Opinion: In the Milk Tea Alliance, is there no room for solidarity with Thailand’s Southern Provinces?

The Milk Tea Alliance has drawn considerable international media attention, first in solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong as they peacefully confronted the political, economic, and social integration of Hong Kong into mainland China. It swiftly came to the defense of the citizens in Myanmar after the February 1 coup—and recently, even voices from West Papua were added into the fold. Activists have embraced the Milk Tea Alliance for obvious reasons. The group originated after a spirited online defense of democratic ideals against a wave of Chinese nationalists who became offended when Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree (aka Bright) liked a post on social media that identified Hong Kong as a separate country. Since then, it has become a very visible component of a Pan-Asian movement against authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.

In Thailand, the focus of pro-reform protesters has been on the nature of Thai politics including the roles occupied the armed forces and conservative institutes. Scores of Thai people have openly expressed their concerns about the military’s firm influence over Parliament, its guiding hand in the drafting and approval of the 2017 Constitution, as well as growing concerns over income inequality and levels of household debt, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the reform protesters and the broader Milk Tea Alliance have ignored another large population weighed down by a heavy handed state—Malay Muslims in the southern Thai provinces. 

While this is not an invitation to excuse widespread violence by insurgent groups, as more than 7,200 people have been killed over the past 15 years as a result of the ongoing conflict, pro-democracy groups should resolve to better understand the position of many of Malay-speaking Muslims that call the region home. A large part of the neglect on the part of many to display solidarity with Muslims in the South is a lack of common identity and the fact that the conflict dynamics in the south have grown so complicated that it has become more than just a struggle between the Malay-Muslim community and the Thai state. Although there have been many speeches during the protests by people from the three southern provinces, much more recognition is due from the majority of rally-goers and around the region.

There should be room for solidarity, as many local grievances are rooted in systematic oppression, discrimination, political marginalization, and forced assimilation by the Thai state. Grievances with Thai military rulers date back to the era of Phibun Songkhram, who abolished religious holidays, prohibited locals from wearing traditional garb, and encouraged the local population to adopt Thai-sounding names. Political autonomy, as well as language and cultural rights were rejected and were received as secessionist acts.  Malay-speaking Muslims have been looked on as, and feel like marginalized, if not second-class citizens. For years, locals have complained about poor governance and the fact that officials either do not speak the language or come from a long line of incompetent or corrupt officials from other areas of Thailand. Thailand’s notorious centralized system does not lend itself to local control or possibilities for resolving grievances. 

Populations in the North and the South are experiencing similar phenomenon with the Prayut government. The Royal Thai Army recently got caught by social media giant Twitter in October 2020 for engaging in online propaganda, including amplifying pro-Army accounts and targeting prominent opposition political figures. Earlier this March, Facebook removed 185 accounts linked to the Thai military, accused of spreading false information that could prove dangerous to the conflict in the South, using “fake accounts posing as individuals from the southern provinces of Thailand to criticize separatist movements and support the monarchy and military.” The move, according to Reuters, was triggered by calls for violence against insurgents.

Groups could also find solidarity over countless personal losses. Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent pro-democracy activist who had lived in exile in Cambodia was abducted in the late afternoon by armed men. His case has drawn the attention of international media and has fueled pro-democracy activists across Southeast Asia. Wanchalearm’s case may have drawn more media attention, but it is not unlike many more forced disappearance cases in southern Thailand.  In January 2016, the abduction of Fadel Sohman in Patani province caught the attention of some journalists, with family and colleagues suspecting he was taken by Thai security forces. Thai authorities actively pressured Fadel’s family to drop their investigation into his disappearance and the family reported that the military and police have visited their home on many occasions. Sohman’s case is just one of many. Allegations of human rights violations are commonplace, particularly reports of torture and forced disappearances at the hands of corrupt Thai bureaucrats in the South, but there have been no legal measures taken against any security officials for their abuses toward the local population. 

In this photo taken on October 24, 2019, a Royal Thai Army soldier patrols the Tak Bai riverside market in Thailand’s restive southern province of Narathiwat across the Malaysian border. – Muslims in the conflict-blistered Thai south on October 25 will mark with prayers the 15th anniversary of the deaths of scores of protesters suffocated in army trucks, a tragedy which galvanised an insurgency and remains an emblem of state impunity. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)

Last year, many high school students through the “Bad Student” protest movement demanded education reform across Thailand, an end to harassment of students, and an end to school rules that many said were outdated. Thai schools have largely been authoritarian structures, with long-held rules that govern articles of clothing, hair length, and more. Thailand’s antiquated rote learning system has been the subject of much debate. Similar to protesters in Bangkok, Muslim minorities have been advocating for greater freedom to engage in religious teachings, local language learning, and revisions to education curriculum. Muslim schools in the Deep South, or pondok, are being pulled in all directions, from separatist ideologies, different interpretations of Islam and a Bangkok-centered Thai society. Freedom of individuals in the South to chart their own course on education are combatted by both inside and outside influences. In the context of the insurgency, the Thai government is critical of these traditional religious schools out of fears they are sources for potential militant recruitment as well as their reluctance to incorporate Thai-centered forms of nationalism.

This is not the first time solidarity has been discussed. The Bangkok-centered protest movement, which has struggled to maintain the same momentum it acquired before the COVID-19 outbreak in December. It needs to be more inclusive of minority groups, particularly the marginalized population in the southern Thai provinces. In the effort to spread a Pan-Asian distaste for authoritarian behavior, the Milk Tea Alliance should be less Bangkok-centric and more in tune with persistent conflicts in the region. The Malay-Muslim struggle against military and civilian governments is well documented and is worthy of additional attention.

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