Advances in Anthropology
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 161-168
Published Online August 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 161
There Are ponoks, and There Are ponoks: Traditional Religious
Boarding Schools in Thailand’s Far-South*
Kee Howe Yong
Department of Anthropology, McMaster U ni v e rsity, Hamilton, Canada
Email: yongk@m
Received May 23rd, 2012; revised June 26th, 2012; accepted July 10th, 2012
There has been a vast corpus of literature on Islam and Muslims since 9/11 that sought to locate the basis
of Muslimness in some primordial essentialist cultural value. Since then, many Muslim religious boarding
schools in predominantly Muslim countries in South and Southeast Asia have been policed and raided.
This essay, based on fieldwork conducted in Thailand’s far-south, hope to provide a different picture from
what has commonly been portrayed about the ponok (traditional Muslim schools), as rigidly strict and pi-
ous or as the playground for radical Islam. What concern me are the lives and livelihoods of the ponok
students should the fear about Islam continues unabated, or when these children have no idea why they
are being sought after or whose interests they are serving.
Keywords: Thailand’s Far-South; ponok; War on Terror; Violence; Muslims
The Bush administration unilateral declaration of a global
war on terror comes with a clear binary choice: “Either you are
with us or you are with the terrorists”—shaping the discourse
that is largely based on the threat of a political enemy, imagi-
nary or exaggerated (Schmitt, 1996)1. The political enemy is
also indeterminate in the sense that they are never given any
formal or legal channel to surrender. Words like militant, ex-
tremist, terrorist, Islamo-fascist, and so on have since become
the lexicon for talking about the indeterminate enemy. In many
ways, the discourse on the war on terror is predicated on a tru-
ism of a certain cultural and political theory which goes some-
thing like this: the more modern (Westernized) a society be-
comes, the more its religious tradition decline or, at best, pri-
vatized. In such a view of historical development, there is a
“myth” in the sense described by Roland Barthes (1972), pre-
cisely not in the received sense that it is false, but obscures are
the well springs of religiosity running through all societies,
including the West2.
The goal of my essay is modest. I want to follow the position
taken up by Mahmood Mamdani (2002) and others that such
binary way of framing the issue has fueled “culture talk” that
often ended up offering cultural explanations of political out-
comes that tend to avoid certain history and issues. In the case
of Thailand’s far south, I am referring the effects of the long-
standing state assimilation policies and the current conflict on
its diverse Muslim communities. Moreover, by equating politi-
cal tendencies with entire communities defined in cultural terms
it also encourages collective discipline and punishment (2002: p.
767). What is equally crucial, as Talal Asad (2003) points out,
is not an analysis on the origin of binary representations of
so-called secular and religious societies itself but “the forms of
life that articulate them, the powers they release or disable” in
the concatenations of “the new concept of ‘religion’, ‘ethics’,
and ‘politics’” (2003: pp. 2-7). Such culture talk could very
well be called a “leveling crowds” discourse, to borrow the
term coined by Tambiah (1996), targeting the diverse Muslim
communities in Thailand’s far-south with antiterrorist rhetoric,
in essence, treating Muslimness as an object of criminality. The
focus of this essay is on the effects of the current war on terror
on the ponok (traditional Islamic boarding schools) in the far-
Summarily labeled as the bastion of religious conservatism,
most Muslim religious boarding schools—(madrasah, ponok
(pondok) or pesantren)—from Kandahar to other designated
Muslim sites have been accused as contemporary “dens of ter-
ror” or potential “jihad factories”. They have become one of the
metaphors for Islamic extremist religiosity the so-called West
has to confront with, becoming singularly the most dominant
metaphor for evil. In predominantly Muslim countries in South
and Southeast Asia such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia,
and Malaysia, as well as at Thailand’s far-south, many Muslim
religious schools were policed and raided. In many instances
some were forced to close. Following the Bali bombing in 2002,
Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin was one of the first leaders
in Southeast Asia to jump onboard the global war on terror,
unleashing its security forces on a hunt for alleged Islamic
militants/terrorists in its far-south. Meanwhile, the rest of its
*The research for this essay was supported by grants from McMaster Uni-
versity Art Research Board and the Can adian Social Sciences and Humani-
ties Research Council.
1Coming from Karl Schmitt (1996), the very concept of the politicalis
redicated on the existence ( fabrication) of an enemy. One coul d argue that
the Bush administration’s post-9/11 interventionist posture toward the Mid-
dle East represents a longstanding United States bellicose foreign policy.
Before there is Terrorism, there was Communism. And just as the threat o
Communism was wildly exaggerated 50 years ago, the current war on terror
is in practice an American war (including its allies) against a largely imagi-
nary set of enemies. See, also Bradley (2008); Khalidi (2009).
2For a review of the unprecedented upsurge in popular and voluntary religious
ritual, as sociati on, and o bservatio n in co ntemporar y Asia an d elsewher e, see
Hefner (2010). For Africa, see Comaroff and Comaroff (2003). For the rise
of religious fundamentalism in the United States, see Crapanzano (2003).
3The local pronunciation for these traditional Islamic boarding schools in
Thailand’s far-south is ponok (and not pondok as they are called in other
arts of the Mala
ASEAN member countries were curiously silent about Thak-
sin’s bloody campaign as they too were likewise engaged in
their own anti-terror campaigns.
At the same time we have witnessed the proliferation of a
vast corpus of literature—many of them bestsellers—on Islam
and Muslims that sought to locate the basis of Muslimness in
some primordial essentialist value that is a menace to civilized
life and humanity; an antithesis to the so-called modern neo-
liberal ethics, serving Samuel Huntington and those that fol-
lowed in his wake a way of essentializing the Muslim world of
its diverse subjects, and thus legible4. To be sure, the hysterical
global mainstream media is adding more fuel to the fire with
their spurious claims about terrorists and terrorism5. Written in
the context of rising fascism in Germany, Carl Schmitt’s phi-
losophical reflections deserve our full attention:
When a state fights its political enemy in the name of hu-
manity, it is not a war for the sake of humanity, but a war
wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a universal concept
against its military opponent. As the expense of its opponent, it
tries to identify itself with humanity in the same way as one can
misuse peace, justice, progress, and civilization in order to
claim these as ones own and to deny the same to the enemy…
The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological
instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humani-
tarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism… It
would be more exact to say that politics continues to remain the
destiny, but what has occurred is that economics has become
political and thereby the destiny” (1996 (1932): pp. 54-78).
Even though Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1998) that
demonized Islam in its entirety has been increasingly discre-
dited, it had been replaced with a modified view that terrorists
are predominantly link with Wahabi Islam—never mind its
ludicrous interpretation of Wahabism. This view claims that
Wahabism, predominantly from Saudi Arabia had been ex-
ported to Afghanistan, the United States and elsewhere in re-
cent decades (Mamdani 2002: p. 766). Since then Muslims all
over the world have not only been increasingly essentialized
but also “Arabicized” and radicalized. It is as if Allah is making
a comeback, albeit in a very post-modern ecumenical way, so
much so that our imagination and understanding of Islam have
been increasingly restricted to a few religious lexicon, attire (as
in the fullfaced niqãb by Muslim women), and gender segrega-
tion. What is missing is the pluralism of Muslim politics, its
diverse and competing visions of Islam and nation among the
Muslim world (Hefner, 2002). In fact, many traditional ulamas
in Southeast Asia have also, unhelpfully, if not incorrectly,
accused the revival of modern Islam as a form of Wahabism
and extremists6.
Lost in the midst of all the paranoia about Islam and Muslims
is the economy of the war on terror—the enormous profit for
the producers of arms, private security industry, surveillance
technologies, and kickbacks given to government and political
elites. Let us not forget that the world was still reeling from the
East Asian financial crisis of 1998 when the war on terror was
declared—which demonstrated in no uncertain terms the vul-
nerability of a global financial system that was operating with
almost no legal and institutional checks and balances. In many
ways, the war on terror can be seen as a godsend to many lib-
eral-economic capitalists in both developed and developing
world, manifesting, among many things, the development and
expansion of an anti-terror industry. Thus enter another chapter
for the “international community”, the crepuscular west to con-
tinue to give lessons in good management and good behavior to
the rest of the world. It is like the Cold War all over again, with
Western military hardware and intelligence, economic aids and
assistance (read gifts) to the rest of the world to curb the spread
of terrorism7. It should also be clear that despite all the sound
bites and talk of mutual partnership and assistance, the power
differentials between donor and receiving countries of such
gifts in the war on terror are painfully real. In some cases it is
not entirely clear if the donors are working for or against the
receivers’ intere sts .
Internal Colonialism
The most recent layer of aggression against the Muslims in
Thailand’s far-south—whether social, economic, political or
religious—had roots in the monarchical tradition of Thailand.
Back In 1906, in an effort to avoid being colonized by Western
imperialists, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) signed a treaty
with both Britain and France and pursued a policy of moderni-
zation (read “internal colonialism”) through which the entire
kingdom, including the Malay far-south was consolidated under
a policy of centralized bureaucratization and administration
(Wan Kadir Che Man 1990)8. A series of stringent assimilation
6The term Wahabismhas often been misappropriated in Southeast Asia since
the beginning of the twentieth century. During that time, a group of Kaum
uda progressive ulamas gathered in the Straits Settlements (Penang, Ma-
lacca, and Singapore) to set up their modern madrasah and to launch their
ournals. They were deeply influenced by the writings of Egyptian reformist
Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida that Islam is a religion of the intellect
and reason; that the time has come to free themselves from the shackles o
superstition, chauvinism, and outdated traditional practices that were neither
Islamic nor rational. One of their modus operandi was to free themselves
from the slave mentality of the colonial order. For all that, they were con-
demned by many traditional ulamas as bei ng Wahabi. At the same time, the
aum Mudamovement was also growing in Indonesia, being led by the
uhamadiyah movement that pioneered modern Islamic education that
included the hard and social sciences. Likewise, they were also accused o
being Wahabi. In this respect, the modernists of are no different from the
aum Mudageneration, who likewise condemned the belief in shamans and
witches. See, Farish N oo r (2007).
7Thinking along with Nietzsche, the centrality of the gift, according to
Deleuze and Guattari (1983), is not exchange and circulation but rather,
inscription. The gift violently inscribes, it writes, and it records on bodies,
and on debts.
8With the Anglo-Siamese treaty, Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and parts o
Kedah was ceded to Britain. In return, the British recognized Siamese au-
thority in regions situated north to the ceded territories that include Patani
(“Patani” with one “t” is used here to denote the former Malay sultanate
comprising the present-day Malay Muslim majority provinces of Pattani,
Yala, and Narathiwat), Satun and Trang (see Nik Anuar Nik Mahmud,1988;
Suwannat hat -Pian , 19 88).
4In the famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, Samuel Huntington (1998)
declared Islam as enemy number one of the West. See, also, Andrew
McCarthy (2010) The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage
merica, and Dinesh D’Souza (2007) The Enemy at Home: The Cultura
eft and Its Responsibility fo
5In the span of sixteen years that bracket September 11, one before and the
other after the event (Oklahoma Bombing of 1995 and the Norway massacre
of 2011), what you get is the instant, knee-jerk politically motivated racist
suspicion by leading American and Europe an news organizations—The New
York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the BBC, The
Financial Times, and a wide range of television and radio stations, website,
blogs, etc.—that publicized derogatory allegations about Islam before any
facts was officially announced. It was as if any heinous crimes have to be
committed by a Muslim when in both cases the culprits—American Chris-
tian fundamentalist Timothy James McVeigh and Norwegian Anders
Behring Breivik—were white, blonde, and blue eye. Recently US congress-
man Peter King—on the hearings of the “radicalization” of the American
Muslim community—refused to widen the scope of the hearings to include
other, non-Muslim terrorism threats.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
policies were to follow. In 1929 Bangkok insisted that Islamic
family and inheritance laws be codified into Thai which, if
successfully implemented, could be interpreted by its Muslim
subjects as usurping the sacred ground of the shariah—the
moral code and religious law of Islam—and establishing Thai
as the language of Islam (Surin, 1985: p. 136).
With the military takeover by General Phibul Songkram in
1938 and the desire to distinguish ethnic Thais from its ethnic
minorities, the kingdom name was changed from Siam to Thai-
land. With it, a series of ultra-nationalist initiatives were im-
plemented that affected not only the Muslims but also other
minorities. The notorious Thai Custom Decree (Rathaniyom)
imposed Thai “modern” behavior and dress on the minorities,
and an allegiance to the trinity of Thai’s nation, king, and Bud-
dhism became the cornerstone to Thai patriotism. Following
World War II, the King of Thailand was established as the pa-
tron of Islam following the Patronage of Islam Act and the
creation of the Chularajamontri (or Shaykh al-Islam), the Cen-
tral Islamic Committee of Thailand under the Minister of Inte-
Since the 1960s ponoks were forced, through legislation, to
register as “Private Schools Teaching Islam” and to teach, be-
sides religious subjects, the Thai national curriculum (Madmarn,
1989). As if to add salt to the wound, the Thai government
constructed several mosques in the far-south with their minarets
resembling the Buddhist lotus flowers (Surin, 1988, cited by
Joll, 2011: p. 41). All these efforts resulted not in the state hav-
ing more but less control over its Muslim subjects as the num-
ber of exodus who pursued Islamic education in the Middle
East and South Asia increased dramatically. To be sure, the
exodus coincided with a range of global developments that
have often unhelpfully been bundled together as “Islamic re-
surgence”—with its genealogy to the Iranian Islamic revolution
and Shi’ism on the one hand, and the countering of it by the
newly acquired economic power of Saudi Arabia in the form of
Wahabism, on the other hand.
The Muslims in the far-south, with its cultural and language
dissimilarity with ethnic Thais have historically resisted the
legitimacy of these legislations. However, in doing so, they
provided plenty of pretexts for the state to accuse their resis-
tance, especially since the late 1940s, with charges of separa-
tism (baeng yaek dindaen) (Chaiwat, 2006). It is important to
note, as Thai scholar Thanet Aphornsuvan points out, following
Thongchai (1994), the idea of equating Malay Muslims in the
southern frontier provinces with separatism is an invented
“fact” of modern Thai political history that assumed “a prior
existence of a territorially geo-body with its fixed borders and
culturally unified Siamese nation-state borders” (2008: p. 91)9.
Moreover, in becoming the discursive language in the manu-
facturing of the proverbial others, charges of separatism vio-
lently homogenizes and cuts, metaphorically speaking, the Ma-
lay Muslims in the far-south of its diversity. For decades, Bang-
kok has tried to set the terms and narratives for dealing with
separatism in the southern frontier Muslim provinces. But it has
since been taken over by events beyond its control. Since the
1940s, Thailand’s Muslim far-south have become a hotbed for
separatist movements, added life to the specter of separatism
that the state helped to create. Since then cases of Muslim se-
paratism have erupted in the far south and continued throughout
the 1960s to the 1980s as part of the region-wide phenomena
that included the Moros in the Philippines, the Shans, Karens,
and Rohingyas in Burma, and the Acehnese in Indonesia.
Moreover, separatism might proved to be an inescapable fact in
lieu that the far-south is one of the poorest and backwater re-
gion in Thailand (Chaiwat, 2009).
It was also at this period that armed separatism in Thailand’s
far-south was at its height until the government ceased its as-
similation policies when General Prem Tinsulanonda came into
power (1980-1988). Various concessions were made to the Thai
Muslims: permission to register their Muslim names, the wear-
ing of niqãb in government institutions, Muslim prayer rooms
at strategic public venues, including the parliament building,
state sponsored Haj, and permission for the establishment of
Islamic banking. The Prem administration also started negoti-
ating amnesty deals with separatist organizations as well as
with the Thai communist parties. Compared to what came be-
fore the 1980s, the Prem period, though itself might sound
cynical, was, relatively speaking, a semi-spring of freedom for
the Muslims in Thailand. However, if indeed that was a period
of relative peace in the far-south, the absence of any serious
attempt to explain the revival of recent violence, together with
some kind of explanation for incidents of unnecessary deaths
and injustices remain an important barrier to an understanding
between the government and the diverse people of the far-south
(Chaiwat, 2008).
Although Thailand’s far-south have been relatively quiet
since the mid-1980s under an atmosphere of “corrupt peace”, to
use the poignant phrase invoked by political scientist Kasian
Tejapira (2006), renewed near-daily attacks began to emerge
and became a major concern following clashes between militant
Malay Muslims and government forces on April 28, 2004 at the
historic Kru Se mosque. Since then, more than 5000 lives have
been lost, close to 10,000 injured, and allegations of abuses tar
all sides of the conflict10. So here we are at the year 2012, en-
tering the eighth year of the conflict. Seven years of drawn out
near-daily bombing and shooting in these Muslim provinces of
Thailand far-south has seen the establishment and institution-
alization of a “peace industry” so far-reaching that it stretch
from Bangkok to Hatyai to Pattani to Yala and back to Bang-
kok and beyond. We are now hampered by conferences and
agreements, roadmaps and conditions that create a thicket of
red tape. Layer upon layer of superficial “process” obscures the
path forward, which is why we are standing quite still.
Dek ponoks (ponok Boys and Girls)
It is against such historical background and the current para-
noia surrounding Islam that I met a fifteen years old Malay
youth whom I shall called Nar (short for Nararuddin) at the
border town of Sungai Golok in the province of Narathiwat.
This is one of the most violent sites in the far-south. Like many
10Quantifying deaths has become as important as the quest to give meaning
to the violent. Like other violent sites, such politics of conflating the number
of deaths not only work to give an impression of surging violence but is also
needed to classify the far-south as a site of mayhem, perhaps to satisfy the
need of so-called experts on terrorism. Some counter-insurgency experts
have even cl aimed it is th e most intense insu rgency after Iraq and Afghani-
stan (see, for example, D. Kilcullen, 2009: p. 121). Ironically so, if the
politics of number and its corresponding labeling of violent have arrived, the
treatment has no t.
9Thanet goes on to argue that “… the cost of historical ignorance and amne-
sia about the origins of separatism in the South is to prolong and tacitly
approve of poor studies of modern Thai political history”, resulting in the
often polarized conventions of criticizing the state of its handling of the
Malay Muslim south and supporting the rights to self-determination on the
one hand, and those conditioned by their loyalty to the state and Thai na-
tionalism , on the other
. 92
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 163
other boys and girls in the far-south, Nar went through the tra-
ditional Islamic boarding school. In fact, Nar is currently en-
rolled in a prestigious madrasah across the river in Kota Bahru,
the state capital of Kelantan, Malaysia. This is the religious
seminary boarding school manage by the son of Niz Abdul
Aziz bin Haji Nik Mat, better known as Nik Aziz, the spiritual
adviser and leader (tok guru) of the Malaysian opposition party,
Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. Nik Aziz is also the Chief Minis-
ter of the state of Kelantan.
I still remember the day I met Nar. Sporting a tight fitting
dark jean and a black Metallica t-shirt, wearing sunglasses and
smoking under the hot sun, it did not occur to me that Nar was
a dek ponok. He was quick to point to me that he only smoked
when he is back in Thailand and not at the prestigious madrasah
where he is currently enrolled. In fact he learned to smoke dur-
ing his ponok school days mostly because, like many dek po-
noks, they were bored out of their minds. Nar tells me they
would rather be playing soccer or the local favorite, sepak tak-
raw11 rather than to be inside the classroom, much like any
other schoolchildren at our so-called modern secular schools.
According to Nar, the ulamas and ustazs at his ponok were fully
aware of students smoking, with traces of daun roko (leaves of
rolling tobaccos) or cigarette butts everywhere. The only thing
they cannot tolerate was for students to smoke in their presence.
I would say the ponok is more “liberal” than the elementary and
high schools I went through if the only restriction the dek po-
noks have to observe is restrict themselves from smoking in
front of their teachers.
That was what I witnessed when Nar brought me to his po-
nok located somewhere in Pattani where the standard fare of
religious subjects ranging from the Qur’an and Hadith, reli-
gious law (fiqh), exegesis, ethics and morality, as well as
mathematics, geography, and history were taught. Not only
were there traces of cigarette butts on the floor, I even saw
some dek ponoks smoking in between classes. Eager to make
contact with the stranger, they threw Nar a series of questions,
“Bang dari mana? Apa nama? Buat apa di sini?” (Where is
uncle from? What’s his name? What is he doing here?). As
soon as I gave them the standard replies, I was bombarded with
other queries. Calling me “Ajand” (Thai for professor or
teacher) they asked what it is like living in North America,
what is it like having snow, do we have tsunami, do we have
ponoks, and so on. Muhammad 1 and 2 playfully asked if I am
FBI. And like any boys, they would giggle or laugh loudly, and
screamed almost hysterically when the subject of the opposite
sex is brought up. Soon Ustaz Sulaiman came for me to give a
tour of the girls’ section of the ponok, a gendered space totally
cut off from the other half where the boys are. I noticed it was
much cleaner but just as noisy.
As we were heading back to the boy’s section, young Ibra-
him 1 and 2 tagged along and joined the other dek ponoks who
were sitting on a bench underneath a tree. They listened atten-
tively as Ustaz Sulaiman and I were conversing in a clumsy
creole (Pattani and standard Malay) or more accurately, as
Ustaz Sulaiman waxed about the glory days of the Patani king-
dom—and that was not the first time I have been introduced to
their selective remembering of their history, their midwives of
history—as if he seemed ever so inclined, like many others I
have met, to return to a certain nostalgic past in order to escape,
albeit momentarily, the squalid realities of the present. When it
comes to the subject of history taught at ponoks, as my conver-
sation with Ustaz Sulaiman have shown, the glorious history of
“Patani” was the main emphasis as opposed to the Thai Bud-
dhist-centric history.
When asked, most of these dek ponoks would tell me they
were at the ponok to get an education. Besides, their parents,
brothers and sisters went through the same system, which pro-
mpted Ustaz Sulaiman to declare: “This is tradition. The po-
noks have coexisted harmoniously with the community for a
very long time.” He paused for a few second before reemphasi-
zing his point, “We never forget we are part of the community,
partly because we are all equally poor”. It is true that being one
of the poorest and backwater parts of Thailand, the ponoks is
still the cheapest place for an education. There is a certain bond
between the ponoks and its communities. This was a kinship built
upon being poor, about pain, loss, love, humiliation, and sur-
vival. I have often asked myself, why can’t the authority get it?
When it comes to smoking, Ustaz Sulaiman brushed aside
my question as there were bigger issues like joblessness, alco-
holism, drug addictions, and the recent upsurge in violence and
the militarization of their lives. And of course, there was the
kratom phenomenon, the consumption of kratom leaf that has
become a major concern not only in rural but also urban dis
tricts in the far-south12. Many of the Muslims I worked with,
including some ustazs and ulamas, were concerned that kratom
consumption is getting worse with the absence of law enforce-
ment officer in the region since the unrest, especially after sun-
set, after the maghrid prayers. They call it the “hours of the
guerrillas” (waktu geriya) when the other side takes over. Kra-
tom has recently become a lucrative business, in part help by
the unrest as soldiers stationed in the area have become not
only regular customers but even as “protectors” of the illegal
business (Anusorn, 2010).
What I saw at this particular ponok is a rather different pic-
ture from what has commonly been portrayed about ponoks, as
rigidly strict and pious or as the playground for radical Islam.
Similar to Farish Noor’s observation of the madrasahs he vis-
ited in Afghanistan, Pakistan , Kashmir, Ja va, Bali, and southern
Thailand (2009), while it is impossible to deny that militant
groups might have infiltrated some of the ponoks in Thailand’s
far-south to recruit young members, one should not generalize
that making bombs and shooting guns is part of their standard
curriculum. As the title of this essay alluded to, “there are po-
noks, and there are ponoks”. The arrival of the current wave of
horror, perhaps even to claim these playful children who are
still oblivious to what has reemerged, reminds me of Shahla
Talebi’s recollection about the terror during the Shah and later
Islamic regime in Iran, “this contaminating power of violence
and money, of the way they both often spoil whoever or what-
ever comes their way” (2011: p. 11). This brings me to the story
of another ponok.
Ponok Islam Narathiwat
Located somewhere in Narathiwat, Ponok Islam Narathiwat
was one of the largest ponoks in the far-south—home to the
headmaster, teachers, ulamas, ustazs and their respective fami-
lies, and close to seven hundred dek ponoks. The government
12Kratom leaf (Mitragyna Speciosa) is classified in category 5 of the Nar-
cotics Acts (1979), in the same category as cannabis and magic mushrooms
(the least punitive category). As an addictive substance, it is illegal to pos-
sess, distribute, sell, or consume kratom. But the law was not effectively
enforced since the tree is indi
enous to the countr
11Sepak takr aw is a popular sport not only in Thailand but Southeast Asia. It
uses a rattan ball but, unlike volleyball, players are only allowingtheir feet,
knee, chest, and head to touch the ba ll .
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
has since closed it down in July 200713. What initially gave the
government to lay all sorts of trivial accusations or crimes on
this particular ponok was that two of its ustazs and two of its
male students participated in the infamous Tak Bai demonstra-
tion. On Oct. 25 2004, a group of local Muslims that include
women and children were protesting at the Tak Bai district po-
lice station in the province of Narathiwat to demand the release
of six youths arrested on the ground that they may have some
links with some mysterious militants operating in the area.
Witnesses and other reports diverged on what happened when
the armies were called in to help control the crowd. Videotapes
showing clashes between Muslim youths and the soldiers were
banned. The confrontation quickly escalated into violence, re-
sulting in several deaths among the demonstrators. When the
soldiers were eventually in control of the crowd, hundreds of
young male demonstrators were order to strip off their shirts,
and with hands tied behind their backs, were forced to lie on the
ground under a very hot day. And this was during the Ramadan.
They were then made to crawl on their bellies to the waiting
trucks. Piling on top of one another, packed like livestock, they
were driven off to the main army detention facility in Camp
Ingkayuthaborihaan in Pattani province, some five hours away.
When the truc ks arrive d at th e camp, 78 more men were dead—
apparently from suffocation or were crushed in the trucks. To
this day, the army and the government have rejected all claims
of malfeasance during the violence or even errors in transport-
ing the demonstrators.
To be sure, the frustrations of the majority of the Muslims
towards the state was exasperated by the most recent coup in
Thailand’s contemporary history14. In 2006, the military go-
vernment that ousted Thaksin, then acting prime minister Sura-
yud Chulanont traveled to Pattani town (and not to Tak Bai) to
issue an apology and reparations to some families of the dead,
and the (laughable) dropping of the charges of 92 demonstra-
tors who survived the horrifying journey to the army camp.
Initially, most Malay Muslims I spoke to conceded that it could
bring some hope and thus, their moral imperative to forgive,
albeit paradoxical, before justice arrives15. After all, the general
who led the coup is a Muslim and the interim government did
signal a willingness “to talk.” But such hope has si nce dissipated.
As in the past, the interim government resorted to the establish-
ment of loosely regulated armed proxy groups to work along-
side paramilitaries to flush out so-called Muslim extremists.
Invoking Hannah Arendt’s reflections that rage arises “when
there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and
are not”, did the latest coup created “an imaginary of hope” that
quickly turned into rage? (1969: p. 63). If so, what kind of ex-
planations could one offer for the surge in violence? Could rage
be seen as potentially a productive analysis of identity, one that
led to political awareness and activism? Could they be seen as
spontaneous action to injustice, one that acts in order to trans-
gress the “law”, the “law” that has become an empty signifier to
the Malay Muslim communities at Thailand far-south? It may
help to ask, along with Carolyn Nordstrom (2004) observation
of violent sites in parts of Africa and Sri Langka, could one live
on justice alone in any chaotic and violent atmosphere? Indeed,
does the State or the “law” matters to the lives and livelihoods
of its subjects in these dire situations. The answer was poign-
antly reflected by the following respond from the owner of a
street vendor. At his home located next to the old mosque in
Pattani, he told me, in a tone more of cynicism than contempt,
“Here nobody is afraid of the law. We are only afraid of the
police”. He also commented on the drug situation and corrup-
tion by quoting a common rephrase: “If you are caught with the
possession of narcotic drugs, with money they will turn into
Five years after the Tak Bai incident, under the pretext of a
state of emergency, the judiciary handed out a “not guilty”
verdict on the army personnel’s handlings of the protests and
the transportation of the demonstrators. Obviously that did not
sit well with many local Muslims. This phrase by Hanisah, one
of the many mak pasar (open-air market food vendors) I worked
with, pretty much sum up their feelings about the verdict,
“Thailand has two states. One for Thais, one for Muslims”. To
be sure, the Tak Bai incident has become a political imbroglio
for the government and the insurgents are using it as a recruit-
ing tool.
Coming back to Ponok Islam Narathiwat, the headmaster,
Puan (Missus) Shafikah and her ustazs and ulamas all strike me
as welcoming, jovial, and hopeful when I first met them to talk
about the fate of their ponok. But beneath the measure tone of
our discussion lays a deep and sinister view about their ponok
and what the future holds, if any, for their dek ponoks. Puan
Shafikah tells me how frustrated she would get each time she
ran into the parents of her dek ponoks as she could not offer any
reassurance when their children could return to school. Puan
Shafikah and her staff could still remember the sarcastic smiles
of the police officers when they came to arrest two of her stu-
dents and two ustazs for participating at the Tak Bai demon-
stration. Shafikah reminded me that that was the time when not
taking part in the protest was itself an anomaly. Immediately
after the students and ustazs were taken away, the first question
they asked as they begin their interrogation was the financial
situation of the ponok. To be more specific, they wanted to
know how did the ponok manage to operate when it was only
charging a meager 150 bahts per student per term. Puan Shafi-
kah tells me that the police officers were either playing dumb or
they must have not done their homework. As she puts it across
to me, “Everyone here knows that most, if not all ponoks re-
ceived some form of financial assistance, whether they came
from the Middle East or from local elites who prefer to remain
16Many ordinary Malays and Chinese I met confided to me that it is not
uncommon for ponoks to receive contribution from local elites and busi-
nessmen but these transactions cannot be “broadcasted” for fear of getting
into trouble, especially under the prevailing paranoia in the far-south. In fact,
I have come a cross several ponoksi n Pattani that d o n ot charge a n y t ui tion at
all. All the parents need to do is to pay for the books and stationeries for
their children. Besides, it is not even a public secret that ponoks and many
local NGOs in the far-sou th are funded by sources from the Middle East. In
fact, Thailand’s first Islamic University, the Yala Islamic University was
sponsored by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, Saudi-
ased Islamic
Development Bank, the King of Qatar, the King of Kuwait, as well as pri-
vate donors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. See,
Joll (2011: p. 49).
13Despite my attempt of not revealing the real identity of this particula
onok, it should be obvious to most Malay Muslims in the far-south which
onok I am referring to.
14There have b een eighteen at t e mp t ed a nd successf ul coups in Th ai l and since
it changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
See, “Thailand: The Calm before Another Storm?” Crisis Group Asia Brief-
ing, No. 121, 11 April 2011.
15According to Hannah Arendt (2005), there is always the paradoxical and
ethical tension with forgiveness in that forgivers can be deservedly criticized
for failing to remember the injustices they had endured—and remem
lies, if not vengeance, at least an unwillingness to let go of the desire fo
vengeanc e. See, also, Giorgio Agamben (2005).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 165
After the headmaster’s refusal to divulge any financial infor-
mation, more police officers arrived that day to search the po-
nok. And the raid continued for months, usually unannounced.
In less than a week after the first visit, the police made a hor-
rendous accusation that the ponok was a bomb factory because
of the presence of some gas tanks. With their hands up in the air
to express their exasperation, Puan Shafikah, the ulamas and
ustazs point out to me that it was a horrendous accusation.
“How else are we going to cook our food?” the headmaster
asked before continuing, “This is a ponok. We live here. Those
children. They lived here, studied here, slept here, washed their
own clothes, they cooked here”. One of her ustaz added, “They
received their nasihat here”17. Later on, the police officers
dropped their initial accusation but insisted that the gas tanks
could potentially be used as bombs. Through a series of unend-
ing accusations, the headmaster, ulamas, ustazs, and some stu-
dents were interrogated and to this day the charges against them
was still pending in case the government decided to enforce it.
Besides these interrogations and charges by the police, the
army was eventually called in. To make matter worse, on one
occasion the army dug up some graves at the ponok’s cemetery
in the belief that there were weapons stashed underneath them.
This was not only a sign of disrespect but also a violation of
Islam (for that matter, any religion), something that not only
enraged the folks at the ponok but also the entire Muslim com-
munities in the area. In fact, the news reverberated throughout
the three Malay Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Nara-
thiwat in the far-south. The army never found any weapons in
the cemetery but that did not prevent them from staging further
raids. It got worse. On one of those raids, they ordered every-
one to evacuate the compound while they did their search. Sure
enough, it was during this particular occasion that the army
managed to come out with the recovery of illegal weapons. The
locals were not amused by it at all. This is a common rephrase I
often heard when they lament about their disposition: “kalau
kerajaan tak adil, hidup tak senang” (if the government is not
fair, life will be difficult).
The last straw happened when the army arrested some stu-
dents at an abandon tadika (kindergarten) and they also dug out
several graves. After that, the ponok was closed and with its
closing, not only have the state created a situation of jobless-
ness for the headmaster, her ustazs and ulamas (and their re-
spective families who lived with them) but also left all the dek
ponoks without a school, a home and a community. Many folks
at the surrounding area were worried that with the closing of
the ponok their children would become mat lepak (young and
idle), and indulge themselves in drugs, alcohol, gangsterism,
and kratom.
Not too far from the ponok, the owner of a teashop, Hamid,
asked me why it is only now that the government believes the
ponok is preaching hate. Why not in the past? Besides, as he
puts it, “These mysterious militants, whatever you want to call
them. They are the minority. And they are killing not only state
agents but also ordinary Muslims. They don’t represent us but
we are being blame for their violence”. Hamid’s lament re-
minds me of Tambiah’s “leveling crowd” discourse I men-
tioned earlier. In targeting the diverse Muslim communities in
Thailand’s far-south with antiterrorist rhetoric, Muslimness has
become an object of criminality.
As we smoked and listened to his songbirds, a convoy of
General Motor pick-ups and humvees raced past, bearing men
in various uniforms: counter insurgency units, jungle police,
paramilitary, paratroopers, and kratom military commandos/
users. I asked Hamid if some top brass is visiting the nearby
camp, to which he responded, with sarcasm, “Yeah, it sure look
like it. But this kind of display, this show of force is biasa
(normal). We are used to it, checkpoints, army garrison, what
have you. Biasa”. While he was feeding one of his songbirds
with a special kind of banana, he gave me this half smile and
said, “But such show of force is only for the daytime. Have you
ever seen them after dark at the military checkpoints, unless
they want to be lame ducks? Day and night is a different world
around here. One is waktu askar (the hours of the army), the
other is waktu geriya (the hours of the guerillas)”. Faosee, who
has been very quiet the entire afternoon, interrupted Hamid and
asked, “Are we kon Thai or not? Can we be kon Thai without
being Buddhist?” I think he is saying why can’t Muslims be
Thais without being culturally Thais. Faosee suggested we
should get going. It was getting dark.
By Way of Concluding
As anthropologists we should be aware of some of the issues
surrounding the usage of culture. Maurice Freedman (1975)
once pointed out that culture, and here I may add religion, are
not like homogeneous substance with the power to spread like
butter, but that is how Muslimness and Islam in Thai’s far-
south and elsewhere seems to be presented: as a pattern of
seepage, of slow over-spill. Freedman points out that there is a
tendency to look for order and concurrence once we use these
words, blinding us to all its ambiguity, movement, and com-
plexity; and, in the case of the war on terror, focusing on a col-
lection of stereotypical values and behaviors that have been
made into this fearful fantasy in the war on terror.
Lately, all across the world, even among Muslim majority
countries in Southeast Asia, the governments seem to be ob-
sessed with the threat of Islamic terror. Lost in humanism at a
time in history when we insist on the outer binary signs of in-
ternational conflicts are the inner struggles and suffering of the
people, each taken individually, who are the unbreakable core
of what really matters. In the case of Thailand and elsewhere,
the fact that ponok schools, like so many other religious board-
ing schools, were more than conduits of religious education,
that they also maintained a wide range of social and economic
functions was never really appreciated nor understood by the
authority, both historically and in the contemporaneity of the
war on terror (Madmarn, 2003; Narongraksakhet, 2005; Liow,
2009). Since 9/11, “jihad factories” or “dens of terror” thus
described the intended, the metaphoric, and the symbolic func-
tion of the ponok, obscuring other possibilities these terms
might entail. With the heightened surveillance and/or closing of
several ponoks in the far-south, and thus depriving many of a
source of affordable education, many of these dek ponoks were
either forced to seek other alternatives in getting a decent edu-
cation or dropped out of school altogether.
Of those who dropped out, many became entangled with all
sorts of delinquent activities, including the possibilities of being
recruited by militants. And of course, much to the encourage-
ment of their parents, many Muslim youth escaped from the
violence by doing the thirty days visa-hop to Malaysia, only to
17In Arabic, nasiha is a central concept in Islamic moral theology. Among
many things, nasiha is a morally corrective discourse, one that signifies
giving advice for someone’s good, integrity, honesty, and doing justice to a
situation (Asa d, 200 3).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
end up being exploited at Tom Yum restaurants. But like the
ponoks, these restaurants, perhaps because they were operated
by Malaysian Malays, and thus Muslims, were accused by the
Thai authority as being complicit with the current insurgency,
of donating part of their revenues to the insurgency (see, Hel-
bardt, 2011). It seem like the generalization did not stop with
the ponoks.
But perhaps the main reason why the far-south is now ripe
for the recruitment of angry young Muslim men and boys is the
underlying poverty and the neglect it has suffered for so long,
whose scars run deeper than what is visible. Many Muslims are
fed up with talks about development and all the benefits of
mega projects that have not trickled down. They would often
refer to these so-called development projects with the acronym
NATO (No action, talk only).
But more importantly, the peril of the longstanding assimila-
tionist politics are laid bare, and the cost of the denial of coe-
velness to the Malay Muslims as historical agents in Thailand’s
far-south is high. And just to make their point, some govern-
ment elementary schools were burned by those who have
turned their back to dialogue because they were never listen to
in the first place. These are a bunch of angry, frustrated, and
disenfranchised youth who were being both held captive and
absence in the narrative of the discourse on the war on terror. In
my mind, to miss this is to misrecognize the puzzle to the
whole equation as to what is happening to the far-south, that
quaint little war that hardly, if ever, makes any headlines in
international news coverage, let alone in their own country. It
seems to me the answer is there, but the question has yet to be
asked. And this is really what concerns me, the lives and future
livelihoods of these dek ponoks and their teachers should the
fear about Islam continues unabated, or when these children
have no idea why they are being sought after or whose interests
they are serving. These are the local faces of the war on terror.
Agamben, G. (2005). The time that remains: A commentary on the
letter to the Romans. In P. D. Stanford (Trans.), Stanford: Stanford
University Press.
Anusorn, U. (2010). We love “Mr. King”: Exceptional sovereignty,
submissive subjectivity, and mediated agency in Islamic Southern
Thailand. Ph.D. Thesis, Washington DC: University o f Washington.
Arendt, H. (1969). On violence. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovano-
Arendt, H. (2005). The tradition of political thought. In J. Kohn (Ed.),
Arendt, the promise of politics (pp. 58-59). New York: Schocken.
Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, moder-
nity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Chaiwat, S.-A. (2006). The silence of the bullet monument: Violence
and “truth” management, Duson-nyor 1948, and Kru-Ze 2004. Criti-
cal Asian Studies, 38, 11-38. doi:10.1080/14672710600556411
Chaiwat, S.-A. (2008). Untying the Gordian knot: The difficulties in
solving southern violence. In J. Funston (Ed.), Divided over Thaksin:
Thailand’s coup and problematic transition (pp. 96-109). Singapore:
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Chaiwat, S.-A. (2009). Imagined land? The state and southern vio-
lence in Thailand. Tokyo: Research Institute for Language and Cul-
tures of Asia and Africa.
Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. (2003). Ethnography on an awkward scale:
Postcolonial anthropology and the violence of abstraction. Ethnog-
raphy, 4, 147-179. doi:10.1177/14661381030042001
Crapanzano, V. (2003). Imaginative horizons: An essay in literary-
philosophical anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983) [1972]. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism
and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota
D’Souza, D. (2007). The enemy at home: The cultural left and its re-
sponsibility for 9/11. New York: Broadway.
Freedman, M. (1975). An epicycle of Cathay or the southward expan-
sion of the sinologists. In R. J. Smith (Ed.), Social organization and
the applications of anthropology (pp. 302-332). Ithaca: Cornell Uni-
versity Press.
Hefner, R. (2002). Global violence and Indonesian Muslim politics.
American Anthropologist, 104, 754-765.
Helbardt, S. (2011). Deciphering Southern Thailand’s violence: Or-
ganisation and insurgent practices of BRN Coordinate. Ph.D. Thesis,
Passau: University of Passau.
Huntington, S. (1998). The clash of civilization and the remaking of
world order. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Joll, C. (2012). Muslim merit-making in Thailand’s far-south. New
York: Springer.
Kasian, T. (2006). Toppli ng Thaksin. New Left Review, 39, 5-37.
Khalidi, R. (2009). Sowing crisis: The Cold War and American domi-
nance in the Middle East. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kilcullen, D. (2009). The accidental guerrilla: Fighting small wars in
the midst of a big one. New York: Oxford University Press.
Liow, J. (2009). Islam, education and reform in Southern Thailand:
tradition and transformation. Singapore Ctiy: Institute of Southeast
Asian Studies.
Madmarn, H. (1989). Pondok and change in South Thailand. In R.
Scupin (Ed.), Aspects of developments: Islamic education in Thai-
land and Malaysia (pp. 47-92). Bangi: ATMA, Universiti Kebang-
saan Malaysia Press.
Madmarn, H. (2003). Secular education, values and development in the
context of Islam in Thailand: An outlook on Muslim attitudes to-
wards Thai educational policy. In S. F. Alatas, L. T. Gh ee, & K. Ku-
roda (Eds.), Asian interfaith dialogue. Perspectives on religion, edu-
cation and social cohesion (pp. 66-77). Singapore City: Centre for
Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA).
Mamdani, M. (2002). Good Muslim, bad Muslim: A political perspec-
tive on culture and terrorism. American Anthropologist, 104, 766-
775. doi:10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.766
McCarthy, A. (2010). The grand jihad: How Islam and the left Sabo-
tage America. New York: Encoun t e r Books.
Narongraksakhet, I. (2005). Pondoks and their roles in reserving Mus-
lim identity in Southern Brder Provinces of Thailand. In U. Dulya-
kasem, & L. Sirich ai (Eds.), Knowledge and conflict resolution: The
crisis of the border region of Southern Thailand (pp. 70-128). Nak-
hon Sri Thammarat: Walailak University.
Nik, A. N. M. (1988). Anglo-Thai relations, 1945-1954. Ph.D. Thesis,
Hull: University of Hull.
Noor, F. (2007). Pathans to the east! The development of the Tablighi
Jama’at movement in Northern Malaysia and Southern Thailand.
Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27,
7-25. doi:10.1215/1089201x-2006-040
Noor, F. (2009). Qur’an and cricket: Travels through the Madrasahs of
Asia and other stories. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
Nordstrom, C. (2004). Shadows of war: Violence, power, and interna-
tional profiteering in the twenty-first century. Berkeley, CA: Univer-
sity of California Press.
Surin, P. (1985). Islam and malay nationalism: A study of the Malay-
Muslims of Southern Thailand. Bangkok: Thai Khadi Research In-
Talebi, S. (2011). Ghosts of revolution: Rekindled memories of impris-
onment in Iran. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Thanet, A. (2008). Origins of Malay Muslim “separatism” Southern
Thailand. In M. Montesano, & P. Jory (Eds.), Thai South and Malay
North: Ethnic interactions on a plural peninsula (pp. 91-123). Sin-
gapore: National University of Singapore Press.
Thongchai, W. (1994). Siam mapped: A history of the geo-body of a
nation. Honolulu: Unive rsity of Hawaii Press.
Schmitt, C. (1996) [1932]. The concept of the political. Chicago: Uni-
versity of Chicago Press.
Suwannathat-Pian, K. (1988). Thai-Malay relations. Traditional intra-
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 167
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
regional relations from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centu-
ries. East Asian historical monographs. Singapore City: Oxford Uni-
versity Press.
Tambiah, S. J. (1996). Leveling crowds: Ethnonationalist conflicts and
collective violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California
Wan, K. C. M. (1990). Muslim separatism: The Moros of Southern
Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand. Singapore City:
Oxford University Press.