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Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker?

Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker?

Wednesday, 4th November 2015 at 9.00 – 11.30 a.m.

Room 111, Maha Chulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University


Opening Remarks

Mr. Michael Winzer
Resident Representative to Thailand,
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung

H.E. Mr. Philip Calvert
The Ambassador of Canada to Thailand

Assist. Prof. Dr. Srisompob Jitpiromsri
Director of Deep South Watch (DSW)
Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus, Thailand
Member of Thai Negotiating Team in the Peace Talks

Mr. Matthew Z. Wheeler
South East Asia Analyst, The International Crisis Group (ICG)

Prof. Dr. Victor V. Ramraj
Professor and Chair
Centre of Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI)
Faculty of Law, University of Victoria, Canada

Prof. Dr. Chaiwat Satha-Anand
Professor of Political Sciences
Founder and Director of the Peace Information Centre, Thammasat University

Prof. Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat
Emeritus Professor of Linguistic
Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Director of ISIS Thailand
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Power Point Presentation
Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker?

Mr. Matthew Z. Wheeler
South East Asia Analyst, The International Crisis Group (ICG)

Prof. Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat
Emeritus Professor of Linguistic
Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University

Prof. Dr. Victor V. Ramraj
Professor and Chair, Centre of Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI)
Faculty of Law, University of Victoria, Canada


Videos: Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker?

Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker? Part 1/2:
Thailand’s Deep South Update: Language as Peacemaker? Part 1/2:



Mr. Michael Winzer 


Language is extremely important for the identity of a person and of a state. This was important in the 19th Century when the national states in Europe emerged. There were many criteria for the national state, such as a common culture, common history, and commonly shared values, but also the language that was spoken. Language is not only a tool of communication, but is also the visualisation of thought. Thoughts and language distinguish us as human beings. Therefore, language can be a major peacemaker in this conflict.


H.E. Mr. Philip Calvert

Languages have a defining role in how we express our views, beliefs and culture. It can also have an impact on how we express our identity or conversely, as a way to silence groups that society wishes to marginalise.

Canada has a long history of language being used as a facet of identity, something which has both strengthened our national identity and at times threatened to undermine it. Hopefully Canada’s experience can be insightful.

Canada is an officially bilingual country as both English and French are enshrined as official languages, reflecting the country’s history as first a French then British colony. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains several clauses which outline language rights, the preservation of language rights and the right to receive services from the Canadian government in the official language of one’s choice. 

This reflects what has been learned from history in different nation building challenges that have been experienced. While the majority of French speaking Canadians live in the province of Quebec, there are also large numbers in Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and other parts of Canada. So the official languages policy was meant to address a number of identity based grievances on the part of Canada’s French-speaking minority. In the past, these grievances had been a source of tension in the country, a source of political instability, and had at times been as part of a larger issues which in the past led to incidences of violence. At that time, French Canadians had been underrepresented in the public service and they were treated inequitably by the federal administration. At the time the official bilingualism became a policy, 9% of the jobs in the Canadian public service were held by Francophones, even though they made up 25% of the Canadian population.

Ultimately, the protection of French and English speaking rights became not only entrenched in our Constitution, but also became a tool to support and maintain a respectful society. In this way, language becomes a demonstration of how a country, its central government and its citizens wish to respect and protect those with diverse identities, and encourage them to feel invested in a universal concept of the country.

In thinking about the question of language and identity in Canada, many tend to focus on the issue of English and French. But the story goes beyond that. Language can be used as a tool of peace, but there are perils when the value language is not fully respected over the course of history. This is evident in the situation with Canada’s First Nations peoples.

There are First Nations communities all across Canada, but unlike French, the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples did not enjoy the same historic and legal protection and promotion. In fact, in the last century, Canada planted policies of forced assimilation which did tremendous damage to these communities. Canada is still feeling the ramifications of this damage today.

As a result, there is a significant gap between First Nations peoples and other Canadians in terms of cultural identity, however there are now programmes available to try to reverse this gap. This continues to be a major challenge in Canada’s governance, and its new government is determined to address it with its coming mandate.

Every country has these challenges, and no country has perfected language and identity. The road to language and peace is neither direct nor easy, but these roads are intricately intertwined. Only through respect for language and identity can one truly begin to build an inclusive, and ultimately peaceful, society.

The most recent Canadian census in 2011 showed that there are about 6.6 million citizens (20%) whose first language is not English or French, but Mandarin, Ukrainian, Punjabi or others. This number is at the heart of Canada’s policy towards multiculturalism. In a country where 1 in 5 people first learn to speak a language which is neither English nor French, there is clear emphasis on the role of language as a representation of identity. Hence, in recognising the link between language, identity and in individual’s sense of belonging, Canada has found that understanding and protecting this link can lead to respect and ultimately peace.

The conflict in the Deep South will not be solved overnight, but language and respect for the identities linked to those languages can be an important, if not essential, first step. We can look to language not as a source of division, but as a characteristic which must be fostered and respected to create an inclusive society for all populations.


Moderator: If you go down to the Deep South, the first thing to notice is that the first language of the people down there is not Central Thai, but their own language.




Assist. Prof. Dr. Srisompob Jitpiromsri 

There have been over 16,000 incidences of violence from 2004 to 2015, but overall the trend of the violence has steadily stabilised over the years, due to different approaches towards government policy and movements on the ground. Month by month, however, the rate of violence is still extremely unpredictable, particularly since 2013.

One factor for this recent variance is the movement towards Peace Talks and Dialogues, which has led to a stabilisation of violence in some communities. But at the same time, competing forces in the peace process, especially from the underground movements, have exacerbated the variance of the violence.

In October 2015, there were 111 incidents of violence. For this year, only October and March were the months that the levels of violence increased. This variance is a consequence of the political approach to solve the problem.

On the other hand, the level of casualties over the years has stabilised. That means in spite of the fact that we have variance in incidents of violence, the deaths and injuries of people has stabilised. We are still in critical situation with unpredictable violent attacks on the one hand, but on the other the casualties have been limited to a certain level. Although much work is still needed, in general, we are on the right track. In 2013 there has been a greater prevalence of attacks on ‘hard targets,’ such as military or government assets, than civilians. Since 2014, civilians were more frequently targeted again.

One positive amid the violence is the proliferation of civil society organisations on the ground in the Deep South which try to bring about the peace process. There is protracted violence, but positive elements are emerging.

Concerning the issue of language, approximately 30% of people in the Deep South use Malay, 26% use Thai (mostly Thai Buddhists in the region), but approximately 34% use both. This is a consequence of the assimilation policies of governments over the past 100 years. But understandable, people living together have adjusted themselves to using and understanding the various languages in the region.


Mr. Matthew Z. Wheeler 

The conflict in the Deep South doesn’t seem to change very much. There is a grinding routine of violence which has been going on for more than a decade, but in fact things have changed. The dialogue process is one part. More recently, we’ve seen the public face of BRN which has been a long time coming.

It was a year ago, on the 5th of November 2014, that the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said, “We will attempt to solve the problem in the Deep South in one year.” Prime Minister Prayuth also promised to solve the problem by the end of 2015 in preparation for the ASEAN Economic Community. Their timelines are not looking good.

The Deep South area is about the size of Lebanon, with a population of about 2 million. Roughly 80% are Malay-Muslim, who speak Malay as their first dialect and profess Islam. Most of the rest are Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists. Until recently, all of the violence was confined to the Deep South area, but in the past few years there have been both successful and attempted attacks in other parts of the country.

In most basic terms, the conflict stems from the fact that Malay-Muslims, although a majority in the Deep South, are a minority in Thailand. They are a minority ethnically, religiously, and linguistically and have not been fulling integrated into the Thai nation state.

The idea that Thailand is a homogenous country in terms of language, ethnicity and religion is one which has had to be constructed. Most natural Thais speak a language other than Thai in their homes.

Another cause of conflict is colonialization. The area that is now the Deep South only came under direct Siamese (Thai) control at the start of the 20th Century. In 1902, Bangkok annexed the region which was largely a reaction to growing British influence in the Malay Peninsula. Bangkok sent Siamese Buddhist officials to administer the region for the first time. The system for administration used today has changed very little since the 1900s.

Periodic violence and unrest since its annexation, first and foremost, come from policies of forced assimilation. Bangkok has made great efforts to turn Malay-Muslims into ‘Thais.’ The conflict is fuelled by an official conception of Thai identity and a distinct Pattani-Malay identity which is integrated with Islam and the Malay language. Thai nationalism (Buddhism and central Thai language) is embodied in the slogan, ‘Nation, Religion and Monarchy.’ This is a conception of identity that does not necessarily resonate among Malay-Muslims.

The efforts by the Thai state beginning in the 1960s to enforce secular education and to limit the teaching of the Malay language caused a great deal of anger and resentment. For many Malay-Muslims, recently echoed by Surin Pitsuwan, national integration meant cultural disintegration. Therefore the State had to be resisted as necessary. During this time, resistance took the form of underground separatist fronts. They took their cues from Sukarno’s Indonesia, they embraced pan-Malay aims and Socialism.

By the 1990s, the violence was only at a ‘nuisance’ level, because of State policies which allowed a greater degree of democracy and freedom, among other factors. However, the violence never disappeared. In 2004 the level of violence exploded, became much more intense.

The recent response to the current phase of violence in the Deep South has unfolded under seven administrations. Generally the response has been conservative and militarised. From the Bangkok perspective, the problem is usually conceived of in terms of a lack of justice and fewer economic opportunities; rarely is it seen in terms of identity.

Under the Pheu Thai government significant changes were made, most notably the inauguration of an official peace dialogue process on the 20th of February 2013. Initially, these talks were viewed with much scepticism. The BRN also released a video with demands: that the BRN be the representative of the Pattani-Malay people, that Malaysia should be a facilitator, not the mediator, there should be international observers (ASEAN and NGOs), the rights of the Pattani-Malay people need to be recognised by the government, and that some prisoners be released. However, ‘politics in Bangkok intervened’ and disrupted this process.

Somewhat surprisingly, after the coup, the NCPO indicated that they would engage in dialogue with the Southern militants. However, General Prayuth is strongly against allowing the establishment of any special administrative zones. Moreover, the NCPO’s strategy seems to be focussed on the ultimate goal of strengthening Thai unity and identity, which is problematic for the South. Under the Yingluck government, the dialogue was known as “Santipab” (สันติภาพ) meaning ‘peace dialogue,’ however the NCPO used the word “Santisuk” (สันติสุข) which tries to encapsulate the idea of ‘happiness, wellbeing and tranquillity.’

There are many hardliners in the Deep South which do not trust the sincerity of the current coup-government, however there are some who have agreed to the talks. At the moment, the process is still alive but it is not apparent how it is going to be productive when the Army is against devolution of power and the BRN hardliners who refuse to buy in.

“The problem of insurgency in the three southern border provinces has been linked to the division of social classes. There is some misunderstanding about this. We have to understand that there are no social classes or class divisions [among] Buddhist Thais or Muslim Thais. I am worried about this. Communities have no mutual caring and people fight for personal gain. This has led to mistrust between people of different religions. Two things can help alleviate the problem, namely, Thainess, meaning the feeling of being Thai – having been born here, one must have a feeling of gratitude to the country [and] loyalty to the monarchy – and justice [from the state].” Prem Tinsulanonda, 9 April 2015.

This quote is indicative of a hurdle which needs to be overcome in dealing with the South.


Moderator: The hurdle Mr. Wheeler mentioned is set at the very beginning, the very outset of the conflict. This makes it very difficult to frame the debate and find a way forward. During the identity formation period in the late 1930s, our foreign friends will be intrigued to know that Pad Thai was also invented at that time!

From the beginning, the original demands from the South included language.

We also have representational problems on both sides: on the Thai side, the governments keep changing. On the insurgency side, there is controversy and divisions about who should be the representative on those in the South.


Prof. Dr. Victor V. Ramraj

After the conflict between the English and French in the 18th Century, there were attempts to preserve the cultural, political and linguistic identities of both groups in Canada. Since then, there has been an effort to recognise official bilingualism in Canada through the Official Languages Act and the Constitution.

However, another way to look at the issue of language in Canada is through the efforts being taken to revitalise indigenous languages. In some ways, these language revitalisation programmes are a response to earlier policies of coercion and assimilation, but importantly they have been identified as one important avenue on a path towards reconciliation and come to terms with a rather dark chapter in Canada’s history.

Indigenous peoples had been in Canada for thousands of years before European contact in the 15th and 16th Centuries. In the period before European contact there were complex cultures, architecture, laws and languages. Canada’s First Peoples engaged in trade, treaties and conflict, and they extended across what we now call the North American continent. Various estimates of place the indigenous population at the time of contact at 350,000 – 500,000, with some estimates ranging beyond 2,000,000. By the time of Canada’s Confederation in 1867, there were only approximately 125,000. The range of language groups in Canada is extremely diverse; there were an estimated 53 different languages and dialects used among indigenous peoples. Some of these languages are still widely spoken, but others are under the threat of extinction. Today there are 1.4 million Canadians who self-identify as indigenous, which is about 4.3% of the total population.

Generally speaking, Indigenous Canadians still fare much worse than the general population in terms of health, education, employment and poverty. Many of these problems can be traced, in at least some part, to a policy known as the Residential Schools System, which dates back to the mid-1800s. Residential Schools were a series of state and church-run schools across the country. They involved the forced separation of Indigenous Canadian children from their families with the ultimate goal of systematic language suppression to ‘Kill the Indian in the Child.’ European culture and the Christian religion were believed to be superior to indigenous cultures, which were seen as being savage and brutal. Within these schools there was also rampant sexual and physical abuse, they were chronically underfunded, the education the children received was extremely poor, and many of the children were forced to work in the schools. Often children were discouraged or even prohibited from speaking their own languages. This Residential School system lasted for around 160 years.

Most of the residential schools were closed by the 1970s or 1980s. In the early 2000s there were tens-of-thousands of court cases brought by survivors of the Residential School against the Federal Government which resulted in the ‘Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.’ This agreement included a scheme of compensation for victims, government support for the commemoration to build awareness of the impact of the system, and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. There was also an official apology by the Government of Canada for the system.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report calls upon the Federal Government to acknowledge that aboriginal rights, which are protected in Canada, includes the preservation and revitalisation of aboriginal languages. We are yet to see whether these recommendations will be implemented.

As Canadians reflect on the experiences of Residential Schools, there is a sense in which it was a bleak chapter in Canada’s history. “Indigenous assimilation has been an astonishing failure. The wealth of evidence makes it clear that assimilation is the most hated and resisted policy for indigenous peoples. Nothing will turn indigenous peoples from the Canadian state with greater force than policies designed to assimilate them. Assimilation must be rejected if Canada is to enjoy a healthy, vibrant democracy under a non-coercive rule of law.”

Despite recent progress, Canada still has a long way to go to redress past injustices and reconcile with its indigenous peoples. Language policy in Canada has had a long history, and is often seen as a means of recognition and inclusion of minority communities. While concerns still linger about cohesion, the dominant view is that there is strength in diversity and legal pluralism.


Prof. Dr. Chaiwat Satha-Anand

In 2005, Thailand had the National Reconciliation Commission. One of the key recommendations of the Commission was a proposal that Malay could be an official working language for the country, similar to the use of English. Of course this proposal were severely attacked.

For language to be a peacemaker in the case of Southern Thailand violence, the journey needs to be cautiously negotiated, take into consideration the problematique of contested identities.

There is an absence in the ‘real voice’ of the South. There are too few people representing the language that we are all talking about. That absence is quite interesting in itself. What language are we talking about? What is the real language of the South? Malay-Pattani, ‘Jawi.’ This is used because it is essential to the teaching of Islam. Malay-Pattani is also very different from Bahasa-Malay.

How is Peru related to Southern Thailand? Language and reconciliation. In August 2003, a Peruvian commission interviewed tens-of-thousands of people and held major public discussions. A number of other countries, including the United States, participated in evaluating the report, and they found that there more than 69,000 people killed. At the time, the core reason for this violence stemmed from problems of class and ethnicity. The most interesting finding was that 75% of the people killed were people who used indigenous languages, not Spanish. So, a research focus for scholars looking at the Deep South conflict could be to look at the numbers of people killed, and ask the question, ‘What was their language?” Perhaps we might see an interesting correlation.

Loyalty is a contested idea, particularly in the area of language and how it informs the question of, ‘who are you?’ The post-Cold War world is a world in which the politics of identity takes the centre stage, not least of all in Southern Thailand. There is a study about how people sing songs in Thailand. People in the South tend to sing enthusiastically, spiritedly. Among the songs they sang in the past were the national anthem and the Royal anthem. However, when their knowledge of language increases, they do not continue singing the songs. If they understand the context of these anthems, their identity seems threatened. Language is not only a tool, but it also about power. It is a way in which we define ourselves, particularly within an identity conflict.

Thailand is the only country in East Asia with three ongoing conflicts. Governance (question of who will rule Thailand), ethnic conflicts, particularly in the South, and broader conflicts. Most of the countries in East Asia have solved these problems already, but Thailand is the only country with these three going at the same time.


Prof. Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat

Language plays an important role as a medium of communication and as an expression of identity. Language use and language choice are therefore pivotal for crisis mitigation and resolution.

Thailand’s population of 55 million people speaks 70+ living languages, coming from 5 language families. Thai is the only official national language. It is derived from a variety of central Thai, and only about 50% of the population uses it proficiently as their first language. It is used as a medium of instruction in all levels of schooling across the country; children who do not speak Thai as a first language tend to be under achievers in the education system. In the border areas especially, not only are peoples’ mother languages declining, but the majority of the people also cannot reach government services.

In Thailand’s Deep South, about 80% of the population speaks Pattani-Malay. Language identity issues is one of the underlying, root causes exacerbating political unrest and violence. The mother tongue of the people in the area is not officially accepted or used in education. Ethnic language and culture are declining at a rapid rate. Local communities have low self-confidence and no security. Related to this is chronic underachievement in schools. Children in the three southern provinces have the lowest scores in national testing. About 40% are still illiterate at the third grade. A large segment of the population feels excluded from national development.

Language is a key barrier for ethno-linguistic minorities to access all levels of quality education. The experience in the Asia-Pacific region has shown that mother-tongue based, multilingual education is one of the most successful ways to break this cycle of marginalisation in education. Mother-tongue based, multilingual education ensures that all learners can build strong, basic foundation skills of literacy and numeracy as well as problem solving and interpersonal skills.

Pattani-Malay is the language which is most commonly used in daily life, and its users have the ability and have the confidence to use it. Second is Thai or a mix between Thai and Malay.

Common requests from people living in the southern provinces to the government leaders in Bangkok are that the Pattani-Malay language be used as a working language for successful communication, and that effective and quality education that is relevant to particular local contexts be provided. However, in using the local language or mother-tongue in education, the local language needs more development. There needs to be an improved standardised writing system, literature production, vocabulary expansion, and dictionary compilation before it is used in education. There is a programme facilitated by Dr. Suwilai in place which are attempting to overcome these weaknesses already. It attempts to bridge the gap between ‘home language and culture, and local spoken language’ and ‘school language and culture, official language and academic language.’ One of the aims of this programme is to build literacy in both local languages and Thai by grade one. Students who learn their native languages, and have the confidence to use that language, tend to be happier, more creative and more successful in their studies. Overall it enables a steadier, happy community, and academic assessment improves.

“This bilingual program has solved the problem of language incompetency. In addition to being proud of their native language children being proud of their native language, children have learnt to live with others who speak different languages. Communication with different languages or unequal levels of language understanding causes dissatisfaction with each other. Thai and Malay people should be able to effectively communicate since we live in the same country.”

Challenges certainly exist, but over time they can be addressed. If the program can be put in place to overcome long-standing problems of language identity and educational development it can be considered successful. It can provide a foundation for participation, higher grades and lifelong learning. It can build language revitalisation and maintenance, and importantly, can provided a tangible component for national reconciliation.

Seeing language as a problem has contributed to violence. Seeing it as a ‘resource’ and a ‘right’ can contribute to peace building.


Question and Answer session:

Question: Language can be a tool, a peacemaker, but when you get down to it, it is rather complicated. This is a pilot project that can be a kind of compromise/accommodation for the Thai system using a Thai-based script. But how would the insurgent groups respond to this?

Prof. Dr. Suwilai: About 66% are happy with it. The rest may not like it. Actually, they want to use the Jawi script instead, but the problem<

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