The row over school uniform for Muslim students is just a manifestation of a larger problem
The Education Ministry’s decision to renege on its earlier stance allowing Muslim school children to wear the Islamic headscarf at a public school in Pattani will drive a deep wedge between Thai society and the Muslim population.
In its latest decision, the ministry left it to the school and their monastic landlords to decide on the dress code for Muslim students.
Judging from the reaction on social media from Muslims in the far South, the national rift has not only widened but will have a significant impact throughout the country as thousands of public schools are situated on temple grounds. An insurgency that has gone on for 14 years between Malay separatists and the Thai State has so far claimed nearly 7,000 lives.
The school, which operates in a Buddhist temple complex, had long required students to wear school uniforms regardless of their religion. However, some parents believed their children should be allowed to follow their Islamic beliefs.
Last month, the parents challenged the Anuban Pattani School about what their children could wear. The dispute, which led to 20 teachers walking out, led to the intervention by the Education Ministry.
The ministry told the school that Muslim children could wear the hijab and long trousers as long as their colours matched those of the school uniform. The ministry even cited its school uniform regulation as per which students could dress in accordance with their religious beliefs in public schools.
But last Wednesday, an amendment appeared in the Royal Gazette. It stated that Muslim students could wear school uniforms or clothes based on their religious beliefs at schools that are not operating on plots belonging to temples. If they study at schools that sit on monastic land, they must comply with the dress code set by the school and the landlord.
It would be misleading to assume that the whole dispute started at the Pattani Anuban School. Thai Buddhists have been increasingly wary of Muslims and anti-Islam sentiment has been on the rise for some time.
Many communities in the North and the Northeast have, in recent years, declared their province to be mosque-free. Many are obsessed with the idea of containing Islam and think Thailand will be a better place if their anti-Islam agenda is achieved.
These self-proclaimed defenders of the Thai way often cite the insurgency and violence in the Malay-speaking South as justification. Even some monks have got involved in the campaign.
These Buddhist nationalists see themselves as upholding Thai values and Thainess, or kwam pen Thai, and see the growing presence of Islam as a threat to the country’s identity.
If they had taken the time to understand the conflict in the far South, they would have seen that the banner for the separatist struggle is ethno-nationalist, not religious.
Furthermore, by adopting an anti-Islam campaign they are only alienating more Thai Muslims whose loyalty and patriotism towards the country are just as high as theirs.
Thai leaders who preach pluralism need to respect differences. By lumping the separatist conflict in the far South with the religion of Islam, we are allowing bigotry to get the better of us. Malay Muslims in the far South have a problem with the Thai narrative of nation. They embrace a different set of historical and cultural narratives and often see the Thai state as intruders who took away their land. They reject the government policy of assimilation because it disregards their narrative and religious identity.
As for public schools, they are the ideal places to foster harmony and diversity for the children who will become our future leaders and citizens. But sadly, too many people are obsessed with winning even at the expense of national reconciliation.