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The desperate plight of Islamic education in Southern Thailand

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013

If a frequent traveler to Thailand goes around the country today, a rapid rise in the prominence of Muslims will be noticed, stretching from Chiang Rai in the north of the country right down into the south of the country. Many of Thailand's 6-7 Million Muslins are totally integrated into Thai culture and society, a country that takes great pride in its cultural homogeneity. However in the South of Thailand, many, if not most Muslims still live in close knit rural villages undertaking traditional activities such as rubber tapping, fishing, and rice farming. A distinct culture, different from the mainstream "Thai" culture has been able to nurture in the relaxed air of religious freedom in Thailand.

Generally speaking, there is a great contrast economically between the rural Muslims of Southern Thailand and the rest of the community. The incidence of poverty among Muslims in Southern Thailand is high. To many Muslims however this is not considered a problem, as a simple religious based lifestyle is deeply valued and indeed is perceived to offer protection to the community from external "morally corrupting forces".

As a consequence many rural Muslim parents prefer to send their children to one of the hundreds of Islamic schools around the south of the country. Many, if not most of these schools are set up and staffed by the communities themselves providing an Islamic education, in addition to the primary and secondary school national curriculum.


A few lucky students may get a place in the prestigious and well equipped Pondok Bantan in Nakhon Si Thammarat, founded by the recently retired Secretary General of ASEAN Dr. Surin Pitsuwan and his family, or one of the local Islamic Council schools, which are also relatively well equipped. Pondok Bantan has been generously funded by a number of Middle East sources, including the Islamic Development Bank, and even the Sasakawa Peace Foundation based in Japan. However the majority of Muslims must opt for one of the local schools set up by one of the members of the community.

These local community schools operate with the minimal infrastructure and facilities. Classrooms are grossly inadequate, with poor libraries and few other teaching resources available. There is a drastic shortage of teachers for national curriculum subjects, often relying upon volunteers to assist. In the schools or "pondoks" where students are resident, students are often forced to sleep up to 10 students per hut, which is barely habitable and potentially a fire and disease trap. As national curriculum studies are of a low standard in the Islamic Schools, they attract little government funding in the competitive private school environment of Thailand.

In addition to the above problems, a number of other problematic issues exist within these schools around Southern Thailand today.

Firstly, the religious curriculum is set by local Ulama or religious scholars. The majority of Ulama themselves came through the "pondok" system and have little, if any trans-disciplinary or holistic educational experience. They tend to see the world the way that they were taught to see the world through their own education. This has led to great emphasis on Fard'ain (compulsory duties a Muslim must perform such as prayer) aspects of Islam, at the expense of Fard Kifayah (duty out in the world). This "narrow" approach to the holism of Islam may hinder student's ambitions and abilities to integrate within mainstream Thai society.

Secondly, it is very difficult to get any unified approach as Islamic leaders in Southern Thailand are fragmented and may even be competitive with each other, rather than cooperative. This leaves the community without any answers or any common approach towards problems.

Due to the diversity of interpretation, there are very few safeguards against the infiltration of distorted and fringe views about the meaning of Qu'ranic texts. Although regional Islamic Councils have the responsibility to monitor religious teaching within their regions, there are no requirements for any teachers to conform to any agreed or centralized interpretation. If unchecked, religious schools and 'pondoks" could become potential breeding grounds of deviant teachings, further isolating students from mainstream Thai society.


For many of Southern Thailand's Muslim youth, the "pondoks' have become a refuge where students can drift in and out of society as they feel. Very few students ever get to a university, or acquire the skills to open a business. This tends to reinforce a separate identity with Islamic values rather than students encompassing the aims and values of the general community.

The above is compounded by the generally poor standard of national curricula education. Students that complete their education within the Islamic school system are at great disadvantage to those who have attended secular schools focusing purely on the national curriculum. This generally hinders rural Islamic communities participating in the current economic growth and development going on today in Southern Thailand, thus widening the income gap and perpetuating relative poverty among Southern Thai Muslim communities.

If this gap continues to widen, this may lead to some groups questioning the equity distribution of Thailand, which could potentially lead to some form of resentment, or allow other groups to take advantage of the situation through introducing new dogma into the community. However as of today there are no links with the fragmented insurgency groups in the troubled provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. This is fundamentally a separate and little acknowledged problem.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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