Interview With Wan Kadir Che Man, head of the Patani Bersatu Movement in Thailand

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jun 20, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Dr. Farish A. Noor interviews the head of the Patani BERSATU movement
This is an interview by Dr. Farish Noor, who was in Sweden recently, with with the head of the Patani BERSATU movement, Wan Kadir Che Man, currently in exile. Besides the obvious newsworthiness of an interview with the head of the movement, it also bears another, and perhaps more important significance to Malaysians. This is the first time that it has been stated in PUBLIC RECORD that Malaysia has nothing to do with the separatist, as opposed to the allegations by the Thaksin government and certain Singapore press, including this very damaging report and another from TIME magazine.

In my opinion, Dr. Farish Noor, in the process of interviewing Wan Kadir, and extracting the said statement from him, as head of BERSATU, has done a significant national service for Malaysia and all Malaysians. I can’t underscore enough the significance of this interview, along with the other pertinent revelations that Wan Kadir shares with us. As a Brand New Malaysian, I take this opportunity to thank Dr. Farish and proudly publish this interview, ground breaking for a blog, here for you. This entry will remain at the top of this blog for the rest of this week.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a researcher at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin and was formerly Chair of Asian Studies at Sciences-Po, Paris; and lecturer at the Islamwissenschaft Institute of Freie University, Berlin.

He is the author of ‘Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Malaysian Islamic Party PAS’ (MSRI, Kuala Lumpur, 2004) and ‘The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History’ (Silverfish, 2002).

BERSATU Leader Wan Kadir: Malaysia has never been involved In the troubles in Southern ThailandӔ

By Farish A. Noor

Dr. Wan Kadir Che Man is the official leader of the BERSATU group, a coalition of Muslim separatist organisations based in Southern Thailand that is made up of organisations like the BRN (National Revolutionary Front), PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation), BIPP (Patani Islamic Liberation Front) and GIMP (Muslim Mujahideen Movement of Patani). Following the escalation of violence in the Southernmost provinces of Thailand since January last year, worldwide attention has been turned once more to Patani, a region that was swept by a wave of bloodshed during the 1970s and 1980s. BERSATU, under the leadership of Dr. Wan Kadir, is the only umbrella organisation that held the different and sometimes competing ֖ Patani groups together, and Dr. Wan has in the past favoured the road to dialogue rather than confrontation with the Thai government. Currently living in exile in Sweden, Dr. Wan was interviewed by Dr. Farish A. Noor on the situation in Patani and his plans for the future of the region.

Farish. Patani has been quiet for the last ten years, but now we are witnessing the return of violence all over again. How and why did this happen?

Wan Kadir. I never believed that we had any real ‘peace’ in the region, and during that time the policies and methods of the Thai government in Bangkok never really changed either. The quietђ ten years were really a period of training for those separatist groups that preferred the path to violence. Ten years ago, when more than thirty schools were burned by some militant groups, the leaders of these groups claimed to me personally that in ten years time they would intensify the violence to an unprecedented level.

Now, nearly ten years later, we see violence returning to the region. I believe this is the result of long-term training and preparation for the violence we are seeing now. These are some of the groups that have never really agreed with the suggestion that we engage in open dialogue with the Thai government, and have never really given up armed struggle.

Farish. If the violence has gotten worse and is about to escalate even further, what were the mistakes in the recent past that have caused the situation to deteriorate to such an extent? What was the role of the Thai government in all this?

Wan Kadir. As Ive said the methods and tactics of the Thai political and military elite have never really changed. Just look at what happened recently at Tak Bai, when 86 people were killed when they were stuffed into lorries by the police. It was just a demonstration that got out of control, but there was no need to resort to such a level of repression afterwards, and the result is that there is even more hate and anger among the people.

The Thai government believed and still believes that the separatist movements were phased out and have disappeared. There is the mistaken belief that the separatist groups have no popular support, and thinking that political participation on the part of the Patani Muslims meant that the era of militant struggle was over.

There was also the belief that the separatist movement could be ґbought out by development projects; which, incidentally never materialised.

But the separatist movement could never be eradicated because this is a cultural-political issue. The historical, ethnic, cultural and religious factors are important. The Thai government has always felt that this was a problem of assimilation and that the Malays had to be assimilated, integrated into the system and ґmade into Thais so to speak. But the Malays in Patani realise that they are not foreigners, and that in fact their territory has been colonised by the Thais who were originally a foreign power.

More importantly, the young people of Patani today seem more and more inclined to cultural politics of religious grounds. During my youth, my generation were nationalists. This was the key theme in the 1970s. But today the resurgence of Islam worldwide gives the separatist movement a more religious flavour, and we see the Islamists working closer with the nationalists. In other words, separatism is even stronger in Patani today because of the combination of both political and religious ideas.

Farish. How have the policies of the present Thaksin administration affected things?

Wan Kadir. ThanksinҒs mistakes have been tactical and demonstrate his insensitivity. He has made many mistakes on the ground level there. For example: Thaksin has visited the Patani region only twice, and on both occasions he hardly showed any concern for the Muslims in Patani. After all, he is coming to our area, our Malay territory.

But what did Thaksin do when he was in Patani? Did he visit the Muslim communities or talk to our leaders? Did he go to the Malay villages to see how poor our people are, and did he ask how his government could help them?

No, he went instead to visit the Thai Buddhist temples and even stayed there. He talked about Thai-Buddhist nationalism and how Thai cultural identity was and should be the basis of Thai national politics but he was doing this in a Malay-Muslim area and paid no attention at all to our sensitivities.

Why should we Malays assimilate to Thai culture, learn the Thai languages, eat and dress like the Thais; when we are in fact living in our own territory and the homeland of our fathers and forefathers? Patani, Jala, Narathiwat have always been Malay territory, as long as history goes back and even before the establishment of Bangkok. Yet our history is totally ignored and erased and Thaksin emphasises the need for us to assimilate to the mainstream; the mainstream Thai society never thinks of taking us into consideration too.

Farish. Assimilation to what extent and how?

Wan Kadir. This policy of ֑Thai-sation goes back centuries, and for a long time we were told we could not even speak our Malay language, use our Malay script, etc. Yet in Patani there are Chinese schools where Chinese languages are taught and the Chinese script is used. In each of the provincial capitals of Patani, Jala and Narathiwat, there is at least one Chinese-medium school that teach in Chinese. If the Chinese can be allowed to have their sense of cultural identity, why cant we?

You see we are not demanding special privileges, nor are we saying we are superior to the Thais. We simply want to be recognised for the people we are, with our history and culture too. Is that a threat to the Thai state or Thai nation? I donҒt think so- we are merely demanding recognition and respect, and that is the basis for any multi-racial society and working democracy.

Farish. Following 11 September many separatist groups all over the world have been labelled terroristђ groups by their respective governments. Sometimes this was done to get added support from the West; sometimes this is done to justify the persecution of legitimate political opponents. How has this affected your activities?

Wan Kadir. In fact I personally do not think that Thaksins administration has used the ґterrorist label against us very much so far. This may change later, but for now they tend to condemn us as a local threat and local problem, and the struggle in their eyes at least is merely an insurgency. More often they accuse us of being ґun-patriotic and not nationalist in their sense, but rarely have we been labelled a ґterrorist threat.

The reason why Thaksin has been cautious, I feel, is this: Thailand is still recovering from the 1998 economic crisis and the Thai government is aware of how fragile the economy is. In many parts of the country the local economy is based on tourism and foreign revenue earnings; from both ASEAN tourists as well as Western tourists.

If Thaksin plays the ґterrorist menace card, the immediate impact would be to send the wrong signal that Thailand is a network or safe harbour for militant terrorist groups. This would damage the image of Thailand and possibly drive off foreign tourists whose spending is crucial in reviving the local economy. As much as the Thai security forces want to eradicate us, using whatever means necessary, they are worried about long-lasting negative effects and negative publicity. So their hands are tied in a sense.

Farish. So for you what is happening in Southern Thailand is an entirely local matter, without foreign connections? I ask this for the simple reason that in the media today there have been many unproven allegations that the trouble in Southern Thailand are caused by foreign influences. Some have even suggested a connection with Arab militant groups like al-Qaeda.

Wan Kadir. That is an exaggeration. You have to remember one very important factor: for the Patani Malay-Muslims, their sense of pride and integrity is based on the idea that they (the Kingdom of Patani) was a centre of Islamic learning itself. The Patani Muslims consider themselves among the earliest Muslims in Southeast Asia and among the most pious, with an Islamic heritage and tradition of their own. They do not want this Islamic heritage to be compromised by the Thai government, nor by foreign Arab influences.

This is why the Patani Malays tend to reject Arab or Indian Muslim missionary groups that have tried to come to teach us Islam, and why Patanis are not receptive to Arab-Wahhabi influences or even other schools of thought like the Shias, etc.

Patani Muslims have a strong cultural reaction to outsiders, and we do not like being treated like second-class Muslims by foreign Muslims, especially from the Arabs. Based on this, it is not that easy for outsiders to come and try to influence us on matters of Islam , our beliefs or struggle.

There have been some attempts in the past, like the Wahhabis trying to build mosques and fund missionary work, but they all failed.

No, I state clearly that the situation in Patani has always been determined and shaped by local factors and this includes the local political situation. During the 1970s and 80s when the Patani liberation groups were fighting for autonomy or even independence, there was some political support from Muslim states overseas, but this was largely token and inconsequential as far as the ground-level realities were concerned in Patani.

Farish. Then can I ask you a follow-up question about alleged regional connections? Of late some so-called ґsecurity experts have claimed that the situation in Patani has been made worse by the interference of neighbouring states. Thaksin has also claimed that Patani rebels have been helped by neighbouring states. As the head of BERSATU since 1998, can you comment on this?

Wan Kadir. As long as I have been the leader of BERSATU we have never received any support from any neighbouring countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia. I state this categorically now: We have never received any kind of support whatsoever, be it in terms of arms, logistics, planning, training or finance from any other country in the region.

The claim that neighbouring countries have been helping the groups in southern Thailand is totally false- I can say this with certainty as I am the leader of the alliance, and I know for a fact that we were never helped by anyone.

If there has been any help or support, then I would be the first to know as I am the leader of BERSATU, but I am telling you clearly and firmly: no such support was ever given to us. Our struggle was always a local affair, and not some concerted international effort.

Farish. And what about the claim that Patani groups were training in neighbouring countries?

Wan Kadir. This is also false, even ridiculous. For a start it would be very hard to carry arms and do training in a country like Malaysia, as it is almost impossible to smuggle weapons across the border. Neither was Indonesia ever an option for it. There was simply no need for any of this, because there is more than enough space and secret areas all over the southern provinces where the militants could go and train for fighting.

It is much easier to train in Patani itself because there are many Malay-only enclaves in Patani, Narathiwat and Jala were there are places for them to train. All the young militants you see today are trained in Thailand, in the pondok school system. Most of them are local trained. Many of them have not even been to neighbouring countries like Malaysia before, such as the wanted militant MaҒ Sae Nu Seng, who openly stated that he had never been in Malaysia before in his entire life.

Farish. So if this has always been a domestic issue limited to the southern provinces of Thailand, what hopes do you have for the future and what path do you wish to take?

Wan Kadir. I personally believe that violence does not and will no longer work; which is why I am appealing to all the groups to come together and for us to strategise and find other legal means to carry on our struggle.

The basis of this struggle is the demand for respect and recognition of our past history, our identity and our specific cultural, political and economic needs. Violence as we see it today is proof that the Thai government has not been able to deal with the situation or pacify the people in Patani. This is because of their own short-sighted tactics and the brutal methods they have used, as well as their continued reluctance to recognise that the people of the south have been there for centuries and we are not an inferior, second-class people with no rights.

I worry about the violence we see today because it is unprecedented in scale and ferocity. Worse of all, the victims are ordinary civilians: men and women, children, school teachers, imams and monks. This is counter-productive and eventually will harm all of us and the Thai nation.

So what I want is this: We are calling on the government to truly and effectively implement articles 282 to 290 of the 1997 Thai Constitution, which makes allowances for local government and limited self-control. This was the constitution that came into effect during the term of Prime Minister Chauvalit, and it is still in operation now.

Articles 282 to 290 deal with local government, the power and authorities of local municipalities, local elections etc. The aim of these articles was to secure some form of local political representation at the regional, provincial and district levels and it added to the decentralisation of power. This is needed if the people of provinces like Patani are ever going to regain their self-respect and dignity. It is also the only way for leaders like me to persuade the more violent and militant groups to give up the armed struggle and to return to the democratic political process. Most of all this means that our struggle will be a legal, constitutional one.

Originally published on the website of The Brand New Malaysian at