The role of language politics in Thailand’s Deep South
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The role of language politics in Thailand’s Deep South

Jason Johnson, an independent researcher and consultant based in the Deep South (whose writings BP has blogged about here and here), previously provided a comment to BP on the use of Malay in Thailand’s Deep South in 2009:

First, the teaching of standard Malay (that is Malaysia’s official language) is widespread at the private Islamic schools.

Second, almost all of the intellectuals who dominate the debates on the south somehow conveniently omit — or just don’t know in the case of foreigners and Thai Buddhists — that the local Malay has no written form. So if people are going to have discussions about “Yawi” being taught in schools, don’t you think this would seem to be something that would be strongly emphasized?

Third, Thai Buddhists really need to stop calling the language used in the south as “Yawi.” They get it from “Jawi,” which is the written form of standard Malay using the Arabic script, and when they refer to the language as Yawi they upset some folks in the process, especially those who don’t want outsiders to know that their local dialect has no written form.

Fourth, I doubt that even 40 percent of the Muslim population has a solid grasp of Jawi.

Fifth, I get the feeling that in general people want the local Malay to be used not because people can’t speak Thai, but because the younger generation is forgetting the local Malay. Again, this is important to note, but the intellectuals would rather like to have policy-makers and others think that people in the region can’t speak Thai.

Now, Jason has an article on the lack of Malay fluency in Thailand’s Deep for Asia Times Online. Key excerpt:

In Thailand’s insurgency-hit three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, the state’s marginalization of the Malay language has been a core grievance among Malay Muslim nationalists aiming for either independence or substantial autonomy from the predominantly Buddhist nation.

For nearly a century, the state’s effort to promote central Thai as the sole legitimate language has engendered animosity and even violent resistance in the historically Malay-speaking region. If relative peace is ever to be restored, the issue of language use will need to be addressed.

After the 1921 Compulsory Primary Education Act, which required all children in Thailand to attend state primary schools where central Thai was the medium of instruction….

Jawi, the use of a modified Arabic script to write classical Malay, has gradually been undermined by the introduction of central Thai and the Thai script to the region. As a result, Malay-speaking Muslims are now noticeably more fluent in written Thai than the antiquated Jawi, once the dominant form of writing Malay in maritime Southeast Asia.


Mahidol University research on the subject revealed that the vast majority of Malay-speaking Muslim parents preferred a Thai-based script, since that was the only script that most parents could understand. Many educated Malays strongly disagreed, but that criticism has waned somewhat because the parents of children involved in the program have been pleased with the program’s results, according to people familiar with the situation.

Malay Muslim cynics are also quick to note that despite nearly a decade of extreme violence, state officials deployed to the region have taken little if any initiative to learn Malay. But if the region’s violence is to be effectively managed through some kind of eventual peace deal, the issue of language use in the ethno-religious minority region will likely be a key issue at the negotiation table.

BP: Will there be expanded use of bilingual schools? Check Jason’s article for details of what else the previous and current government have been doing to promote Malay…