The BIG Interview: Zakariya Amataya

Zakariya Amataya is an award-winning poet, Thailand’s first Muslim to win the prestigious SEA Write award, a community leader and an editor. The Narathiwat-born writer has spoken on what it means to be Muslim in Thailand, the Melayu identity in a Thai context and many other topics related to Thailand’s Deep South. 

He joined Thai Enquirer recently to talk about identity and culture. 

On being Thai 

I have never felt Thai.

You have to understand in the village that I grew up in, in Narathiwat, there were no Buddhists. Everyone I knew was Muslim, spoke Malay, and shared the same culture. 

Among my grandparent’s generation they did not even speak Thai, or they struggled with Thai, and they considered themselves Melayu.

Not Malaysian, not Thai but Melayu.

So that was my identity and that was my culture. To us, to my people, we have Thai citizenship but that is all. We are subjects of the Thai government, but we are Melayu both by heritage and by culture. 

On the administration of the South in his youth compared to now

During my parent’s generation, they used to send Thai administrators from the rest of the country to the deep south to run government offices. This was done for many reasons but also from a practical standpoint as none of the locals spoke Thai at a professional level. So, the villagers were Muslims, but the administrators were Thai, the school superintendent was Thai, the governor was Thai.

Since the troubles began, the government has sought to change this by employing more locals to run the offices. This also happened organically as we became more educated and able to assume these roles that were traditionally manned by ethnic Thais.

On language

The older generations of Melayu men were forced to learn Thai by the government. But in my generation, I think we want to learn it because it is the pathway to careers, to success, to knowledge. By learning, by getting an education, it has made us more equal and to do that you have to learn the Thai language.

Now we are doctors and educators and school superintendents.

If you want to rise up, you first have to be educated.

If you look at my poetry and my writing it is all in Thai. My first language is Melayu but my professional language is Thai, it allows me to express myself.

Now, I even dream in Thai.

On Melayu assimilation compared to other regions

If you look at the Chinese that came to Thailand, you could say that they have assimilated very well, to the point that they are just Thai now. That is because they have similar cultures, and they adopted the language.

But I think the Melayu culture is stronger, we’re much more different and we have a different religion, so it is much harder for us to consider ourselves Thai.

On the difference between being Melayu and Muslim 

When I was younger, my parents sent me to Bangkok to study at a boarding school. It was a local Muslim school and it was the first time that I had encountered other Muslims that were not Melayu. 

So you had Muslim kids that did not speak Malay and it was a very eye opening event for me, that there is this whole world that I had not known. They had their own slangs, their own culture, their own history and it was very interesting. We could communicate only through Thai or Arabic.

On the troubles

I think anywhere in the world where you have a larger power taking over an area and they cannot assimilate an ethnic group then there are going to be problems. In a way it’s the fault of the British, they come in and just divided up a region regardless of the locals, and its not just in Thailand.

For the fighters or terrorists, or separatists, these terms not clearly defined, and it depends on who you ask. The conflict itself is a struggle for identity and violence is just a bargaining tool they are using.

If you look at the younger generations of us, I think there is a clearer recognition of our identity and the government needs to recognize that, that there is a Melayu culture here that is different. Once it is recognized, then it is up to the two sides to negotiate the solution whatever that is, more autonomy or whatever.

On Future Forward

When they were campaigning, they said all the right things about recognizing the culture and identity of our people but since then they’ve been caught up by what’s going on in parliament. They have their own problems obviously, so I don’t blame them.

But I think it also opened the eyes of young Melayu people that there is a possibility of organizing and becoming aware and becoming political.

On his hopes for the younger generation of Melayu

I want for us to move beyond the Thai argument and the identity talk of whether we are Thai or Melayu. This is just a border, cultural conflict, its local. We need to go global, we need to be educated, we need to become leaders not just here but everywhere. Thainess is just an obstacle, we can be more.

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