Southern Thailand’s Growing “Madrassa” Problem

The desperate plight of Islamic education in the south of the country spells trouble

Many of Thailand's 6-7 million Muslins are totally integrated into Thai culture and society, a country that takes great pride in its cultural homogeneity. However, the national government's unawareness of conditions in southern Thailand's schools could be a time bomb being tinkered with by Pakistan's Taliban.

In the south, many, if not most Muslims still live in close-knit rural villages undertaking traditional activities such as rubber tapping, fishing and rice farming. A distinct culture, different from the mainstream, has been nurtured in the relaxed air of religious freedom.

Generally speaking, there is a great contrast economically between the rural Muslims of Southern Thailand and the rest of the community. The incidence of poverty is high. To many Muslims however this is not considered a problem, as a simple religious-based lifestyle is deeply valued and indeed is perceived to offer protection to the community from external "morally corrupting forces."

As a consequence many rural Muslim parents prefer to send their children to one of the hundreds of Islamic schools around the south. Many if not most of these schools are set up and staffed by the communities themselves, providing an Islamic education in addition to the primary and secondary school national curriculum.

A few lucky students may get places in the prestigious and well equipped Pondok Bantan in Nakhon Si Thammarat, founded by the recently retired Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Surin Pitsuwan and his family, or one of the local Islamic Council schools, which are also relatively well equipped. Pondok Bantan has been generously funded by a number of Middle Eastern sources, including the Islamic Development Bank, and even the Sasakawa Peace Foundation based in Japan. However the majority of Muslims must opt for one of the local schools.

These schools operate with minimal infrastructure and facilities. Classrooms are grossly inadequate, with poor libraries and few other teaching resources. There is a drastic shortage of teachers for national curriculum subjects, with the schools often relying upon volunteers to assist. In the schools or pondoks where students live, they are often forced to sleep up to 10 per hut. The huts are barely habitual and potentially fire and disease traps. As national curriculum studies are of a low standard in the Islamic schools, they attract little government funding in Thailand's competitive private school environment of Thailand.

In addition to the above problems, a number of other issues exist within these schools.

First, the religious curriculum is set by local Ulama or religious councils. The majority of Ulama themselves came through the pondok system and have little, if any trans-disciplinary or holistic educational experience. They tend to see the world the way that they were taught through their own education. This has led to great emphasis on Fard'ain (compulsory duties a Muslim must perform such as prayer) aspects of Islam, at the expense of Fard Kifayah (duty out in the world). This narrow approach may hinder students' ambitions and ability to integrate within mainstream Thai society.

Second, it is very difficult to get any unified approach as Islamic leaders in southern Thailand are fragmented and may even compete with each other, rather than cooperate. This leaves the community without any answers or any common approach towards problems.

Due to the diversity of interpretation, there are very few safeguards against the infiltration of distorted and fringe views about the meaning of Quranic texts. Although regional Islamic Councils have the responsibility to monitor religious teaching within their regions, there are no requirements for any teachers to conform to any agreed or centralized interpretation. If unchecked, religious pondoks have the potential to become breeding grounds of deviant teachings as fundamentalist madrassas are in Pakistan, further isolating students from mainstream society.

For many of southern Thailand's Muslim youth, the pondoks have become a refuge where they can drift in and out of society as they feel. Very few ever get to a university or acquire the skills to open a business. This tends to reinforce a separate identity with Islamic values rather than students encompassing the aims and values of the general community.

These problems are compounded by the generally poor standard of the national curricula. Students who complete their education within the Islamic school system are at great disadvantage to those who have attended secular schools. This generally hinders rural Islamic communities participating in Thailand's newly resurgent economic growth and development, thus widening the income gap and perpetuating relative poverty among southern Thai Muslim communities.

If this gap continues to widen, it may lead to some groups questioning Thailand's equity distribution, which could potentially lead to resentment or allow other groups to take advantage of the situation through introducing new dogma. However, significantly as of today there are no links with the fragmented insurgency groups in the troubled provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. This is fundamentally a separate and little acknowledged problem.

Funding, and in particular the lack of grants and donations, is causing immense hardship. The neglect of Islamic schools in Southern Thailand is of particular concern when education is a major contributor to the capacity of any community to improve general well-being. With international agencies unaware or ignoring the problem, the gap in assistance has meant that schools are open to any potential benefactors who are willing to assist. One group that has moved into this vacuum is the Pakistan-based Taliban, now funding a number of schools around the Southern provinces, where the funds are gratefully accepted.

From a geopolitical perspective there doesn't appear to be any link between these donations and any militant philosophy on the part of the schools. However, the issue shows up the problems that the US "war on terror" should be dealing with around the world, but is failing to recognize, let alone act upon.

The war on terror can only be won through assisting in the education and development of Muslim communities around the world and not by drone warfare which is apparently the method of choice by the US administration today. What is happening in Southern Thailand shows a need for policy re-evaluation.

Large numbers of Southern Thai Muslims would prefer religious-based education as a basic human right. However it is also important that the best possible well-rounded education is provided if southern youth are to be empowered to become citizens contributing to the communities they belong to. This is not calling for them to adopt the same growth paradigms others pursue, but rather seeing the need to empower them to participate in economic, social, and spiritual development the Islamic way. Development agencies must see this need before the potential problems outlined above fester into realities that will be much more complex to repair.

The Taliban now understand that the battle for hearts and minds is an important facet of their international strategy. They have opened up philanthropy as a new front in the war on terror. Is there anybody out there willing and able to compete?

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