An Extraordinary Event of Ordinary People Part 2

 

Part 2: The hidden messages from the people

The fund-raising tea party organized by the supporters of Pondok Jihad on 19 March 2016 in Yaring District, Pattani Province was attended by approximately fifty thousand people, and collected nearly four million Thai baht in one day. The party goers numbered more than two percent of the entire population of the conflict area, which is less than two million. The amount of money donated in baht was almost double the number of the local population. How could this event attract such a large number of people, and accordingly succeed in collecting such a huge donation? The most important reason, in my opinion, lies in the fact that the event had a strong connection with a pondok school. (For details of the event, see Part One of this article here

The number of people who attended the event and the amount of money donated can be interpreted as a message from the local people to the pondok system in particular, and to the religious leaders in general in the region of Patani.

The pondok is a traditional school system found all over the Malay world which has existed for centuries. In other places, a pondok-like schooling system is called different names, such as ‘pesantren’ in Java, ‘dayah’ in Aceh and so on, but basically these are the same system. The word ‘pondok’ itself means a hut which is set up by the students in the vicinity of the school to live in. Therefore, a pondok school is basically a boarding school with student-built huts scattered around the house of the headmaster, called ‘tok guru’ (master), colloquially called in Patani ‘babo’ (father). In general, a pondok school is built in a community where access to schooling is extremely difficult. The local community invites a well-known Islamic scholar (ulama) to establish a pondok in their community. In other cases, the pondok itself attracts a number of people, and the students decide to stay near the pondok even after they have finished their education. Then the community surrounding the pondok may develop into a village. Whatever the case, a pondok inevitably has a strong connection with the community surrounding it.

Traditionally, almost all pondok schools were not for commercial purposes. It was extremely difficult to find a headmaster who became wealthy from his institution. The fees for pondok schools were close to nothing, and the cost of living was very cheap too. The students were allowed to set up their own huts in the vicinity free of charge, and they brought rice and other food, such as vegetables and dried fish, for instance, from their homes. The headmaster might have another occupation, as a farmer, for example, to make a living, or might live partly on donations from local people. For these headmasters, teaching was a religious duty as an intellectual, and the majority followed a very frugal lifestyle. For this reason, the headmaster of a pondok was highly revered by the local people, and among the most important religious leaders in the region.

Apart from being the centre of the community, especially in the context of Patani, the role of the pondok has been important as a bastion of the Malay language. Textbooks used in pondok schools are called ‘kitab’ (or ‘kitab kuning’), mainly written in Malay using the jawi script (a writing system adopted from Arabic script with five additional letters). The main language of instruction is Malay too. In the traditional pondok schools in Patani, there is hardly any place for the Thai language.  

Thus the pondok schools are regarded by the Malay Muslims in Patani as their own school system, where, in face of the strong and persistent efforts by the state to achieve cultural assimilation, their religious and cultural identity is still preserved. This must be the most idealistic form of education system for the Malay Muslims in Patani, capable of fulfilling their spiritual and cultural needs.

However, traditional pondok schools are currently in a dire situation, with numbers decreasing year after year. It is thought that if your schooling is limited only to pondok schools, you have very little chance to prosper in Thai society. This problem has caused more and more parents not to send their children to pondok schools, preferring more practical school systems. As a consequence, the majority of pondok schools have chosen to transform themselves into private Islamic schools.

In the media, this type of school is still generally called ‘pondok’, but there are clear differences between the traditional pondok schools and the newly transformed private Islamic schools.

Private Islamic schools still teach many religious subjects, by having two sessions (one in the morning and the other in the afternoon), one of which is allocated for academic subjects and the other for religious subjects. But the teaching of religious subjects is no longer as intense as in traditional pondok schools where very few academic subjects are taught. On top of that, the introduction of academic subjects following curricula prepared by the state means the introduction of Thai as the language of instruction, as well as the modern school year system. In traditional pondok schools, students can stay in the school almost for ever, until they are satisfied, as there is no registration system.

One of the biggest changes accompanying the transformation from traditional pondok schools into private Islamic schools is found in the finance. When a traditional pondok school becomes a private Islamic school, it is eligible to receive financial support from the state according to the number of the students (currently at the rate of 12, 000 baht per head). This financial incentive has commercialized many schools, who now compete with each other in the hunt for new students. So many administrators of these schools become far richer than their predecessors when these schools were still traditional. Now they live in big houses with luxurious cars, whereas most headmasters of traditional pondok schools use a motorbike or a dilapidated used car. In many cases, private schools have become the family businesses of the school owners.

Compared to government schools with their very limited range of religious subjects, this type of private school seems like a solution to an educational problem, so that the pupils can learn both religious and academic subjects. This is true, but there is a problem of achievement. The achievement of private Islamic school students in academic subjects has never been as good as in government schools, and their achievement in religious subjects has never been as good as in traditional pondok schools. This is partly due to how the government subsidy is spent, since it is not always channelled to improving the quality of education, but, for instance, purchasing school buses.

In Patani, government schools have been seen as the agency used by the state to implement the aggressive assimilation policies of previous governments. Up until the 1990s, Malay pupils were forbidden to speak Malay in schools. Speaking their own language might lead to punishment, either physical or financial (such as a 1 baht fine for each Malay word). This is the reason why at the initial stage of the conflict a lot of schools were set on fire and burnt down.

Under these circumstances, it is only the pondok system that can fulfil the religious, spiritual and cultural needs of the Patani Malay Muslims, and the event on 19 March was the expression of the local Malay people’s grave concern about the fate of the pondok system itself. This is the only system which was established by the Malay people without any interference from the state, run by the Malay people and functioning as a reservoir of the Malay cultural, ethnic and religious identity.

However, as was explained, the system is not geared for the pragmatic aspects of society, such as finding jobs, social advancement, etc.  The event itself might be interpreted as a wake-up call from the local people for the pondok school system to evolve, not into private Islamic schools which can easily be commercialized or integrated into the ideology of the state, but into a modernized institution preserving the original Patani Malay identity, which still can fulfil the religious, spiritual and cultural needs of the local people. This interpretation is not so far-fetched if we look at the purpose of the fund raising event. The donation, apart from buying a small piece of land and building a house to accommodate the evicted Waemano family and mending the old mosque, will be used to set up a community learning centre.

Generally speaking the pondok system has been regarded as old-fashioned, disorganized and non-progressive, where efficiency is always neglected. In one sense this is true. Nevertheless, from other perspectives, the system can also be interpreted as highly sophisticated.

Financially speaking, the traditional pondok schools have been far more accessible to local people than government schools or private Islamic schools which cost parents or guardians a lot of money. Therefore it is the only system which does not depend on the financial status of the family, and accordingly provides equal educational opportunities for all.

Each pondok school has its strength in a certain subject, such as Islamic law, theology, philosophy, the grammar of Arabic and so on. When the students of a pondok want to learn other subjects, they are usually sent to another pondok school whose headmaster is famous for the subject. In this sense, the pondok has been extremely flexible; the modern school system has just begun to apply this system under the name of ‘credit transfer’. But in the pondoks, there is no credit system. Therefore inter-institutional learning has been very common.  

Not only is there no credit system, there are no formal examinations or certificates in the pondok schools either. Their absence might be regarded as regressive by some so-called ‘progressive’ education specialists. However, this allows flexibility in learning. For instance, students can leave a pondok whenever they feel they have learned enough. When they have family problems or troubles, they also can leave the school very conveniently, and when the circumstances allow, they can equally easily go back to school. Although in the pondok schools, there is basically no testing system based on writing, the students are encouraged to write, for instance, sermons for the Friday prayers. And if they want to leave the pondok formally, they need to pass an oral examination by the headmaster, which is no less challenging than a viva voce in modern universities.

Given such sophistication, the possibility for pondok schools to be modernized in accordance with the wishes of the local people should not be dismissed. The pondok school system has survived for many centuries because it has been the most suitable education system for the local people. This aspect should be taken into the consideration by state education policy-makers too.  

Apart from its links to the identity of the local people, the fund-raising event was the very first occasion in which a pondok school has ever clearly stated a political standpoint. Since the latest wave of violence emerged in 2004, pondok schools have been viewed by the authorities as an institution of indoctrination by the insurgents. This suspicion led to the detention of a number of pondok teachers and headmasters (in this context, the word ‘pondok’ refers to both traditional pondok schools and private Islamic schools), as well as other religious leaders including imams.  

Under these circumstances, the safest way for pondok schools and teachers has been to keep as silent as possible, distancing themselves far from the current situation or any political movement. For the sake of safety, such attitudes are understandable. However, for the local people, the role played by religious leaders, including the headmasters and teachers of pondok schools, has never been satisfactory. The local people do need somebody who they really can rely on, and their first choice is the religious leadership. But the religious leaders, instead of behaving as the guardians of the local people, have kept an enigmatic silence for more than a decade. Only a very few vocally and eloquently speak up for the rights of the local people.

In order to understand the conditions under which the local people have to live their lives, let me take an example told by a government officer (an experience of the officer’s relative).

This happened in a remote village in one of the ‘red zones’ (areas under the strong influence of the insurgents). Very early one morning before dawn, the relative of the officer was on a motorbike alone, on his way to his rubber plantation. He saw an unknown Malay man cutting a tree by the side of the road to block it, and another man was scattering spikes on the road. These are the precautions taken by the insurgency before an attack on the security forces. Noticing the relative of the officer, these men approached him on a motorbike and told him not to tell what he had just witnessed. “Otherwise”, one of them said, “you know the consequence.” After that he returned home without even trying to get to his plantation. A few hours later, news about a nearby military encounter spread among the villagers. The next day, he was visited by the security forces, and condemned by them for being ‘not co-operative’. He told a lie that he had been sick for a few days to the extent he was unable to go to his plantation on the day. But it was not enough to satisfy the officers. According to them, he should have reported the insurgents’ movements in his village. He might have done so, if he could be confident that the security forces could guarantee his security. Before leaving him in safety, the officers told him that if the same thing happened in the future he would be arrested as a sympathizer.

In the case of the Pondok Jihad, the standpoint of the Waemano family and their supporters has been clear and coherent. And when they are ready to speak up for their rights, the support from the local people is enormous, as this is exactly what the local Malay Muslim population in Patani has waited and longed for. And the support intensified when the state tried to influence religious leaders into releasing a statement to encourage the family to solve the problem by following the suggestions of the state, as well as to condemn the NGOs supporting the family for causing a disturbance. As we already know, the statement totally backfired.

Here, the enormous support for the fund-raising event is not only support for the declining pondok system itself, or support for the family, which has been facing pressure from the state, but also an unprecedented reaction from the local people when a pondok clearly states its political standpoint, even though it is at variance with what the state wants them to do.

This reaction should be seriously taken into consideration by the religious leaders who have been, at least superficially, indifferent to the current situation. The local people do not want to see them take sides. Or, to put it more clearly, the local people don’t want religious leaders to support either the state or the insurgents, because ordinary people are always pressured from both sides. What the local people want to see is religious leaders who take their side in order to protect them, or, at least, to reduce the pressures felt by the local people from both sides. The apathy or indifference shown by the most religious leaders so far has disappointed the local people. When they see religious leaders behave on behalf of any side, especially the state, it only damages their credibility and authority. They should play a more active part in voicing the problems faced by their people. Otherwise, their generally attractive life style shall be interpreted as the fruit of their collaboration to the state, at the cost of the local people.

On the other hand, the state, especially the local security forces in the fourth region, should not wield power to influence religious leaders so that they behave as the state wants. Instead, they should respect the opinions and views of religious leaders in solving problems, because they are among the most well-informed about the situation. However, when the state tries to approach them with guns in their hands, the religious leaders might resort to silence, which has successfully protected them, but is apparently of no use at all in the conflict solution.

As long as the state and the security forces regard the event on 19 March 2016 only as a sign of defiance, they will remain very far from an effective solution to the armed conflict which has claimed more than 6000 lives. There are so many lessons to be learnt from the latest development related to the tea party, which was an extraordinary event of ordinary people.