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On Terrorism, Inclusion, Reconciliation and the Thai State

This major essay addresses the issues of terrorism, inclusion and reconciliation in Thailand and more widely in Southeast Asia, using the means of language in education to build social inclusion, citizenship affiliation and inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Last month terrorism returned to Thailand with attacks striking the very heart of the nation’s critically important tourism industry, which contributes, directly and indirectly, some 20% of the nation’s GDP. Seven provinces were hit, four people were killed, dozens were injured and a major nagging, lingering problem was exposed, once again, for the whole world to see. With attacks ongoing, there now exists a publicly visible, and internationally exposed moral and military imperative for ameliorating the grievances which animate this conflict and for addressing the wider status quo in the Deep South, the area where the attacks originate.

A Thai police spokesman was reported in the New York Times on August 14 as saying that “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.”  This claim that the bombings and the arson were not terrorism left few Thais or foreigners convinced, and indeed on August 15, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan conceded that the bombers might have been recruited from the southern insurgency.

Just recently, a distinguished Thai university academic and Professor of Linguistics, Suwilai Premsrirat of the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia at Mahidol University, travelled to Paris to receive the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize for a Unicef-backed programme that offers “an alternative to conflict… through bilingual literacy and education”. The ‘Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education Project’, aims to build educational success for Malay speaking children through bilingual/multilingual education and impact on wider social relations in a positive way. UNESCO noted that bilingual literacy can empower learners and promote reconciliation through education.

What can this award, named after the 15th century monarch, King Sejong the Great, who devised the unique writing system of the Korean language, have to do with bombings and arson in tourist centres in Peninsular Thailand?  Professor Premsrirat explained the link as follows: “This is a Muslim community in a mainly Buddhist country and they speak their own Malay dialect. The fact that most don’t speak Thai means they have done poorly in the Thai monolingual school system and have not always gone on to higher education. As a result, they face problems finding work which makes it easier for youth to be drawn into conflict.”

No one should be surprised by this statement. Conflict researchers worldwide agree that general community violence can turn even children into terrorist combatants, and that intergenerational academic failure can make marginalised and alienated young people prone to recruiting by radicals.

Patani Malay is the main language of a community of some 1.5 million people, fully 85% of the population of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces (and four Malay-speaking districts in Songkhla) who identify as Malay. This is a nested ‘majority-minority’, a large majority in the Deep South provinces, but a minority within the wider Thai geo-political setting. Relative peace reigned for a period after incorporation of these territories into the Thai state from 1909 but increasing attempts at cultural assimilation provoked armed insurgency from the mid-1960s, subsiding in the late 1980s as traditional backers, such as Syria and Libya, had to recalibrate their positions in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire. Unfortunately, there have been few efforts to imagine a new kind of Thai state, in which citizenship would be differentiated from the particularities of cultural/linguistic/religious affiliation, and so allow this large minority to identify with an inclusive Thailand, hence the underlying narrative of resisting assimilation has never diminished. 

By 2001 a new generation of Patani Malay Muslim insurgents emerged to pick up where the previous generation had left off.  It was not until an arms heist on January 4, 2004 that Bangkok officially acknowledged that armed separatist struggle had returned to the region. They could not deny the political underpinning of the incidents as insurgents made off with more than 350 kinds of weapons. It is true and important to recognise that the great majority of the residents of the Deep South are peaceable citizens who abhor violence, and who are themselves most often its victims. Reiterating this critical point however allows us to chart the line that must ultimately be followed to resolve this chronic conflict: the need to address legitimate language, cultural and faith grievances and to acknowledge the distinctive history of the region.  How long can the authorities refuse to debate some measure of political and administrative autonomy within the Thai state?

It is true that the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani, or BRN, the ‘National Revolutionary Front’ which controls most insurgents on the ground doesn’t aim for ‘autonomy’; it calls for full independence. But, its secessionist agenda can only gain traction among aggrieved youth if in their personal experiences they encounter marginalisation, non-inclusion, and assimilation. The political narrative of extremists appears validated by social inequalities. Only a new conception of an inclusive state and participatory citizenship, tied to administrative and cultural change that actively improves the lives of local people, can help undermine BRN’s narrative and weaken the logistical and moral support it gains from local people. 

Hearts and minds determine where and how arms and weapons are deployed.

Nine years ago the Mahidol programme, which has been supported by UNICEF from its inception, commenced with a pilot in a small number of schools and after early success was extended to a further 15 schools, yet it remains a small effort in the context of education provision in the Deep South region. The academic foundations of the programme, however, are soundly based on internationally proven methods of multi-language instruction, accompanied by bicultural support for learners.

Several decades of international research has shown that early schooling should build on children’s knowledge of their mother tongue rather than commencing education in a language unfamiliar to them. ‘Mother Tongue First’ is the key principle, and the most effective way to conduct schooling, to learn additional languages and academic concepts and a basis for a staged transition to learning Thai, learning in Thai and learning the other languages and subject content of the official national curriculum. As the Mahidol/UNICEF programme has shown, a staged approach aids children’s educational success, supports school retention, builds a sense of confidence and belonging in the wider Thai society, and maintains the home language of their families and community identity. Moreover, it allows them to improve their ability in Thai, to succeed in school, to participate in higher education, to gain skills and to become more deeply integrated into the wider society.  

Overcoming the chronic underachievement of the Patani Malay community in the official curriculum of Thailand, where the children regularly score lowest in the country on nearly every subject, should be a shared aim of educators, policy makers and interested citizens across Thailand, and one that should be extended to all minority populations within the Kingdom. Fostering social and linguistic equality for minority groups extends the benefits of education to the entire society by building social cohesion and by responding to community grievance and inequality. Riven by constitutional conflict, Thailand, more than many countries, needs a sustained wider process of political reconciliation. This is well recognised in relation to the political upheavals of recent years, but this nation-wide political reconciliation should extended to all the ethnic communities of the Kingdom.

UNICEF has just released a new report relevant to this discussion of Thailand’s linguistic diversity and its monolingual institutions. The Language, Education and Social Cohesion report issued with the University of Melbourne in Australia reports on work in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia over the past five years, and identifies measures these countries can take to improve social cohesion and educational success for ethnic and indigenous minority populations. A critical part of this success depends on language of instruction in school, like the award-winning programme in the Deep South, in which children can begin their education in their strongest language, the one they use at home, which their parents, relatives, and communities use to them.

It is important to recognise that this argument is not simply about identity, culture and tradition. Children’s dominant home language, their mother tongue, is of course a language of identity, but it is also the basis of children’s intellectual development, their source and medium of all their early cognitive development. For this reason it is the proper platform for teaching national languages and giving children access to the official curriculum. The ideal and most effective transition from home to school has been studied for more than 80 years, with hundreds of rigorous studies showing the crucial importance of using both languages in a tapered way across primary and even secondary schooling. Educators must begin with the stronger language, reinforce the initial learning children have done and continue to do informally at home and in the community, and progressively build in the national language, from oral to written, maintaining the home language as a critical support, as learning is transferred from a mainly oral domain to a mainly literate domain. 

However, we know that research evidence does not automatically lead to policy change, and that in most countries education and other policies often pay only lip service to research findings.  How can this impasse be resolved?

Beginning in 2012 the UNICEF/Melbourne University research programme has conducted more than 35 intensive ‘facilitated dialogues’ in Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia, closely examining points of agreement and disagreement, especially misunderstanding and tension, between community representatives and government officials. It conducted research into effective programme design and pulled together a database of reliable international research evidence on how multilingualism and efficient delivery of education can go together. Through intensive engagement of teachers, policy makers, and experts, with a facilitator guiding discussion, these facilitated dialogues have shown the way for problem solving around conflict areas.  The facilitated dialogues are a model for how Thailand can address questions of social harmony and effective education, these twin goals reinforcing each other, so that the interests of the state for peace and social cohesion, as well as the interests of minority populations for inclusion and equality, can be reconciled. 

The Asia and Pacific region is the world’s most culturally diverse area and has experienced a rapid rise in growth and development, along with rising social, economic and educational inequalities. The UNICEF/University of Melbourne report documents how language and communication issues are tied to the social exclusion of marginalized communities, such as indigenous linguistic minorities and poor rural populations, including how these inequalities can be a key driver of conflict.

These problems are compounded by rapid urbanization, migration, climate change and frequent natural hazards. Far-sighted political governance and evidence-based policy show the direction for tackling these problems: no Asian society, and certainly none in Southeast Asia, can ignore the relevance of multilingualism for its challenges in the economic and political sphere. Unfortunately, governance and political issues tend to exacerbate rather than resolve social tensions, yet it is clear that all Southeast Asian countries will need to manage multilingualism much better, more wisely and more effectively in the future.

The first step must be to improve educational outcomes for minority language children. No sustained improvement in general education standards is possible without improvement for the most disadvantaged underachievers. The link to alleviating and preventing poverty, increasing health, political participation and social tolerance is well document in UNICEF’s Strategic Plan, 2014-2017 articulates that “There is growing evidence that…. addressing inequity, not only will give all children the opportunity to fulfil their potential but also will lead to sustained growth and stability of countries.”

A critical factor that impacts on children’s ability to achieve high levels of education success is the language of instruction in schools, so the question of identity for minority populations is inevitably linked to educational success for them, and the direct benefit to the wider surrounding society.

Yet, despite great linguistic diversity across Southeast Asia, countries only have one or at most two languages taught in the education system. Malaysia, with 138 languages, has one official language – Malay – but allows the use of Chinese and Tamil as the medium of instruction in many schools. Support for other indigenous and non-indigenous minority languages is more limited, usually confined to merely teaching the language as a school subject.

Cambodia may have the least linguistic diversity in the region, with 23 languages and one official language – Khmer – the medium of instruction in schools. However, mother tongued-based education is available in five different government-approved languages and integrated in the formal school system for pre-school aged children, from Grade 1 to Grade 3, predominantly in the north-eastern provinces.

Indonesia counts as one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with some 706 languages. Its official language, Bahasa Indonesia, is spoken as a first language by around only 15 percent of the population but is learned by all others as a common second language. While there is a supportive policy environment for the use of non-official languages in schooling, this is typically limited to oral language support to promote a positive classroom environment.

In Myanmar, support for ethnic languages has been limited to non-formal settings, but Myanmar is also the country in the region with the most active language policy drafting process. It also hosted a major international conference in February that set directions for national political reconciliation, linked to the recognition of minority language rights, and three states drafted inclusive multilingual policies in 2016.

Even though it is the region’s newest country, Timor-Leste has achieved significant progress in primary school enrolments towards universal basic education. However, school completion and repetition and dropout remain significant challenges. Most Timorese are bilingual or multilingual, and many children do not know either of the two languages of education, Tetum and Portuguese. Significant experimentation with mother tongue education is underway in Timor-Leste, and early evidence is showing impressive test scores for children with improved literacy in their mother tongue and in both of the national languages, well beyond what children taught immediately in the official languages achieve.

Other countries currently experimenting with mother tongue-based education include Vietnam, especially at the pre-school and primary school levels. In three provinces, local ethnic languages are now used as the medium of education from pre-school to Year 2, with Vietnamese progressively introduced alongside the mother tongue from Year 3. The programs have seen a much closer involvement of community members with each other, teachers, parents and students, as they work to ensure the quality and relevance of teaching and learning materials, and as they collaborate to assess student outcomes. The report shows that in mathematics and Vietnamese language, ethnic minority children enrolled in these experimental schemes have made major gains compared to past populations in the same situation, and compared to other ethnic minority children who do not enjoy mother tongue education.

The largest experiment of this type is in the Philippines, which has Filipino and English as official languages, and where 19 of the 182 languages of the country are in use as mediums of instruction in schools. A solid research programme aiming to identify the best ways to deliver multilingual mother tongue education nation-wide supports this ambitious undertaking. As elsewhere where culture and identity are respected in the education system, early findings show that children are staying at school longer, learning more and better. The long-term signal this sends to the entire community can only be positive.

From this brief overview it is apparent that Southeast Asian governments and their citizens are appreciating the daunting educational challenges faced by minority language children. These children must learn the official school language, they need to understand what the teacher is saying to them in the new language, they must try to follow the lessons in official textbooks, usually written in the very language they are not familiar with, and, they must make the transition from dependency to growing self-reliance in all aspects of their lives. If they fail to understand teachers, textbooks, and school culture, they try to memorize as much as they can grasp, but their level of comprehension of material taught in an unfamiliar code is limited, so they fall behind in their academic work. The biggest hurdle is how they can learn to write in the new language when so few of them are supported to understand the spoken language? These children’s academic progress is held back as they struggle to copy from a blackboard or a book, words and sentences that they barely understand.

This achievement gap this creates between ‘majority culture’ students and ‘minority culture’ students, is a pattern that carries great risk to the social order if it becomes inter-generational. It is clear from the above that education systems are failing children; it is not the children who are failing the system. Educators have a responsibility to help all children learn and indeed all children are capable of learning, according to their individual interests and talents, but large numbers of minority children are being pushed out of education by a system that makes little effort to understand their distinctive educational needs and abilities.

The overriding principle of mother tongue education is how to ease these points of transition between home and school, first and second language, speech and writing, with the general aim of allowing children to develop their knowledge of concepts and ideas acquired in the intimacy of the home, so they can transfer this knowledge more easily to national languages.  

Cultural heritage should also be fostered in a multicultural curriculum that allows children to see their families, traditions and backgrounds reflected in the society of which they are citizens. All children should learn about the diversity of the schools they share, incidentally a key aim of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community pillar to which all ASEAN countries are committed. Proposals along these lines are worked out in detail in the UNICEF/University of Melbourne report.

There might appear to be a long distance from the details of school instruction to the outrages of arson and bombings, but the lives of adults are shaped by their experiences and successes as children. When minority populations are affirmed in their unique identities, the nation and its institutions project a message of inclusion and participation, rather than exclusion and dominance. By allowing a deeper connection with cultural and ethnic histories and identities through language, multilingual education programmes can materially and symbolically build national bridges and foster conditions that increase social cohesion and material production.

Multilingualism that focuses on local, national and international languages also prepares learners for participation in the global community, which is a world of interconnection and mobility. The benefits of being able to participate on the global stage have positive implications for economic self-sufficiency and provide people with a chance to develop 21st century skills of participation in the increasingly interlinked markets of modern globalisation.

The Language and Education for Social Cohesion initiative in Thailand reported on by UNICEF and the University of Melbourne centred on the Southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkla and Yala and addressed exactly these questions of the right kind of language education, the choice of scripts for writing systems of the Pattani Malay language (Thai, Rumi or Yawi) and the need for robust intercultural education so that children of all communities can be included in schooling and succeed there.

How is it that insurgents in the Deep South are apparently able to roam at will and strike indiscriminately? Why is it that some 180 teachers have been killed in this insurgency and schools have been repeatedly targeted, such that they now often resemble militarised bases? It is because the insurgents have enough support within the wider community. The inability of the Thai military to bring the ascendant BRN, with its approximately 10,000 supporters, within the peace process means there even exists the possibility of the insurgency fomenting a rebellion, with the added complication of exploitation by external jihadist ideology.

Political stabilization in the Deep South will involve military and political action, but in the battle for the hearts, minds, and will of Thailand’s minority populations, especially in areas where they are majorities, it is past time for the Thai state to lend its full support for a policy of socio-cultural reconciliation. Farsighted peacebuilding requires acts of recognition, confidence and trust building, and the lifting of barriers to success and opportunity for children and youth. A multicultural and multilingual compact for citizenship, a new idea of belonging that is inclusive, and much greater educational success for minority children in mainstream education are all needed. Internationally facilitated dialogue, firstly at the local level and then at the national level, can be the mechanism for moving beyond a discourse limited to the establishment of fragile ‘safety zones’, in any case ignored by the BRN, to end what has palinly become a noninternational armed conflict.


About the author: Joseph Lo Bianco is Professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and serves as Immediate Past President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (the first educator elected to this role)

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