Language for National Reconciliation: Southern Thailand

Suwilai Premsrirat

Patani-Malay is the language spoken by 83% of people in the four southern provinces of Thailand. On-going violence and political unrest in this area are largely a result of language issues and identity crisis - Malay identity, as reflected by the Malay language used in daily life, is not officially recognised by the government. Compulsory education in the Thai language results in poor attendance and achievement among Patani-Malay-speaking students. They gain few working skills and have limited prospects for higher education and employment. Many fear education is being used to destroy the local language and religious identity. In this article, Suwilai outlines a mother tongue based bilingual education programme designed to help Patani-Malay-speaking children retain their Malay identity at the local level and achieve a Thai identity at the national level.

Introducing the programme
A nine-year participatory action research programme is being conducted by Mahidol University linguists and a Patani-Malay-speaking research team. It covers eight school years, from Kindergarten to Grade 6, with one year of preparation. The programme supports Patani-Malay-speaking children to speak, read and write well in both Patani-Malay and Thai. Patani-Malay is used as the medium of instruction from Kindergarten to Grade 1, so that children gain the necessary skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing in their mother tongue, before learning Thai. Patani-Malay Studies, in which Patani-Malay language is the main component, is also taught throughout primary school. The Education Act allows up to 30% of the curriculum to be locally determined in this way.

The Government now recognises the advantages of mother tongue learning. It introduced a 'Mother Tongue Education Policy' for the first three years of primary education, but currently lacks the resources to effectively implement it. The policy aims to provide mother tongue materials (e.g. translations of the national curriculum) for all 52 local languages spoken in Uganda, but so far they are only available in six. Many teachers also lack training in how to integrate mother tongue and English language instruction.

This is where the Education Action/LABE's project, funded by the UK's Department for International Development, comes in. With a particular focus on girls' and women’s education in Northern Uganda, we are facilitating the development of a range of learning activities and resources in mother tongue languages. The project places language at the heart of our strategy to promote education, and we hope to expand this in future programmes.

Programme objectives

  1. Language Situation Survey - to gather information for programme planning.
  2. Awareness-raising about the benefit of mother tongue based bilingual education. Mobilising partners for the programme activities, e.g., a local research team of academics and village scholars, including four experimental schools.
  3. Develop a writing system for Patani-Malay using Thai-based script, building on academic as well as native speaker acceptance and technical feasibility. This will help children to transfer to using Thai as the main medium of instruction.
  4. Develop a curriculum, using Patani-Malay and Thai as the medium of instruction, which contains more local content, yet maintains educational standards.
  5. Develop teaching materials and graded reading materials in Patani-Malay and materials to support students’ transfer to using Thai.
  6. Recruit and train bilingual education staff: teachers, writers, local culture experts, workshop organisers, etc.
  7. Evaluate learners in the experimental schools and compare with those in other schools.
  8. Build co-operation among governmental and non-governmental funding and technical assistance organisations, influential people in society and the mass media.
  9. Develop and establish a supportive national language policy.


Success to date

"Using Patani-Malay as the language of instruction from Kindergarten to Grade 1 will spare little children from the confusion and fear of having to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue. The change should have been done long ago." School Director, Narathiwat province.

Creating a sense of security
Despite the obstacles, this project has earned the trust and confidence of the local communities. They value the efforts made to preserve their language and culture and to respect their Malay identity in education. They see this as a move towards lasting reconciliation and understanding. Ultimately, they feel more secure in the education system. The future success of the programme relies on the continued support and good faith of all participants. This project lays the foundation for significant improvements in the prospects of the children in the south of Thailand. It is in line with growing awareness that the linguistic and cultural rights of minorities demand the attention of governments and policy-makers, who have a responsibility to preserve and protect such diversity, wealth and heritage from abuse or extinction.

Suwilai is a linguist who works with endangered ethno-linguistic communities on language revitalisation programmes, and is the project director for the Strong Bilingual Education Programme in Southern Thailand. Contact:
Suwilai Premsrirat
Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development
Mahidol University,
Nakhonpathom 73170,

A villager writing a story using Thai-based Patani Malay
A villager writing a story using Thai-based Patani Malay

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