Conflict in Thailand
Since 2004, 6,500 people have died as a result of cultural conflict in Thailand between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists in the ‘Deep South’ (Thailand’s three southernmost provinces). The culture clash stems partly from the majority Muslim area’s desire for autonomy, a hot topic in Thai politics. On numerous occasions, public schools have been targeted for attacks, leaving educators concerned about their students’ safety.

In the Deep South, four out of five individuals identify as Muslim, compared to Thailand’s overall 93 percent Buddhist population. Many of Thailand’s Muslims believe the country’s public education system, which is geared toward Buddhists, only serves to exacerbate the ongoing conflict. Although Malay Muslims’ first language is often not Thai, all public school classes are taught in it.

Professor Suwilai Premsrirat of Thailand’s Mahidol University has spent the past 10 years working to integrate the Patani-Malay language into public-school curriculum in the Deep South through a pilot program to deter cultural conflict in Thailand.

Although Premsrirat faces criticism from both sides for incorporating elements of the opposing group’s language, she believes the bilingual approach is the key to success. Primary school teacher Mrs. Hareena promoted the pilot program, saying “you can see [the students] are understanding better now.”

Hopefully Premsrirat’s initiative will also serve to reduce cross-cultural violence in the Deep South by promoting understanding and diversity. “We want to make it [clear] we respect [Patani-Malay language and culture],” Premsrirat said, speaking for the Thai public school system.

According to Asia Peacebuilding Initiatives, incorporating the Malay language into the public school system may discourage Muslim families from sending their children to private Muslim schools. More Malay children attending public schools will result in increased diversity and mingling between the two cultures. This in turn may help promote national unity and reduce cultural conflict in Thailand.

Asia Peacebuilding Initiatives is quick to point out, however, that while language integration is a major step, the ultimate goal is to shift educators’ perspectives on the importance of diversity in language and religion.

Because of the cultural conflict in Thailand, many Malay Muslims feel alienated by their native tongue. Hopefully, incorporating their language into Thailand’s public school curricula will provide Malay Muslims a sense of belonging and Thai Buddhists an opportunity for understanding.

Carrie Robinson

Photo: Flickr

“Tis the season to celebrate languages!”

As part of a global initiative launched by UNESCO in 1999, February 21st is now known as International Mother Language Day. The day is meant to promote language diversity and multicultural education, in support of the education for all Millennium Development Goal.

The date is a historic reminder of the 1952 “Language Movement” rally at Dhaka University in Bangladesh, when thousands of students protested the Pakistani imposition of Urdu as the official state language.

Bangla, the spoken language of the common majority in both Bangladesh and Eastern Pakistan, was legitimized as the official language as a result of the campaign. Today, February 21st signifies an even larger language diversity movement, validating the cultural autonomy of millions globally. Limitation on the legal recognition of languages spoken by lower class populations and ethnic minorities severely restricts their access to political agency.

Language repression has been used historically as a means of curbing the autonomy and political representation of the common people. Disempowerment through language permeates the level of education received, as well. When the common mother tongue is not also the language used in schools, the number of children who can access a proper education is depleted.

Usually the colonial language, most likely English or French, stands in its place, meaning that only the children from socially elite families are advantaged by the school system. For example, in Haiti the official language used in schools is French. Adversely, only 10% of the population actually speaks French fluently, as Creole has been the spoken language of the masses since the French were ousted from the island in 1804.

The archaic tradition of speaking only French in schools renders lessons incomprehensible to most students, eventually discouraging them from attending.  Research shows that even the majority of teachers only know the bare minimum of French, and cannot teach with ease or to the best of their ability.

A primary goal of International Mother Language Day is to support multilingual efforts in schools. Multilingual education is proven to increase the general aptitude of young students, as well as ease the transition to literacy. Once the mother language is grasped, there is then increased potential for learning a second national or international language.

There are also many broader advantages of a multi-linguistic education, such as cross-cultural understanding and unity. Since diverse communities are so often characteristic within developing nations, language acceptance can facilitate an array of advantages economically and socially.

-Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Global Partnership Organization, The Boston Globe, UNESCO
Photo: Flickr