The failure to reach an amicable solution to the dispute over some students wearing the veil points to an attitude problem
The controversy over elementary school students wearing the Islamic headscarf in a public school in the South that operates on land belonging to a Buddhist temple is far from over as authorities at the local level are unable to resolve the dispute.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, during this week’s Cabinet meeting, raised the question why the dispute had not been settled. The dispute should not be so difficult to resolve if all sides just followed the rules and regulations, he said.
His simplistic solution suggests that he lacks a proper understanding of the nature of this dispute and the overall historical animosity between the Malay-speaking South and the Thai State.
Thailand’s Malay-speaking South has reeled for 14 years under insurgency violence that has so far claimed about 7,000 lives since January 2004.
The Thai Constitution permits Muslim students to wear the Islamic headscarf in a public school. But when 20 teachers walked out of the Anuban Pattani School on the first day of this semester after a small group of children showed up wearing the hijab, the Education Ministry got nervous and immediately changed the ministry’s regulation.
The new regulation gives the administrators of public schools situated on a temple ground the power to decide the dress code.
These 20 teachers and their nationalist backers see themselves as defenders of “kwam pen Thai” and have painted this school as one of their last cultural spaces that is truly “Thai”.
A similar logic is employed in other places, such as the halal kitchen at the regional hospital in Yala province where the vast majority of the patients are Muslims. The same Buddhists said they wanted a “normal” kitchen, or in this case a non-halal kitchen.
The zero-sum mentality embraced by the Thai Buddhist nationalists stems from the need to show the local Muslims who is the real owner of this land and the dispute at the Anuban School in Pattani was their opportunity to demonstrate their political belief.
But there are other public schools that operate on temple grounds in the far South where the abbots and teachers have no problem with their students wearing hijab or Muslim boys wearing long pants instead of khaki shorts.
The teachers at the Anuban Pattani, however, seem to be cut from a different cloth; they demanded that the school stick with tradition and not permit Muslim students to wear the hijab.
They are among the people who see themselves as (Thai) “minority” living among a (Malay) majority in the South who refuse to embrace a national identity that makes all of us Thai.
It’s a way of punishing the local Malays for refusing to embrace Thainess in the same manner as they do. With the ban, these nationalists are reminding the Muslims that it is the Buddhists who rule this nation, not the Muslims. Some may wonder how Thailand came to this point. It is not hard to figure out; our leaders and policymakers never took the time to understand the difficulties in the State’s relations with minorities.
Indeed, building a nation wasn’t as easy as they thought. However, if they approach this kind of problem with an open mind, surely an acceptable solution satisfactory to all sides can be found.
Our government talks about pluralism but does not seem to do anything to support that intent. For now, pluralism is just a fancy slogan that our leaders toss around.