New names a start in the South

opinion February 14, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Renaming of villages is under way; now we need to push the use of the Malay language across public and official space

Prince of Songkhla University’s Pattani campus recently saw residents, community leaders, clerics, government officials and academics gather to celebrate the renaming of 10 villages to their original Malay designations.
It was a minor achievement in administrative terms, but the change has huge symbolic significance. Amid the ongoing conflict and historical mistrust between the Malay-speaking region and the Thai state, renaming the villages was a big breakthrough – and an uplifting moment. 
The renaming was part of a pilot project carried out by the Centre of Conservation for Local Culture and Environment – Southern Border Provinces, under the leadership of Ismail Benjasmith, a local historian. 
Supported by the US-based Asia Foundation, the project has set the example for the remaining 1,000-plus villages that Police Col Thawee Sodsong, secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), says will eventually be renamed. 
The same day he delivered the keynote speech at the renaming ceremony, Thawee had attended a similar event – a speaking contest conducted in Malay and sponsored by the recently established Institute of Malay Language of Thailand, another SBPAC initiative. 
Thawee seems keen on using language as a bridge over the historical divide between the region and the Thai state. But, while chasing the public spotlight and giving keynote speeches at feel-good activities are no doubt important toward this goal, they do little in terms of changing the nature of the conflict or affecting national policy in any meaningful way. 
Instead, Thawee and his SBPAC need to push through a national language policy and explore the extent to which the state will allow the use of Malay in public and official places. 
So far the SBPAC’s efforts in this direction have been somewhat superficial. Thawee needs to understand that good intentions are not the same as concrete policy. 
Malay-speaking locals have welcomed the correcting of past mistakes over village names, but it must be kept in mind that changing the old names to more “Thai-sounding” monikers should have never been done in the first place. It soured relations, a matter compounded by the fact that some of the villages’ Thai names were extremely insulting.
SBPAC deputy secretary-general Lertkiart Wongphothipat says the task of renaming the remaining 1,000-plus villages in the three southernmost provinces could be completed by the end of the year if authorities work hard enough. 
Both Thawee and Lertkiart made reference to the late independence-movement leader Haji Sulong Tohmeena and his famous “seven points”, which include the use of Malay alongside Thai. That demand earned him a charge of treason from the Thai government. He later disappeared, but lives on in the hearts and minds of Pattani residents. 
As for the name-changing project, we have to wonder why it took the government 10 years and 5,000-plus deaths to see the benefit of such a simple, minor administrative task. And it shouldn’t take a genius to see the benefits of expanding this endeavour across public space by renaming buildings, streets, parks and cities to reflect the Patani-Malay identity. Or do we have to ensure another 5,000 deaths before we understand the importance of language and cultural identity?