This post is the latest in a series from our Bangkok correspondent, H. Numan.
An Islamic school in Pakistan is called a madrassa, but in the deep south of Thailand, it’s a pondok.
Here’s an article on the topic from today’s Bangkok Post:
Thailand takes battle to deep-South’s Islamic schools
Analysis by Abdullah Wangni and Peter Janssen, dpa
After almost four years of battling a deadly separatist struggle against a seemingly nameless foe in Thailand’s deep South, the Thai military have learned a thing or two.
Firstly, they are now convinced that the main organizer behind the violence, which has claimed more than 2,500 lives since early 2004, is the BRN-Coordinate, the political arm of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional or National Revolutionary Front.
BRN-Cordinate is blamed for the January 4, 2004, raid by Muslim militants on an army arms depot in Narathiwat that made away with 300 war weapons and is now seen as the watershed for the region’s transition from a long-simmering separatist struggle into a nasty conflict with daily shootings, bombings and beheadings.
Secondly, Thai military intelligence is convinced that the BRN-Coordinate has used the deep South’s Islamic schools (‘pondoks’) and religious teachers (‘ustas’) to recruit and instruct a new generation of Muslim youths dedicated to the Pattani separatist cause and a more militant form of Islam.
The deep South, comprising Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces, was an independent Islamic sultanate known as Pattani for hundreds of years before being conquered by Bangkok in 1786.
The area came under direct rule of the Bangkok bureaucracy in 1902, and was subject to a military-led assimilation campaign in the late 1940s that sparked a separatist struggle that has sputtered on and off for the past six decades.
Although the deep South has remained an essentially separatist fight, it has taken on a new al-Qaeda flavour in recent years, complete with beheadings and terrorizing civilians, partly due to the influx of a new generation of ustas to the traditional pondok school system, analysts say.
The Thai military is convinced that these foreign-trained ustas, especially those from Indonesia, are at the heart of the problem.
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“The BRN-Coordinate has been recruiting followers from the Thai Students Association of Indonesia,” claimed Colonel Shinawat Maendej, Commander of the Army Infantry Unit 1 in Narathiwat.
Shinawat told a recent press briefing that the BRN-Coordinate has for years been recruiting Thai graduates from Indonesian universities in Bandung, Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and then providing them with ideological and military training with help from the Indonesia’s Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Jemaah Islamiah (JI) — the radical Java-based Islamic group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombing.
When these graduates return to Thailand many of them find jobs at pondoks, where they recruit and radicalize youths, said Shinawat.
Most southern specialists agree that there is an element of truth to the hypothesis.
There have been many arrests in the deep South and many of the suspected insurgents have fingered their ustas as ringleaders.
“The evidence is mounting against the pondoks and some of the radical teachers, forcing many of them to run away,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University and a leading expert on the southern conflict.
Mahamu Mama, 48, alias Pador Mamu, is one such former usta now on the lam. Mahamu is believed to be the mastermind behind the January 4, 2004 incident. He fled to Indonesia last year, sources said.
While it is believable that some ustas are involved in the conflict, the military’s campaign to denounce religious teachers as prime suspects is a risky business that can easily backfire.
“Most of us went to Indonesia to study religion, not bomb-making,” said Nuradin, a ustas in Pattani. “The government should not accuse us without proof.”
False accusations against religious teacher by the military can lead to yet more violence.
“Some military officers make accusations against us just to impress their bosses,” said Rusdee, another Pattani ustas. “This ruins many careers and means innocent teachers have to flee abroad. Others have taken up arms against the government.”
Nearly 80 per cent of the current students in the deep South attend Islamic religious schools, which are subsidized by the state on a per capita basis.
Worawit Baru, a community development expert at Prince Songkhla Univserity in Pattani, has long advised the government to improve the curriculum, teaching standards and learning equipment of the pondoks rather than trying to force Muslim children to go to Thai public schools — the traditional incubus for Thai nationalism.
While the government is starting to heed the advice (for instance Thailand recently agreed to cooperate with Malaysia in improving the quality of its southern pondoks) it must tread carefully.
“It’s a very sensitive issue for local people,” said Panitan. “It’s a major battle because the Muslim community leaders see the pondoks as their sphere of influence.”
This was Bangkok reporting,