this case Melayu thin Thai. Later on, the knowledge and skills acquired in their mother tongue would be smoothly transferred and further developed using the national language. In fact, rather unofficially and on the encouragement of parents, pupils are already learning four languages: Thai, standard Malay, English and Arabic (for Al-Quran reading). Parents also tell children to learn Islam both in Pondok schools, say in the evening, and in Tadika schools, during weekends. Obviously, the demands on children are very high and many are too tired to achieve satisfactory results.

One can also observe that the recruitment for state schools has considerably dropped while private Islamic-cum-regular schools are full to the brim. For me, I see two emerging issues in this tendency. First, as the pupils in Islamic-cum-regular schools are all Muslim, the schooling of Islamic and Buddhist members of the same community is now divided along religious lines. Student friendship and harmonious mingling will be more difficult, resulting in the longer run, into more separation than integration based on unity of the nation. Secondly, parents are facing a dilemma: on the one hand, they want their children to have the best schooling, such as the one provided by the best public schools elsewhere in the country, but on the other hand, they want their children to have more Islamic studies than what is being provided in public schools in the South, but perhaps less Islamic studies than what is being provided in private schools. For many, the private schools may not offer the best solution but they are still better than public schools as far as their religious needs are concerned.

There is clear room for improvement in public schooling in the border provinces of southern Thailand. This needs to take place, not with the purpose of reducing the importance of private schools that continue to serve many, but in the spirit of offering options to serve diversified needs and in providing quality education in a fair competitive setting. In fact, education should be pupil-centered so that it allows students to learn effectively on the academic side, and also have fulfilling extracurricular activities.

In the past, complaints have been made about public schools’ insensitivity towards Islam, such as the non-separation of cooking facilities and personnel for children, the dress code for female teachers and pupils, and the mixed seating for male and female pupils in classrooms. Such complaints can be redressed, and in fact, I think they have more or less subsided. It is, however, more difficult to change the attitude of teachers and school administrators to be more open minded towards local needs. Only with the respect of diversity and dignity of different cultures, the education reform would then bear the expected fruits of harmony and quality of schooling.


Boys and girls are learning English in a public school in Thailand.

I would like to make the following proposals, more for the sake of further discussion than offering any ready-made answers. To cope with both religious and language requirements, schooling should be spread over six days a week with the clear understanding with the parents that, with their needs being responded to, they will let their children’s Sundays be for recreation only.

Primary public schools should teach three languages: Thai (using Melayu thin Thai as the medium of instruction at the beginning), standard Malay and English. In secondary schools, the learning and teaching of the Arabic language should be optional.

The learning and teaching of Islam should be either on Saturday or at the end of each school day. In this manner, non-Islamic pupils would have the option to study their own religion or do other activities at home during these hours. Private Islamic-cum-regular schools are providing a rather extensive curriculum in Islamic studies, occupying up to half of school hours. Public schools need not do that much but enough to cover the main subject matter, enough needed to form a person that is a good Muslim. I learnt that there are four important subjects that need to be taught: Tauhid (Unity of God), Fiqh (Religious Practices), Al-Quran, and Hadith (Prophet’s words). I am sure that Islamic scholars can help develop a good curriculum that is up to the standard of schooling in other Islamic countries.

What steps should be taken?

I think we should further discuss these ideas until a public policy might emerge. There should be consultation with parents, Islamic scholars and educational experts, to encourage them to reach an overarching consensus that would be open enough for future development, and the different curricula that need to evolve. Pilot projects could be launched to confirm hypothesis and evaluate pupil’s achievement. Flexibility should be ingrained in the learning and teaching schedule, and modern teaching methods, materials, and learning styles should be deployed. Most importantly, teachers should be open to change and participate in the process of change. In fact, the whole process should be designed with all aspects carefully thought through, i.e. education management, rules and regulations, how to prevent influential people from diverting the reform for their own purposes, how to make the reform transparent, and how to ensure fair competition, etc.

In summary, public schools in the South should address two particular local aspects: the teaching of language and religion. These two aspects are closely linked to the identity of the local people. To respond to local needs in education is one of the fundamental steps that must be addressed as the Deep South moves forward on the road of reconciliation.

Gothom Arya
Associate Prof. Dr. Gothom Arya is currently an advisor to the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University. He is a reputable scholar and peace activist who, since 2004, has been very active in transforming various conflicts in Thai society, including the Southern Unrest.