Southern insurgency: Islamic schools next in firing line?
Bangkok ruling over renowned ponok in Pattani could be a bleak precedent for the peace process
Special to The Nation
Jihad Withaya School. Court ruled a state property
Two weeks ago a Bangkok court ruled that the 14-rai grounds of Jihad Withya School at Tha Dan village be confiscated as state property - an order that dismayed local Muslims in Pattani.
The school is a renowned ponok (or pondok in standard Malay), a traditional boarding school where just about every local Muslim boy is sent to learn about Islam and what it means to be Malay. Each ponok is run by a headmaster, known as a tok guru, who is held in high esteem by his community.
Historians say this longstanding institution helped forge Patani as the cradle of Islamic civilisation in Southeast Asia.
Even today, the mystique of the ponoks and the Islamic education they provide continues to attract students from across of Southeast Asia. Jihad Withya was one of several hundred traditional boarding schools that dot this historically contested region.
Citing the Anti-Money Laundering Act, the court ruled that the state had the right to seize Jihad Withya's land since, according to two testimonies, it was being used to support insurgency activities.
The state's definition of "support for insurgency activities" is ambiguous since almost every form of social gathering or forum in this region appears to feature talk of independence.
Local tok gurus have tried in vain to convince state security agencies that the ponoks do not teach separatism. That topic is woven into public discourse in the far South, which makes it unfair to single out any one single institution.
In one case, for example, 19 suspected insurgents who were executed extrajudicially at a restaurant in Saba Yoi, Songkhla, during an uprising on April 28, 2004, were members of a local football team. And they all came from different schools.
If a football team can provide the forum for separatist militants to come together, then just about any social gathering can do the same, provided that its members share the same cultural and historical narrative of Patani as a homeland occupied illegitimately by the Thai state.
A petition from the state prosecutor on behalf of the Anti-Money Laundering Office claimed two insurgents had confessed to being trained at the school by, among others, the then-tok guru Abdulloh Waemanor.
Abdulloh, also known as Poksu Loh, fled Southern Thailand 10 years ago to escape arrest. His whereabouts are unknown, but Thai security officials believe he is in Malaysia.
Poksu Loh is reckoned to be one of the key leaders in the secretive ruling council of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which controls the vast majority of insurgents in the South.
Jihad Withya was ordered closed in May 2005. For the past 10 years, authorities have kept a close watch on the school, questioning those going in and out.
The close monitoring reflects their conviction that Poksu Loh has great influence over the course of the conflict in this historically contested region, where more than 6,000 people have died in insurgency-related violence since January 2004.
The timing of the decision to seize the school also raises many questions. Why did the state wait so long when it could have moved 10 years ago, separatist sources have asked.
Thai military and security officials confirmed they had reached out to Poksu Loh for his support in the ongoing Malaysia-facilitated peace talks, but to no avail.
Launched by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra on February 28, 2013 and reluctantly taken up by the current military-backed administration, the peace process has brought negotiators from Bangkok face to face with leaders of six longstanding separatist movements under the umbrella organisation known as MARA Patani.
Bangkok has claimed that BRN members are at the table, but it has become clear that these self-proclaimed BRN cadres in MARA Patani have no command and control over the militants.
The Yingluck government dumped international mediators who worked on "pre-talks" initiatives between 2005 and 2011, handing the role of facilitator to Kuala Lumpur.
Officially, the Thai government and MARA Patani are still in the unofficial pre-talks phase, though negotiators on both sides have been paraded before the media for public consumption.
MARA Patani has insisted that Bangkok make the talks a national agenda item, which would entail parliamentary endorsement.
It has also demanded that the Thai government grant MARA Patani legitimacy as a group negotiating on behalf of the people of the Malays' historical homeland. With that demand comes an
insistence that its negotiators be granted immunity from prosecution.
Yet Bangkok is not in the mood to grant MARA Patani much in the way of legitimacy. For the junta, said one top security adviser, the willingness to talk to separatists it regards as "criminals" represents all the legitimacy they are likely to get.
In fact, Bangkok even refuses to use the name MARA Patani, fearing it would entail acknowledgement of the Malays' historical homeland. Instead it refers to the separatist umbrella organisation by the neutral moniker "Party B".
Other security officials say Bangkok's half-hearted attitude towards MARA Patani stems from the fact that it is not convinced the umbrella organisation has genuine influence over the militants.
And so, Thai authorities continue to reach out behind the scenes to exiled leaders like Sapae-ing Basor, the former principle of Thamvithya Mulnithi School in Yala, who is regarded as one of the region's top spiritual leaders, with influence over the militants.
But the seizing of Jihad Withya has brought an end to the quiet charm offensive, at least with Abdulloh Waemanor.
BRN militants along with observers of the conflict have said that, while these men are important in their own right, the conflict is about much more than them. It concerns the historical mistrust and an absence of justice in dealings between the state and the Malays of Patani. These are beyond the control of any one spiritual or insurgent leader, they said.
Local activists said the seizing of the ponok has worked in the separatists' favour as it drives an even bigger wedge between the government and the Pattani residents it has been trying to win over.
Others are concerned that the ruling could set an unwanted precedent for the confiscation of other ponoks and local institutions, grounded in allegations of insurgency activity.
Don Pathan is a founding member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com) and a Thailand-based freelance security and development consultant.