Islamic college has lessons for the troubled south
A trip to this bastion of religious harmony on the western edge of Bangkok has Andrew Biggs swapping his trademark levity for some serious commentary on a way forward for the southernmost provinces
Thung Khru is a part of Bangkok not usually found on the tourist map, and why should it be?
Situated in the western urban sprawl, it used to be kind of isolated, but now the new western ring road with its giant bridges passes right by it.
"Give yourself two hours to get there _ it's in the middle of nowhere," I was told by my well-meaning staff. Thanks to that giant bridge it ended up taking me 25 minutes, rendering me drinking coffee alone at a nameless Thung Khru petrol station for an hour.
On my first trip out there last week I was reminded a little of the southern suburbs of my own hometown, Brisbane, where we used to say the best thing about it was the highway out. But looks can be deceiving.
Thung Khru is home to a remarkable school. On the surface it looks like just another government high school, with 2,300 students in uniforms of white shirts and tan shorts or dresses.
Its name is the Islamic College of Thailand, and it is the only government Muslim school in Thailand.
Contrary to what you may think based on its name, the Islamic College is not a ponoh college, the types of which we find in the deep South where allegations of terrorist training have been levelled intermittently over the past decade or so.
In fact, what is so intriguing about the Islamic College is its sheer mundanity, in the nicest sense of the word.
This is not an exclusive Muslim domain. Muslim students are in the majority _ but at 55%, only just. This is a school where Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students study side by side under a policy of compromise and conciliation. And it works. I saw it for myself.
There is no issue about headwear. Muslim girls can wear their scarf around their head and the Buddhist girls don't have to.
The Muslims kids fast during Ramadan; the Buddhist kids light candles to mark the beginning and end of Buddhist Lent. Everybody celebrates Christmas because, well, it's kind of fun getting someone to dress up as a fat man and dispense sweets.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and one of those times is in the middle of the school day. So at 12.30pm, after lunch, the Muslim students do just that for half an hour.
This isn't a problem for the non-Muslim students; the Christians get together for prayer, as do the Hindus. The more than 40% of Buddhist students use that time for meditation.
Daily meditation? For half an hour? Can we somehow transport this school into the heart of Bangkok? Can we make this national policy?
That half an hour, by the way, is the only time the Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus are separated. Everything else they do together _ study, play sport, eat and chat one another up regardless of religious affiliation.
Sure, there are fights and boys sneaking off for cigarettes and girls ganging up on others, but these are teenagers, dear reader, not angels. The point is that religion is practised as well as being invisible.
Besides the required Thai, students can learn any of five foreign languages: English, Chinese, Japanese, Arab and Bahasa Indonesia. They are all taught by native English speakers.
The system is so impressive that, in 2006, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited the school and stayed way over the allocated time for her visit, expressing surprise and enthusiasm at the talent and religious harmony found within the grounds.
It struck me, as I sat at the school last Wednesday, that there is hope for the South after all.
Bombs go off on a daily basis in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, the three southernmost provinces of Thailand that so desperately want to separate from this country, for reasons both historical and religious.
Those bombs and machine-guns are insidious in their levels of violence. The targets tend to be teachers, monks and children, suggesting the perpetrators are human in name only.
In the media they are called "insurgents", when really we should be calling them "terrorists". I don't quite know what that is all about; we don't want to offend them?
Any combination of religion and gunpowder is lethal, and in southern Thailand while the violence is relentless it is, thankfully, confined to a specific area. Rarely does it stray out of those three provinces. Hat Yai gets an explosion now and then, but generally whatever is upsetting the locals tends to stay there.
I have been here long enough to witness successive governments crack down on the violence with the help of the armed forces. I have then seen successive governments hoist white flags and announce high-level peace talks with the terrorists, insurgents, whatever.
Nothing works. The South, traditionally a Democrat area, was no less violent under Democrat rule. Pheu Thai isn't making inroads either.
An early Thaksin Shinawatra initiative had the entire country folding paper birds as a sign of peace. For a few weeks it was a national obsession _ fold the birds of peace to show the people in the three southernmost provinces how much we love them.
Millions and millions of the birds were hauled into military planes and dropped over the three provinces. Unfortunately the planes couldn't fly low as originally planned for fear of being shot down by surface-to-air missiles. A miserable failure, and the ensuing litter problem was horrendous, but it was a good idea at the time.
I don't think the answer to the southern problem can be found in paper planes, olive branches or the armed forces. I think the answer lies in the Islamic College of Thailand.
As of this week I am lucky enough to be a part of this establishment thanks to the generosity of the US Embassy, which funds a programme called Access at the school.
Access is a worldwide initiative that provides disadvantaged kids with English education, and three years ago the embassy selected the Islamic School for a very good reason.
You see, within those 2,300 students are 250 boys from the three southernmost provinces who are boarders at the school.
They are here because the violence and carnage makes them unable to go to school at home. Some of them have seen their parents blown to pieces. Others cannot make the trek down the road to school because, well, one of their neighbours might pop them off.
Rural boys who can't be educated can end up under the spell of charismatic terrorists with promises of holding big machine-guns. Instead, these kids are under the spell of charismatic teachers with promises of being fluent in any of six languages, all the while eating, playing and learning alongside kids of other religions.
My apologies to any reader who expected my usual flippant, occasionally amusing views on Thai life that I write every Sunday. It's just that I was struck by how important the Islamic College is not just in fostering education, but in providing a real commitment to solving the problems of the South.
Because those 250 boys are going to return home one day and grow up to be village leaders. Another 250 will replace them, and another, and another. Any chance of peace in the South doesn't rest with our politicians and soldiers. It lies directly in the hands of the Thung Khru kids.
As I took photos with the Islamic College students I watched the jostling headscarves and Buddhist amulets and realised there is hope not just for the South, but for humanity itself.
Sometimes we have to travel to out-of-the-way places like Thung Khru to discover things like that. It certainly makes the journey, be it two hours or 25 minutes, all the more worthwhile.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs