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    • Abstract: Dual Ethnic Minorities and the Local Reworking ofCitizenship at the Thailand-Malaysian BorderAlexander HorstmannInstitute for EthnologyWestfälische Wilhelms-Universitä[email protected] Working Papers in Border Studies

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Dual Ethnic Minorities and the Local Reworking of
Citizenship at the Thailand-Malaysian Border
Alexander Horstmann
Institute for Ethnology
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität
[email protected]
CIBR Working Papers in Border Studies
For Thai-speaking Muslims in Satun on the west coast of southern Thailand
and Thai Buddhist monks in Kelantan on the east coast of northern Malaysia,
the local reworking of citizenship constitutes an important strategy to deal
with the constraints that have been designed by the state to control the
populations at the border. Holders of dual citizenship on the Thailand-
Malaysian border use the documents of the state to their personal advantage,
producing their identity cards to f cilitate their border crossings. This essay
examines border-crossing practices as a way of life for trapped ethnic
minorities. Border communities resent their inferior position in the space of
the nation-state. By joining Buddhist/Muslim networks across the border,
border people counter the work which citizenship as an instrument of control
has done to them. This essay explores the terrain and the tension between
personal and national identity and emphasises the deep ambiguity of identity
and identity shifts in the space between the Thai and Malay worlds. The new
spaces in-between Thailand and Malaysia are not only limiting, but also
liberating and empowering the lives of the respective border communities.
‘The impasse is the inevitable exclusiveness of citizenship which distinguishes
those who have it from those who don’t’ (Patton and Caserio 2000: 1).
The networks of border people are changing the meaning of citizenship 1 . In
many discourses of the state, holders of dual citizenship are seen and treated as
trouble makers whose practices of participating in more than one national
polity are violating the concept of sovereignty. Migration and religious
movements and the resulting border-crossing networks have left durable traces
in the borderland, which in the end help to establish firm routes, effectively
criss-crossing political boundaries.
One of my most puzzling findings when conducting ethnographic research on
the increase in border crossings on the Thai-Malaysian border was the practice
of dual citizenship among trapped ethnic minorities. Being Thai or Malaysian
citizens, Thai-speaking Muslims from the west coast of southern Thailand and
Buddhist Thais from northern Malaysia acquire multiple citizenship rights
through various means: by registering the birth of their children just across the
border, by marriage, by making use of kinship relations or by inventing them
and by applying for naturalisation. In the course of my fieldwork, I became
conscious that the adoption of dual citizenship not only reflects a pluri- local
social life, it is also embedded in durable social relations which encompass
social worlds in Thailand and Malaysia, in which the distinction of national
identity is rendered increasingly meaningless, and it constitutes an important
strategy to deal with the constraints which have been designed by the state.
Members of ethnic minorities use the documents of the state to their personal
advantage, producing their identity cards to facilitate their border crossings.2
Ethnic minorities on the Thai-Malaysian border have been discursively
constructed as peripheral ethnicities and inferior races. The Patani Malays, the
Thai-speaking Muslims in Satun in Thailand and the Kelantan Thais in
Malaysia can be conceptualised as trapped minorities, who are trapped on the
national border between a host but hostile state which reluctantly offers them
citizenship, and an absent, scattered mother nation with little political and
economic weight (Rabinowitz 1998: 156). To be sure, daily raids on the
border, which are aimed at ‘illegal’ migrants and reports of beatings in prisons
to prevent illegal re-entry, are reminders of the presence of the nation-state.
But while the state remains the single most powerful form of political
organization in the region, its inability to purge the practice of dual citizenship
shows that post- national forms of belonging have become a reality. In fact, the
flexible use of citizenship (Ong 1999) seems to be a characteristic strategy of
diasporic cultures in the borderland of Tha iland and Malaysia. Moreover, I
observed that ethnic minorities do not renounce their citizenship rights after
acquiring new ones- on the contrary, they carefully keep their identity cards.
While people ignore as far as possible the bureaucratic implicatio ns of moving
across a modern international frontier, they are keenly aware of the differences
between Thai and Malay society and of their position in each.
The Patani Malays on the east coast of southern Thailand, the Sam Sam on the
west coast and the Kelantan Thais on the east coast of northeast Malaysia are
located in a similar diasporic trap as the Palestinian citizens of Israel.3 Cut off
from their parent ethnie by national borders, ethnic minorities are trapped
between a hostile state that gives them citizenship (but withholds state
resources and certain rights from them) and an ambiguous position within
their parent ethnie. In the consolidation of the Thai-Malaysian border (in 1911
and 1949), Siam had to compromise her territorial ambitions with British
colonial interests. Ceding the tributary provinces of Kedah, Kelantan, and
Trengganu, Siam kept control of Pattani, Naratiwat and Songkla on the east
coast and Satun on the west coast. The early loosely organised hierarchical
arrangement of overlapping tiers of tributary states, small umbrellas under the
protection of larger and higher umbrellas, which in turn where under those still
higher and larger, has given place to the more recent western arrangement of
sovereign states with defined and mutually exclusive national boundaries.
With the transformation of Patani from being a Malay principality to an
ordinary Thai province, local Malays remember the old times, when the Patani
sultanate was known as a cradle of Islam, attracting Muslims from the Malay
peninsula to its famous Islamic schools. The nostalgia for a lost state
characterises the psychological situation of the Malays, cut off from the
Islamic heartland, and bound up with the religious cosmology of the Buddhist
nation-state of Thailand.
Reflections on citizenship
Citizenship has become a popular, newly public topic in Thailand and in the
world at large. As Patton and Caserio (2000: 1-14) argue, multiple disciplines
with multiple motives have converged on this term. Recent work in political
philosophy and social history by Fraser (1997) and Tilly (1995) addresses not
only the notion of citizenship, its genesis and its reworking in historical,
social, political and legal practice, but also the possibilities of recovering it in
order to get out of the impasse in which our traditional ideas of citizenship
have landed us. Instead of seeing citizenship from a state perspective, I shall
treat citizenship as a practice that is situated in social and cultural relations and
negotiated in relations of power, domination and resistance. Instead of taking
for granted citizenship as a concept of universal rights, we should enquire
about the work citizenship does, the problems which citizenship creates and
the impasses or damage that its rehabilitation might continue to effect. Post-
colonialism, which re-examines the use and meaning of citizenship in the
wake of the nationalist projects that imperialism left behind, helps us to
liberate the concept of citizenship from its static almost mythical character, by
overcoming the straightjacket of the nation-state to which the notion of
citizenship has been inevitably attached. The impasse of citizenship calls for a
subversive approach to citizenship which looks into the ways in which
different categories of citizen and non-citizen are produced and where the
boundaries of membership are historically contested.4
In this essay, I join the efforts of other authors who have looked at ethnic
minorities in the borderlands (see, for example, Tapp 1989; Walker 1997;
Evans, Hutton and Eng 2000). In this work, citizenship is liberated from its
mystical character and its significance in everyday life is applied to a wider
discussion about the transformation of livelihood in the borderlands, the
increasing control of the state over people’s lives, the location of ethnic
minorities in the nation-state space and the strategies followed by border
I argue that dual citizenship is embedded in border-crossing networks, which
reflect the inability of the state to purge dual citizenship, indicating that forms
of post-national belonging have become a social reality. The analysis of
border-crossing structures and their dynamic of change, in which practices of
dual citizenship are embedded, and the transformation of state-centred
concepts in that framework, leads me to conclude that state sovereignty may
never have been fully achieved and that the people themselves play an
important role in shaping the negotiation and practical use of citizenship.
The essay seeks to contribute to the anthropology of the state at the local level
of the border from a fresh angle. The double identity card holders are making
use of the border and are contesting their assimilation in the host state. Their
local reworking of citizenship fits to the practical needs of the border people,
who develop multiple contacts and relations across the border. The
intensification of labour migration and the revival of religious movements
results in the transnationalisation of the everyday life of migrants and
travellers. People move across the border almost despite the regulations of the
state. Borders are also discursively constructed in narratives of the self and the
other, with very material consequences. In the Malaysian discourse, Thailand
is associated with criminality, disorder and sex tourism. This discourse
justifies the construction of a wall, separating the Malay from the Thai world.
The Thai government complains that Malaysia is a haven for Islamic
fundamentalist movements. The escalation of the cultural competition results
in various stereotypes and pejorative constructions of the other (Horstmann,
forthcoming). Border people make use of the border and use their ethnic
networks as a resource. Doing so, they benefit from the compliance of the
state, whose agents cooperate in border trade and in the barter of identity cards
and working permits. Most important, the states may see their diasporas as a
sort of extension of their cultural territory and hence turn a blind eye to the
practice of dual citizenship. The Malaysian government has a more ambiguous
relationship to the Muslim diaspora in Thailand. While it tolerates
transnationalism from Patani to a certain extent, the extension of citizenship
has become much tighter in recent years.
The ‘Sam Sam’ on the Thai-Malaysian border
While the Sam Sam are a historical category (meaning mixed, half- race), the
Malays in present-day Langkawi distinguish themselves from the ‘Orang
Siam’. Thai-speaking Muslims are alleged not to attend the five prayers, not to
eat anything like Buddhists, and to be filthy. During the golden age of banditry
between 1900-1920, the Sam Sam are said to have provided the most
notorious gang leaders (Cheah Boon Keng 1988). The Sam Sam represented
the lowest social stratum in Kedah, Perlis, and Satun, mostly involved in the
agrarian sector of the economy, as paid-planters: ‘They constituted a social
class which had to bear almost unlimited demands on its services during the
pre-colonial period, and later as main targets of the various taxes, land tax,
land rent, unpaid services, etc., imposed by British and Thai administrations.
When faced with the problems of poor land, occasional disasters such as
drought, poor harvests, or other natural disasters, these peasants were left with
only one recourse for their survival, namely theft’ (Cheah Boon Keng 1988:
44). Nishii examines the process of emergence and transformation of their
peripheral ethnicity (2000: 180ff). They were regarded as wild, uncivilised
criminals by the Siamese rulers (as chao pa), and alienated by the Malays who
wanted to defend the Malay world from invasion by Thai elements. While the
younger generation of the Sam Sam in Malaysia, being ashamed of the
practices of their ancestors, have abandoned the Thai language, Thai- speaking
Muslims in Thailand find themselves as Thai nationals who have to adjust to
the presence of the Thai state. The identity of the Sam Sam integrates elements
from the Thai and Malay worlds, playing on the ambiguities between cultural
boundaries. Refusing an essentialised identity has advantages for Thai-
speaking Muslim migrants who establish social relations in Thailand and in
Malaysia that sometimes include government officials.
The gendering of citizenship in border-crossing marriage
The borderland: Scene 1
Habibah lives with Hazemi in a small, one-storey house in Kampung
Temoyong, near Hazemi’s mother’s house. Habibah comes from Ban Ko
Sarai, a small island in front of Amphor Muang Satun in southern Thailand.
She began to work in Malaysia at the age of fourteen, refusing an offer from
her well- to-do brother in Saudi Arabia to continue her education in Thailand.
Habibah recalls that she was often beaten in school by her Thai-Buddhist
headmaster and felt discriminated against. Changing offers of jobs from kin,
who recruited labour in Sarai, brought her to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and
Langkawi. Habibah’s experiences included experiences of poor living
conditions, poor salaries and sexual harassment. She had to endure difficult
working conditions in her life. She regularly returned home to Sarai and
maintained intimate relationships with kin and friends. During her last job, she
continued to work in a souvenir shop at the international airport of Langkawi
where she met Hazemi, her present husband. Habibah is among 2,400 Thai
women from Muslim communities in southern Thailand who are married to
Malaysian men and registered with the Islamic office in Kuah, Langkawi. A
male fantasy is projected on the daughters of Thai-speaking Muslims of the
west coast of southern Thailand who are imagined (and desired) to be
submissive housewives. Men from the lower social stratum are inclined to
seek Thai wives, because they have problems finding Malay partners, who are
more self-confident, freer in their relationships and who have much better
opportunities than their Thai counterparts. A pattern is emerging on the Thai-
Malaysian border in which Malay men, especially from Langkawi, by virtue
of their citizenship, have the power to ask for Sam Sam daughters. The pattern
of marriage reflects the gendering of cross-border relations in Thailand and
Malaysia and maps of power in which Malaysian men marry Thai women and
in which unequal gender relationships are reproduced.
Habibah uses a border pass as an inhabitant of one of the five border provinces
in southern Thailand (Satun). She has been applying for a Malaysian passport
in vain so far.5 She is therefore forced to return to Thailand to renew her
border pass. Without the papers, Habibah has to live a migrant’s life with
irregular emp loyment and lower wages. Her movement in Langkawi and in
Malaysia is very prudent, restricted and vulnerable. She is even subject to
occasional control or harassment by border police. Habibah has established
close ties with other women from Thailand in Kampung Temoyong and in
Langkawi, with whom she can exchange information about work opportunities
and news in Thailand. On the other hand, Malaysian women tend to avoid and
ignore her, contributing to her humiliation and marginal position in the village.
Habibah suffers from loneliness and the fact that she is not integrated into the
daily life of the village. She is clear, however, that she never wants to return to
Sarai or southern Thailand which, from her perspective, is underdeveloped
(mai pattana), neglected and dirty. Hazemi, on the other hand, enjoys
travelling to Thailand. Habibah concentrates on her marriage with Hazemi and
their daughter who is learning Arabic and Malay crafts. In addition, she
prepares lunches for a hotel, to help the family budget. Having children has
stabilised her relationship, and being a mother has helped improve her status
in the village.
Her insistence on a formal Islamic marriage in the town of Kuah was
motivated by her aspiration for more security in her relationship with Hazemi.
She felt especially depressed about Hazemi’s unfaithfulness and his
relationship with another Malay woman. Worse still was having to do the
washing and cleaning for a household of five persons, while being ill-treated
and humiliated by her mother-in- law. Many women from Thailand become the
victim of discriminating practices, sexual violence, or confinement to the
house. Habibah told me about minor wives who have been divorced by Malay
men, and who are confined to the house with no means to support themselves.
Some women were developing depression as a result of their hardships.
Habibah decided to endure the hardships, being afraid to return to Thailand
empty handed. Habibah’s story illustrates how women from southern Thailand
are vulnerable to explo itation and unequal gender relations. It is common for
members of such bi- national families to live on both sides of the border, like
Jamila’s daughter from her first marriage who is visiting the Thai school in
Ban Sarai and who is educated in the Thai way. Being a foreigner without
certain rights and without claim to state resources, Habibah felt that her
precarious status was used against her. Overall, the transformation of
citizenship among Thai-speaking Muslim communities on the west coast has
an important gender dimension. The women from Thailand are not easily
integrated into village society, but face hostility from the husband’s family as
well as from other Malay women who feel that the subordination of the Thai
women undermines the new female spaces of Malay women. While Carsten
(1997, 1998) describes the incorporation of migrants from southern Thailand
and the perception of Langkawi villagers that southern Thailand is very much
part of their cultural map, I emphasise the unequal gender relations whic h
make women from Thailand second-class citizens and the subtle differences
between Malay and Thai women, the latter kept apart from Malay women
The pattern of border-crossing marriage reflects a power regime which is
further transforming citize nship. Women assimilate to the Malay world, which
includes the Islamization of lifestyle, and subordinate themselves to unequal
gender relationships. Their children grow up in Malaysia and become Malay.
Resistance to marginalisation includes close social ties with other Thai women
at home as well as in Langkawi. While the women suppress the Thai language
in Malaysia, they use their southern Thai dialect in conversation with fellow
Thai women. Thus, married women are at home in both languages, moving
back and forth between the home in Thailand and the home in Malaysia.
Through their Malaysian partner, they have access to Malaysian citizenship, to
the Langkawi labour market and certain state resources, in short, to a better
life. But they do not leave their ho mes in Thailand behind. Instead, they keep
the old identity card for convenience and maintain close contact to family
networks in Thailand and in the Islamic world at large.
Fishing illegally in Malaysian waters
The borderland: Scene 2
After five days at sea they are tired, thirsty and hungry. The fishermen secure
the fish, wash the boat and repair the net. The shrimps are washed, sorted and
weighed. The fishermen are paid immediately. After washing carefully, the
men sit at the table to drink sweet tea and to smoke. All the men sitting at the
cafe are illegal. Their gossip focuses on increasing police controls, strategies
and related experiences with Malaysian police. Depending on the weather, the
three sons fish in Langkawi for a tour of fourteen days. They use the money to
pay for the renovation of the house, the maintenance of the boat and for
paying the fees of Islamic education in Pattani province for themselves and for
their three sisters. Nearly every young man from Ban Sarai in southern
Thailand has experience of being arrested, imprisoned, and fined. Stories of
being humiliated in prison by the Malaysian authorities circulate. When they
are not able to pay the fine, their small boats, their means of existence, are
In Sarai, the rapid depletion of natural resources is threatening the subsistence
of small fishermen who have not enough cash to pay for the maintenance of
their boats. Big trawlers use thick nets and spotlights which not only catch
fish, crab and shrimp, but all kinds of sea life. The small fishermen in Sarai are
afraid of talking about the local mafia who own the trawlers and are involved
in border-crossing illegal trade. Opponents are easily killed by powerful
gangsters who combine legal and illegal forms of accumulation and cooperate
with local politicians and bureaucrats. The diminishing prospects, especially
for young people, create a depressing atmosphere in the village. As a result,
drug addiction among youth is rampant, with young people dying of overdoses
or drug-related health hazards at an early age. There are parents who lose their
sons at their most productive age and children who lose their parents due to
AIDS. In the process of the emergence of a transnational space, life worlds in
Sarai and Langkawi are fundamentally changing. The division of migrants and
households who are bound to home is creating social differentiation,
competition in poverty and the bitterest divisions in the village. Diminishing
prospects are creating survival tactics among which border crossings to
Langkawi is by far the most significant. Most households in Ban Sarai have
family members in Langkawi, either daughters married to Malaysian men or
sons fishing illegally in Malaysian waters or taking up casual jobs.
Although fishermen from Thailand are fully aware of the risks involved, they
develop strategies in order to get a hold in Langkawi and to survive in a
basically hostile environment. One of the key strategies is to build social ties
with people in Langkawi, with villagers, kin, and even the lower-ranked
police. For the fisher- folk from Thailand, the patron-client relationship to the
middleman is crucial to the sustainability of future border-crossings. In
parallel, Muslim fishermen from Thailand claim solidarities with distant kin in
Langkawi on the basis of Muslim identity and kinship relations.
According to Malaysian regulations, working permits for fishing in Langkawi
can be acquired on condition that the owner of the boat is a Malaysian citizen.
However, it is known that papers which document Malaysian ownership, for
boats on which Thai fishermen may be temporally employed, can be bought
on the black market. The illegal fishermen benefit from the fact that it is
impossible to distinguish them physically from the Malay villagers. Yet, as
already noted in the case of Habibah, the newcomers are not fully integrated
into Malay society, and do not join the Malaysians in their Friday prayers,
local mosque associations, festivals and ceremonies. Being most vulnerable to
arrest and deportation, fishermen try to keep a minimal presence in Langkawi.
The relationship of fishermen from Thailand to the Malaysian middleman
underlines the extremely vulnerable status of Thai citizens fishing in
Malaysian water. In order to achieve a reciprocal relationship, fishermen from
Thailand demonstrate their loyalty to their chosen patron by giving all their
catch to him. Obviously, this is very beneficial to the middleman who can then
rely on hardworking, faithful clients. In exchange for loyalty, the illegal
fishermen expect some form of protection. But just as kinship ties and
common faith are factors which are invoked to garner solidarity and help, so
the superficially harmonious relationship to the middleman masks
exploitation. Only fishermen from Thailand are satisfied with lower wages,
higher interest rates and insecure, temporary employment. Nevertheless,
Malay middlemen provide at least some sort of security for the fishermen who
can land and sell their catch on Malay shores. However, this space is a
vulnerable one which can change from one day to the next.
Longing for Malaysian citizenship in Langkawi
The borderland: Scene 3
The pioneer settlers in Sarai remember when they fled the Japanese
occupation in Langkawi to Sarai where only a handful of families made a
livelihood from fishing, finding plenty of fish and crab in the sea, planting
coconut trees, with tigers and snakes being the only danger. The grandmother
migrated from Perlis and did not speak a word of Thai, while the grandfather
settled in Setul and used to be a nakleng, a local strongman. They have nine
children who shuttle between Sarai and Langkawi. The grandfather recalls that
fishermen had to depend on the forces of nature. But now, the cultural crisis in
Ban Sarai has hit the family as two of the sons died in their twenties from
heroin. More than four-hundred families try to make a living in Ban Sarai, and
most of the families live a hand to mouth existence and do not know how to
pay the costs for the motorized small boats. Being members and citizens of the
Thai state, their children are registered in Thailand, attend Thai primary school
and are eligible for military service. Their daughters and sons move back and
forth between Ban Sarai and Langkawi, benefiting from the uncertain,
ambiguous space in the sea and the geographical proximity of Langkawi, lying
just south of the Thai border.
One of the striking features of Muslims from Thailand is their effort to
become as Malay as possible by emphasising kinship ties, emotional bonds,
language and religion. But in a move for a better life, Muslims from Thailand
aim to become Malaysian citizens in order to settle down in Langkawi and to
make a livelihood from fishing. In the last decade or so, Muslims from
Thailand have begun to settle down on the periphery of Langkawi. In
Kampung Serat on the island of Pulau Dayang Bunting at the back of
Langkawi the new settlers are easily detectable, living in wooden shacks
which have been hastily constructed either on the coast or in the water,
helpless against the intensive heat of the sun. The established Malaysian
households which tap rubber live in ancient stone houses on the hill with
beautiful fenced gardens on carefully prepared roads with street names, all
signs of state-led local development.
On a closer look, many established families in Serat trace their origin to
southern Thailand. In between the established and the newcomers of the
village, settlers try to assimilate themselves by building stone houses (or solid
wood houses) to look ancient. The most recent wave of outsiders is confronted
by a strict immigration regime. A broker who, having obtained Malaysian
citizenship rights much earlier, and established an intimate relationship with
the local district officer, abuses the precarious status of new settlers. This
broker uses his privileged position to apply for forty invented relatives and
their households from Ko Bulon in Amphor Muang Satun to settle down in
Kampung Serat. The Thai-Malaysian broker buys a dozen used Thai
motorized fishing boats from Krabi, registers them in Malaysia and lends them
to the new labour recruits who, working without wages, are in debt to him. In
the process of application for the new documents, the newcomers depend
heavily on the good will of their broker, who uses his position in the
borderland to recruit cheap labour, thereby accumulating wealth on their back.
Communication between the newcomers and the established families in the
Kampung is minimal, with some newcomers not able to converse freely in the
Malay language. Due to their precarious position, the parents neither register
their children nor send them to primary school. That way, the children grow
up as illiterates in Malaysian society. Non-obedient clients are easily deported
back to Thailand. The newcomers take on odd jobs in the village, including
cleaning the school, gardening in the established houses, doing all the rubber
tapping, minding children, etc. The broker invests his profits in a resort hotel
in Bulon Island back in southern Thailand. For the construction, the
maintenance and the management of the resort, he again makes use of his
relatives’ cheap labour. In fact, the role of the broker provides a striking
example of the changing role of kinship relations in the borderlands in a
context of rural poverty and socio-economic inequality. Kinship relations in
that context are used for exploitative purposes. However, the example shows
that state regulations can be moulded to their own interest by those who live in
the borderlands.
In places such as Ko Sarai or Ko Bulon, it is not difficult to trace kinship
relations. While Malaysian regulations require a kin connection to obtain a
local identity card, there is ample room to invent kinship relations and to make
up relatives by the (bilingual) broker who prepares the papers. The newcomers
are hardly at ease with Malay culture, Malay language, Malay bureaucrats or
Malay teachers. The only characteristics which they share with Malaysian
villagers are fishing skills and Muslim prayers. Nonetheless, the prospect of
rich fishing grounds and a sustainable income is sufficient motivation for
impoverished households to bear the role of ‘aliens’. The meaning of
Malaysian citizenship cannot be more arbitrary for Thai villagers who are
regularly travelling home and who are so much more comfortable in their
home setting. However, settlement in Langkawi, even in an inferior position,
is a rare and precious opportunity for social mobility not to be missed by
marginal fishermen. Once settled, the Thai households can benefit from
shuttling between Thailand and Malaysia, trading Thai nets and fishing
equipment or smuggling Thai merchandise. They may even act as brokers for
other fishermen who want to fish illegally in Malaysian territory. The game
goes on.
The Ethnic Thais in Northwest and Northeast Malaysia
The Thai minority in Kelantan has long interested cultural anthropologists
(Golomb 1978; Kershaw 1969, 1980, 1982, 1984; Yusoff 1993). Ismail
Yusoff’s study of the social organization and cultural reproduction of a
Buddhist temple in Kelantan illustrates the strong attachment and deep
involvement of Thai-Malaysian villagers in Theravaddha Buddhism (Yusoff
1993). Yusoff, who prefers the English term Siamese (from the Malay word
Orang Siam), shows that Theravada Buddhism is essential to guarantee the
persistence of Thai ethnicity in an Islamic stronghold, and that the continuing
regulation and management of Theravada Buddhism serves as an ethnic
boundary marker to other ethnic groups. He argues that the Buddhist temple in
Kelantan acquires special meanings and orders, which distinguish it from
temples in Thailand. Golomb’s dissertation, published in 1978, concludes that
the ethnic Thais in Kelantan occupy a niche and have become brokers of
morality in relation to the rural Malays. He argues that the Kelantan Thais are
accentuating cultural and ethnic boundary markers such as Theravada
Buddhism, their role as healers, their practice of magic, gambling and raising
pigs. The study of Kershaw on local politics complements this perspective on
the ethnic niche of the Kelantan Thais, who balance their alliances between
the rural and urban Chinese and the rural Malays to cope with fears of
economic dispossession and growing Islamization. The growing racial
tensions on the east coast of northern Malaysia have not resulted in an assault
on Theravada Buddhism.
Border-crossing trips to Thailand are associated with much joy and
excitement. Young women and men use the border pass to cross the Thai-
Malaysian border without much bureaucratic effort. Although owners of the
border pass are allowed to stay in Thailand for six months, young people
hardly stay longer than a few days and sometimes return in the same evening.
Young people cross the border to Thailand to participate in entertainment, to
eat Thai food or to buy bottles of Thai beer. They return with cheap Thai
merchandise, pop music and magazines.
The Thai have long been regarded as an inferior race, just like the Sam Sam
discussed earlier. In contemporary Malaysia, Thais have the reputation for
being alcoholic, criminal, poor, illiterate and stubborn. In addition, in the
context of rapid Islamization of Kelantan, the Thai environment is seen as
ritually dirty and religiously polluted. Thus, dogs which come from a Thai
Buddhist village into Malay spaces are chased away. This has not always been
the case. The Thais consider themselves indigenous settlers, sons of the soil.
The first prime minister of Malaysia, Tonku Abdulrahman, was a product of
Siamese marriage politics in Kedah. His mother, a daughter of King Rama IV,
was a Thai, and the first wife of Chayo Praya of Saiburee, Sultan
Abdulhammed of Kedah. She donated land for a Buddhist temple which bears
her name and symbolizes Malay-Siamese relations in the old days.
Thai citizenship can be acquired in a number of ways when birth is registered
in Thailand. Not least because so many Thai prostitutes are married to local
Thai-Malaysian men, Thai citizenship can be arranged in neighbouring
Narathiwat province. As large numbers of Kelantanese Thai have kinship ties
with Takbai Thais, Thai citizenship can be acquired by registering birth in
Thailand or by inventing kinship ties. In addition, Kelantanese Thai who
worked on Nikhom state schemes in Naratiwat have obtained citizenship
rights. While for the Sam Sam, the acquisition of citizenship in Malaysia is
increasingly difficult, the Kelantanese Thais use the legal situation of the Thai
state to their advantage.
Teaching Thai cultural identity in Malaysia
The borderland: Scene 4
We meet at a checkpoint on the Thai-Malaysian border in Sungai Golok with a
Thai teacher, a Thai official and a Thai-Malaysian student from Kampung
Bang Sae in Kelantan who is studying Thai in the programme of the Songkla
Foundation. We are heading for Wat Utamara in Bang Sae, housing the chief
abbot of Kelantan. In Bang Sae, we begin to talk with Thai youth about Thai
identity in Kelantan. The Foundation supports the reproduction of Theravada
Buddhism and Thai traditions in Malaysia, tackling Thai youth in particular.
The Thai teacher (from Isan), a volunteer of the foundation, is on good terms
with the village youth and engages the boys in Thai boxing. In the evening, the
girls perform a Manohra dance for which they had several weeks of training.
The visitors are welcomed with a Thai Wai (traditional Thai greeting) and
some enthusiasm. The girls ask the visitors for their opinion of the Manohra
dance, especially its authenticity. They tell us that they are collecting money
for the Kelantanese Thai-Malaysian association from wealthy temples to buy
Manohra costumes instead of borrowing them from southern Thailand.
Buddhist monks play a special role in northern Malaysia. In addition to taking
care of the religious matters of the community, they teach the Thai language.
As teachers, materials and books are lacking, the Thai community depends on
the temple not only for religious purposes, but for the reproduction of Thai
cultural identity at large. In addition to religion and language, monks teach
Thai customs and Thai manners. The reliance on the monks is due to the fact
that few people are prepared to become a Thai teacher. Little money from the
Thai consulate is forthcoming. In Bang Sae, the Thai school is linked to the
training centre for Thai Malaysian youth. As attendance at Thai lessons is low
and limited to children and youth, the level of Thai literacy does not extend
beyond the elementary level. Not only does the Thai community lack Thai
teachers but it also increasingly lacks its most important cultural capital,
monks. The solution to the dilemma is to bring monks from Thailand,
resulting in further intensification of border-crossing networks.
It is not uncommon in contemporary Kelantan to find temples deserted,
because there are simply not enough monks to staff the vacant temple
positions. On the other hand, there are some extremely wealthy, well staffed
temples, contrasting markedly from the one-hundred year old temples. Bang
Sae is a big village near the Golok checkpoint. In the centre of Bang Sae lies
the spectacular temple of Wat Utamara. The large Wat is a postmodern
bricolage which integrates architectural styles and symbols from Thai, Chinese
and Indian worlds and beliefs. Wat Utamara houses the chief abbot of
Kelantan. The temple has visitors f om Thailand, from Khota Baru, but also
from Johore and Singapore and the dormitory can easily welcome fifty guests
at a time.
Rupture and disjuncture in Thai everyday life
The factors which are responsible for the fragmentation of everyday life are
the isolation of Thai villagers in the Malay world, especially of the youth, and
lengthy periods spent outside the village. Young people are increasingly
dissatisfied with life in the village, the monotonous and hard labour in the
fields, the low earnings, and, most of all, the boredom of village life.
Migration of Thai villagers to Singapore is increasingly attractive to Thai
Border-crossings to Singapore are highly regulated and immigrants are subject
to massive government disciplining which includes health-checks and skill
examinations. The labourers who are employed by Chinese enterprises must
undergo regular health checks. In Kelantan villages, young men who are
engaged in physical, stressful labour are often addicted to drugs, which are
now readily available in Thai villages. Although they try to participate in the
Sonkran or Loykratong festivals where possible, in order to share the
excitement or to find a Thai spouse, young men spend much of their life
outside the village. Lately, Thai youth have become the subject of discourse
on the moral values of the Thai in Malaysia. Parents complain about the
refusal of young men to robe as monks even for the shortest Lenten period
which is seen as the status passage to adulthood. The refusal to submit to the
regime of the temple is seen as a threat to the reproduction of Thai ethnicity.
Thus, the young men who focus their lifestyles on desire and consumption are
seen to jeopardise Thai traditions. Their habits of drinking, prostitution and
drug addiction add to the stigmatization of Thai you

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