Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Paradox of Histories

Selective interpretations of history have allowed both the government and the separatists to claim rightful ownership over the south. Students waiting for school in front of the reflecting Pattani Mosque - 2005.

A conventional historical narrative of the contested southern region might start with either the Islamic Sultanate called Pattani (roughly the current Thai provinces of Pattani, Narrathiwat, Yala, and Satun) or the kingdom of Siam (Thailand).

But to properly understand how the deep south has multiple, and seemingly logical, claims of rightful ownership a brief understanding of pre-colonial governance is far more valuable.

Before the Europeans arrived the paradigm of territorial governance in Southeast Asia had little, if any, resemblance to today’s world of demarcated nation-states.

The concept of a border that would sharply divide one polity from another polity was not used but a system called mandalas existed.

Each mandala was a circular ring of political influence – not territory – that emanated from each kingdom.

The mandala system was ambiguous, almost unconcerned, with territoriality. What was important to the various kingdoms was the allegiance of surrounding settlements and allegiance, demonstrated through ritual tributes, of smaller kingdoms that existed within a more powerful kingdom's mandala.

The sultanate of Pattani was in a tributary relationship with the more powerful Siamese (ethnic Thai and political Thailand before 1941) kingdom in Bangkok.

The tributary relationship meant that Pattani demonstrated allegiance with tributary gifts to acknowledge that the Siamese mandala exercised its power over the region but Pattani was not part of Siamese territory and was still a sovereign Islamic sultanate.

The complication and confusion surrounding Pattani’s sovereignty or subjugation to Siam began when the colonial British began to squeeze their colonial possessions of Burma and British Malaya into the European nation-state mold.

For what had once been ambiguous and irrelevant – territory – was to become specific and extremely relevant.

In order to make a nation-state a border must be drawn on a map and that country’s governance is extended to that geographic border.

What the British, and later the French, ended up doing while mapping Malaya, Burma, and Indochine was to, by default, also draw modern day Thailand into existence.

Because of Pattani’s tributary status the British and Siamese determined that the far south would be a part of Siam.

Despite Pattani's 80% Malay-Muslim population it became a rather awkward appendage of a Thai-Buddhist country.

Because the traditional mandala was non-territorial and the modern nation-state is specifically territorial there is no easy answer whether the south should or should not be part of Thailand.

From the rhetoric of both the Thai government and the separatists it is obvious that selective interpretations of history are employed to bolster each side’s claims to sovereign right.

Yet the paradox of the European idea of spatial governance replacing the older mandala system is that both sides can be simultaneously right and wrong in their claims of ownership.

And, if there is such a historical catch-22, the opposing claims over the deep south's history will never be resolved through history.

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