Saturday, August 01, 2009

Satun, Thailand's tamed south

Thai Takes

HAMZAH Desa, a 42-year-old Thai Muslim, sits cross-legged on the veranda of his one-room wooden house in Kampung Che Bilang in Satun, a Muslim-majority province in southern Thailand.

It’s a typical Sunday afternoon in his village. A handful of villagers wearing tudung (a Muslim headscarf) are buying som tam (papaya salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken) from a street vendor.

“Look at them. The seller is a Chinese Buddhist and the buyers are Malay Muslims,” Hamzah, a community development officer for Kampung Che Bilang, says in Malay laced with a thick Kedah accent.

“That is a sight that is difficult to find in Pattani (a region consisting of three Muslim-dominated provinces — Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani — on the eastern seaboard of the Isthmus of Kra).”

Hamzah then points to the grocery store next door owned by his neighbour, Bunleur Karnsannok, a 62-year-old Chinese Buddhist, as an example of how Buddhists and Muslims in Satun province live side-by-side harmoniously.

“We are like adik-beradik (siblings). When it is Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a Muslim festival to mark the end of the fasting month, we will give Bunleur’s family cakes; when it is Chinese New Year, his family will give us cakes,” he says.

“We are all the same,” echoes the grocery store owner who has lived in the village for 40 years.

The adik-beradik relationship between Muslims and Buddhists in Satun province is in sharp contrast to Pattani region where a separatist-related unrest has killed more than 3,700 people — Buddhists and Muslims — since January 2004.

Satun province, adjacent to Kedah and Perlis, was once part of the Kedah Sultanate.

In a 1909 treaty, the British and Siamese authorities split the northernmost Malay regions of Pattani, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah.

The Siamese secured Pattani and a section of Kedah (now Satun) while the British took Kelantan, Trengganu and most parts of Kedah.

Satun’s provincial capital is called Satun (pronounced “S-toon”), which is approximately 973km southwest of Bangkok. About 70% of its 280,000 population is Malay Muslim.

Pattani Muslims and Satun Muslims have different aspirations, notes tudung-clad Siti Hajar Sasen, who lives in Kampung Che Bilang which, if not for the som tam and gai yang vendor, you would think is a village in Kedah.

The 27-year-old homemaker is married to a 50-year-old Malaysian who owns a halal restaurant in Satun town and exports fish from Ranong in Thailand to Kuala Perlis in Malaysia.

“(The Pattani Malays) want to be separated from Thailand, while we want to live harmoniously with the other communities,” she explains. “We only want peace; fighting against the Thai government will not be good for business.”

Economically, the local population in Satun has benefited from the absence of inter-communal tensions.

Its per capita income is roughly 50% higher than Pattani’s which sees killings related to the separatist movement almost every day.

Siti Hajar acknowledges that she’s comfortable in the Buddhist-dominated kingdom.

“If a Muslim wants to do business and become a millionaire, the government will not interfere. If Muslims want to build a mosque, the government will not interfere. What else do I want?” she said.

Ali Man, a 75-year-old respected Muslim religious leader in Kampung Che Bilang, shares the same sentiment.

“Although we are a minority in Thailand, when we apply for land the Thai government does not care whether you are Muslim or Buddhist,” says Ali, who was dressed in a Baju Melayu, a gift from his brother, a Malaysian living in Kuala Lumpur.

Ali smiles when asked whether he owned huge swathe of rubber plantation. “Alhamdulillah (Praise to God),” he says, “I’m thankful the government does not discriminate.”

There’s also no discrimination in Kampung Che Bilang, according to Hamzah. “Although we form the majority (90% of the 500 households in this village), we don’t force our religious views on the others,” he says.

For example, the Kampung Che Bilang community development committee allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol publicly in a designated zone in the village which has a dockyard serving farang (Western) boat owners.

Does Hamzah wish Satun province was still part of Kedah?

“That is history. In a blink of an eye, my ancestors became Thai,” he says.

“I don’t regret it. When I was born, I was a Thai.”

(Published in The Star on August 1, 2009)


Thai Girl said...

Thanks for an interesting and optimistic article. (Thanks also for not blaming the British!)

What you say raises the question of why Satun is more peaceful than the three other southern provinces. Perhaps history is the reason but really that begs the question.

It also makes me wonder whether Satun can be made a model for community harmony elsewhere.

The key question of course is what exactly are extremists in the other states fighting for? An obvious answer is separation but is this really a broad based and coherent movement in Pattani with this prime objective? Despite their proud past, I'm not sure there is.

Andew Hicks

KijangMas said...

Just came across this posting.


Yes, the Setul or S'toon Malays are a distinctive ethno-cultural sub-group within the larger Malay World.

Not much affinity with the Patani Malays beyond their common Islamic faith and Malay linguistic roots.

Would the Patani Region ever become another docile, contented, resigned-to-reality Satun? No. The history of the Patani Kingdom and the Setul Principality are different and circumstances that led to the 1902 Siamese annexation of the two regions differ markedly.

In the case of Satun, the minor potentate, Rong Ammarttri Phraya Phuminart Phakdi (Tuanku Baharuddin ibni Al-Marhum Tengku Temenggong) was an active "collaborator" to Siamese machinations on this northern Kedah district and got to keep his "throne" (albeit as a Governor on Siam's books) until his death, while in Patani, the Sultan led the Malay resistance to Siamese rule and ended up being deposed and locked up in Phitsanulok prison for 3 yrs.