The Perils of Assimilationist Politics

Thailand:  The Perils of Assimilationist Politics

By Farish A Noor

A quick look at the troubles in the predominantly Muslim-Malay provinces of Southern Thailand – which has been a troubled spot for the past four years at least – would point to a fundamental flaw in the line of thinking of the powers-that-be in Bangkok. Having disregarded the historical factors that make the four provinces of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat unique compared to the rest of the country, successive governments in Thailand have tried to make the Malay-Muslims of the south think of themselves as Thais, who are an ethnically different people with a language, culture, religion and history of their own.

Since the late 19th century following the conquest of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat by the Thais, and compounded by the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909, the four provinces have experienced what can only be described as a policy of cultural assimilation. During the 1930s and 40s Thai leaders like Phibun Songkram have tried to force Thai culture and cultural norms on the Malays by any means possible: From forcing them to speak Thai to adapting Thai dress and manners as their own.

Needless to say, this has alienated the Malay-Muslims even further, and has only helped to fuel the resentment they feel against the Thai political elite. Over the past four years this resentment has boiled over to the point of violence, leading to the needless and senseless slaughter of innocent Malays and Thais all over the south.

But looking further to the other countries of Southeast Asia we see a similar pattern at work too. The government of Indonesia tried, in the 1950s and 1960s, to force the Chinese minority of the country to adapt and adopt Indonesian cultural norms as well. The Chinese language was cast as a foreign language, Chinese culture was deemed alien and the Chinese were forced to assimilate by taking on Indonesian names and thereby losing their identity. This was done for the sake of national unity and integration, but it was well known that the driving factors behind this were really the conservative and racist elements of the ethno-nationalist right who wished to eliminate all traces of difference in the country. Sukarno was not able or not willing to defend the cultural identity of the Chinese minority, and the net result was the denial of the fact that the Chinese (like the Arabs, Indians and other migrant communities) had settled in the Indonesian archipelago for at least five hundred years.

In Malaysia the elites of the country have likewise been hard at work promoting the ideology of Malay dominance following the racial clashes of 1969. Time and again successive Malaysian politicians have harped on and on about the racial violence in May 1969 and used that as the leitmotif for a cultural assimilationist policy that has only alienated the other communities and which has denied them the right to make their cultural mark on the country.

But while successive generations of right-wing Malay-Muslim politicians in Malaysia have talked at length about the race riots of May 1969, they conveniently overlook that Malaysia has always been a nation of migrants and itinerant communities, and that the so-called ‘foreign’ Indians and Chinese have likewise settled in the land for at least five hundred years. So how long does a migrant have to stay in any country before she or he is accepted as local?

The simmering ethno-cultural and ethno-religious tensions that threaten to rip apart the countries of Southeast Asia thus all have the same factor in common: The desire on the part of the dominant group to impose their cultural-ethnic-religious stamp on all other minorities. Hence the dominance of Burmese culture in Burma, where the Burmese are in fact one of many communities; and the dominance of the Thais in Thailand where there are other communities too. Likewise in Malaysia and Indonesia the nation-building process has been overtaken by the exclusive agendas of the dominant communities despite the fact that these are really multiracial and multi-religious polities that are plural and diverse.

How do we get past this impasse of our own making then? Perhaps the biggest failure of the postcolonial states of Southeast Asia is the fact that most of them took off on an integrationist, assimilationist footing and were foregrounding a national agenda that was sectarian and divisive from the outset. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma, the concept of universal citizenship remains a distant abstract notion when in fact it ought to have been the foundational pillar to the nation-building process itself.

But nations are all works in progress and thankfully it is never too late to change tack and take on a new trajectory. Part of the solution to the woes of Southern Thailand would be to recognize that the four provinces of the south have a history of their own that demands and requires respect and recognition. The plight of the Malay-Muslims in Southern Thailand is no different from the appeal of non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia: ‘Listen to us, respect us, recognize our culture, language and identity. And then we will be citizens like any other.’

But can the political elite of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia listen to the appeals of the marginal and the minorities? Or will the same cycle of denial, assimilation, forced integration and ultimately violence and rebellion continue to repeat itself, and become the defining feature of the failed nation-building process in all these countries?


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