I took a taxi from Kuala Lumpur's bustling shopping centre at the Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of the city. It was taking me along one of the busy highways which cuts through the city to a tom yam restaurant. Thai food is very popular in Malaysia but what most people are unaware of is that most of the owners and workers of the thousands of tom yam restaurants across Malaysia are Patani Malays from across the border in Thailand's Patani region of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
The owner of the restaurant had agreed to take me to visit a boarding school not far from where he lived. He had helped set up the school and agreed to introduce me to the principal. I was interested in this boarding school because I had heard it was for Patani Malay children whose parents were separatist fighters and had been killed or captured by Thailand's state authorities. When I arrived and met the principal and children, I learnt that this was only part of the story.
Sunset over Kuala Lumpur. Picture courtesy of Sky Aerial Production
We pulled up outside a typical commercial block of shops and restaurants on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. There was a large sign above a makeshift chipboard door stating the name of the school as well as its contact details. This was not an underground operation.
When I entered the school, I was greeted by a crowd of boys – the older ones looked like they were in their mid teens. The younger boys were very small and shy. I was then introduced to the principal. He was well into his 70s but full of energy when he spoke. He said he was from Patani but had settled in Malaysia long ago. He was very open with me indicating that this school had originally been planned for the children of guerrilla fighters of one of the Patani liberation groups. But he said that afterwards they decided to take in children from all guerrilla groups.
According to Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, between 2004 and 2014, 5,686 children had been made orphans due to the conflict1. There are orphanages operating in the Patani region including the Luukrieang Foundation and the Nusantara Foundation however these organizations only have the capacity to take in around 100 children at one time. Local activists from Patani have argued that the Thai government only supports children from families who worked with the military or had ties to the government2.
The principal said that the school was officially recognized by the Malaysian government and that all the students had permission to stay in Malaysia while they complete their studies. It was January and according to the principal, the school was home to 30 boys but they were preparing for 10 more boys to arrive the following month. “We don't have the space or resources to take in more than 40 children even though there's a lot more children waiting for a place at the school”, said the principal.
The principal took me through to his office where I was met by his son, a second generation Patani Malay living in Malaysia. He was a soft spoken man in his 40s and was responsible for running the day to day operations of the school. They had also invited three of the boys into the office to talk to me. The principal said that the boys learn the Quran in the morning followed by their academic subjects in the afternoon which includes English so he encouraged the boys to try and speak English with me. I began with asking them their names and where they came from. To my surprise, two of the boys said they were from Malaysia. One said he was from Perak while the other said he was from Terengganu – two states in northern Malaysia.
The same was true for around half of the 30 boys. I learnt that only half of the boys had come from one of the three provinces which make up the bulk of the Patani region in southern Thailand. Before the ratification of the 1907 Anglo-Siamese Treaty between Britain and Siam, there was no official border between Patani and what is now Malaysia. At that time, there were numerous Malay States – Patani being just another Malay State which along with Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah was under the colonial occupation of Siam. For centuries, Patani Malays had crossed into the other Malay States, some as economic migrants but others as refugees fleeing persecution from Siam.
The boys who said they were from Malaysia were just the latest wave of Patani Malays to leave their homeland. Some were born in Malaysia to Patani Malay parents who had fled the Patani region in Thailand. Others had fled with their parents to Malaysia when they were very small. Even though these boys had grown up in Malaysia, they were living there undocumented, had no identity card and therefore no right to go to school.
No one knows how many Patani Malays live in Malaysia but estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 3 million. Those who can afford it, send their children to a private school. Wealthier families or ones with contacts in governmental offices may be able to buy Malaysian identification cards. For the poorer Patani Malay families, there are few options available. The boarding school provides free education to a tiny fraction of these children.
The principal has big dreams for the school. He wants to build a new school which would be able to take in over 1000 Patani Malay boys and girls. They have already acquired the land but have a long way to go in securing the funding necessary for the construction.
The boys at the school who came directly from Patani have more issues to deal with. They have grown up in a conflict zone. Some of the boys' fathers were separatist fighters and have either been killed in the conflict or have been imprisoned. The principal said that when some of the boys from Patani first arrived they were experiencing trauma and suffered from nightmares every night. The boys' mental health began to improve after several months of being at the school, said the principal's son. According to Thailand's Violence Related Mental Health Surveillance (VMS) database, 1,200 children in the Patani conflict region have suffered from mental health issues since 2008 due to the ongoing violence but these figures are seen as highly conservative by local professional health workers3.
Drug addiction is also a major issue in Patani. Some of the boys were suffering from drug abuse when they first arrived at the school but they became rehabilitated relatively quickly, according to the principal. A survey published in 2013 and conducted by the Prince of Songkla University found that local people living in the Patani conflict region saw drug addiction as the most serious problem in their community, topping both unemployment and the conflict4. “If these children stay in Patani, they are at risk of being involved in drugs so it's better they come here” said the principal.
The other issue facing all the boys when they first arrived was illiteracy. Many of the boys even from Patani had not ever attended school. Most of the time, they were at home or worked with their families. “When the children came here they couldn't read or write but after three years at the school they can” said the principal.
One of the eldest boys who said he was 17 years old showed me around the school. There are two classrooms so the boys are split into two classes. They not only study here but also eat their meals and socialize in the classrooms. There were also several bedrooms on the same floor and more on the next floor. The rooms were very basic and cramped and the temperature was stifling but for the boys this was home. Between four and six boys shared a room. There were bunk beds, a small fan on the ceiling and tall narrow lockers for the boys to keep their clothes and possessions.
There were five teachers at the school which apart from teaching the Quran also taught the boys Arabic, Malay, English, science and mathematics. The boys were very shy and huddled around me each time I asked one of them a question. Amongst the boys were twin brothers as well as a group of four brothers at the school.
The first student to arrive at the school is now 13 years old. He was nine when he first came. The youngest boy there is nine and arrived at the school seven months ago. He said he's from Terengganu and he misses home but he likes studying Malay. Another boy who recently arrived from Narathiwat in Patani says he doesn't miss home because he didn't go to school and just went around riding his bike.
The boys have a busy schedule during the week but like to play football on the weekends. One of the boys from Selangor seemed less interested in sports. He showed me the comic books which he liked to draw. He said that his favorite subject was science.
About the author: Adam John is a British national who lives in Sweden and is a supporter of Patani non-violent political activism. [email protected]
Note: The names of the people interviewed as well as the name and location of the school are intentionally not mentioned in the article for security purposes.
 Mentioned in an unpublished interview between the author and the spokesman of an NGO from Patani on December 24th 2015. Their identity is not revealed for security purposes.