How do you teach when there is violence all around you? How do you bring hope, discipline and order into young people’s lives – high school students, in this case?

Thirty-four-year-old Che Ruhanee Asma-ae is a Bahasa Melayu (Malay) teacher in Thailand’s troubled southern Yala Province, at Srinagarindra the Princess Mother School. Born in the neighbouring province of Pattani, Cikgu (teacher) Che, as she is known by her students, has a calm but determined demeanour.

“Language is who we are. Language is not a religion: it transcends beliefs and that’s the beauty of it. Even a Buddhist can speak Malay, there is nothing wrong with that. So if the Muslims can speak Thai, others can speak Malay, no?”

In marked contrast to the predominantly Buddhist and Thai-speaking centre, the kingdom’s three southernmost provinces (Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat) are all majority Malay and Muslim. They have also been ravaged by Southeast Asia’s longest-running insurgency – it started in the early 1960s – sparked off by insensitive and harshly applied assimilation policies emanating from the capital, Bangkok.

As Myanmar, the Philippines and other Asean nations continue to grapple with minority rights, it is important to learn from Thailand’s complex and often bitter experience. Language, religion and culture are prickly issues at the best of times. Here in the Muslim south, they have been incendiary.

Still, the death toll has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Despite countless efforts, peace has been elusive. Indeed, in 2007 the number of deaths peaked at 892 – a direct response to the extraordinary violence and callousness of the 2004 Tak Bai massacre that left at least 85 dead. Thankfully, since then the violence has dropped considerably and so far in 2018, there have been record lows of 61 deaths and 130 wounded.

While one wants to be optimistic, it is extremely unlikely that a renewed Malaysian commitment launched by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will make much difference. Indeed, with over 7,000 lives lost since 2004, it is worth remembering that much of the conflict boils down to identity – to religion and language. And inevitably teachers – especially Malay language teachers – are on the front line.

Cambodian workers weigh the cost of EU’s stand on human rights

The neatly dressed Cikgu Che is implacable: “I’m a very proud teacher. I’ve been teaching at the school for over two years. I’m also a welfare officer for the faculty. I have 100 students in Mathayom 5 and 6 (equivalent to Grades 11 and 12). They speak Bahasa Melayu Patani (Patani Malay) at home. But at school they learn formal Malay, pretty much the language spoken in Malaysia. Although it’s an optional class, I take it very seriously as do my students.”

For those who are not familiar, Patani Malay is the local dialect spoken by the vast majority of the region’s 2.03 million population. Indeed, its soft lyrical tones are very similar to the spoken Malay in the neighbouring Malaysian state of Kelantan.

The current openness to the local language is in marked contrast to the situation during her youth. Back then students were fined for using the Malay language. It is arguable that small dispensations such as this have helped ease, but not halt, the tension.

The second eldest of four siblings – and only daughter – Cikgu Che does not look like a firebrand. But she is not one to stay silent.

“I was an activist throughout my university years (she studied at the nearby Prince of Songkla University). I wrote a letter to the rector when he banned dialogue sessions on campus. I led my friends and fellow students to protest the army’s disproportionate conduct against the militants, like the attack on Pattani’s Krue Se mosque and the Tak Bai massacre. I’m not afraid to speak up against the government.”

Indeed, many in the south and the international community have criticised the Thai government’s superficial approach to addressing the bloodshed.

Thai is important, but this is a country of many peoples
Cikgu Che

In March 2005, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration established the National Reconciliation Commission, chaired by the widely respected former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

The commission’s focus was to make recommendations on peace-building efforts through a series of proposed reforms, including making Patani Malay the region’s official working language and creating an unarmed government unit to engage with militants in dialogue.

Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, former prime minister General Prem Tinsulanonda and president of the monarch’s Privy Council responded: “We cannot accept that proposal as we are Thai. The country is Thai and the language is Thai.”

Can Myanmar meeting stop the tide of meth ‘flooding’ the Asia-Pacific?

Cikgu Che is blunt: “The government is afraid of the Malay language, it’s a threat. Thai is important, but this is a country of many peoples.”

There is no denying that for southern Thais, the Malay language represents more than just heritage and culture: it is central to their state of being, indeed their existence.

Cikgu Che adds firmly: “Language is an intrinsic part of our identity. You can’t take that away from us. I am very proud of being able to speak Malay. I see myself as Malay first – not Thai.”