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Penang and the Patani problem

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Georgetown mosque, Penang
30/4 – 2/5/11

AFTER the book launch at the Park Hotel, we sell out of Surfing behind the Wall. It’s an encouraging sign. My friend Iskander takes me to visit the tomb of Habib Nuh al-‘Attas, the famous saint of Singapore. His tomb, once atop a hill, now nestles against a freeway that overlooks the harbour.

Next day Mohamed Nassir and Feisal Marica of the Simply Islam Centre pick me up at the Ba ‘Alawi Zawiyyah. We have lunch with Habib Hasan, who apart from being a tireless worker for inter-faith dialogue, is a keen historian. His generous table is always an interesting mix of guests.

I pick up on some discussions with his nephew, Saleh al-Attas, about the Companions of the Cave.

After lunch I’m whisked off to Simply Islam on 152 Still Road, where I’m interviewed for their webzine, www.muslimBuzz.sg

Mohamed and Feisal have acquired a waqf property for their centre, which offers a mix of adult and madrasah education, Arabic translation and corporate consultancy. They’ve also just opened an e-store, and I check out their literature. I’m kindly given two books, both by Shaikh Hisham Kabbani, whose title Angels Unveiled I read on Voice of the Cape radio.

We chat, as we always do, about a myriad of things. Feisal tells me the fascinating account of a local, who on a recent ‘umrah, was granted access to the tomb of the Prophet (SAW) in Madinah.

This person had reported that all he could do was weep. His tears, he said, were also because of the neglected state of the chamber. The graves were not in a good condition, and it appeared as if the dust and debris from the Prophet’s (SAW) room was being sold to pilgrims.

Later this person had had a dream in which he saw the Prophet (SAW) in full figure. In the dream, the Prophet (SAW) is handing him a bowl of rice. The dream was understood as a request to feed the poor, and Feisal said the man phoned immediately from Madinah to carry out this instruction.

This episode reminded me of an account told to me about a little boy, who after being granted access to the chamber, amazed the guards by emerging with an apple. He said that the Prophet (SAW) had personally given it to him.

As the afternoon shadows start to lengthen, it’s time to rush off to Mendaki, the headquarters of the Singapore Malay Association. Mendaki looks after the wellbeing of Malays in Singapore, and is funded by a small 2% tax paid by Malays to central government.

I’m scheduled to give a talk on the history of the Cape Malays, a topic that fascinates Prof Syed Farid al-‘Attas, Head of Malay Studies at Singapore University. I did a talk on the same topic on my previous visit to Singapore in 2010, and Mendaki wants to put it on record.

As I prepare my presentation, I’m interviewed by the local Malay newspaper, Berita Harian. After my talk I’m whisked off to the airport to catch my flight to Penang. It’s the day before a public holiday, 1 May, and the Air Asia flight is full.

Penang is less frenetic than KL or Singapore. It’s a mellow island just off the Malaysian mainland. Resorts such as Lombok are a short hop from its capital Georgetown, a quaint colonial English town with a Victorian-Moghul style mosque and a Chinese sea-god temple. I’m booked into the Georgetown Hotel, a modern establishment.

The following morning I find myself in a kampong, or village, where I’m scheduled to deliver a seminar to a group of NGO officials about working with the media. It’s muggy, and a ceiling fan languidly circulates the air.

I soon discover that I’m dealing with a difficult situation. My audience is Thai, and I have to talk via a translator. They’re from southern Thailand, and are ethnically Malay (and Muslim). Southern Thailand represents one of the world’s forgotten human rights issues, and I find myself being brought up to speed first-hand.

I’m talking to a group from the Patani province, which is ethnically Malay and 80% Muslim. Patani, once a semi-autonomous Malaysian sultanate, was annexed to Siam in 1902.

A policy of forced assimilation by the Siamese (Thai) authorities after the annexation enraged the ethnically Malay Muslims, who were not Thai, and many of whose family roots were in Kelantan in Malaysia.

Many Patanis, however, did adopt Thai names and the national language, but secretly cultivated their local traditions. Between the 1940s and the 1980’s Pattani separatists staged a series of uprisings, demanding autonomy.

This discontent with Bangkok, I learnt, simmered on today. I was told that brutal counter-insurgency policies by theThai authorities had only served to worsen the situation that had bred several opposition groups, and even a whiff of jihadism.

This brutality had only intensified since 2001 and the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman – who using Bush’s “war on terror” as an excuse to marginilise an opposition stronghold – cracked down hard, even abolishing conflict-management structures set up by previous regimes.

Thaksin was unseated, but continuing political turmoil in Thailand itself, leading to the clashes in 2010 between the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Red Shirts, saw Pattani drifting further off the human rights radar.

I was told that since 2004 about 6,000 Patani Malays had been killed by Thai security forces with extra-judicial killings, rape, disappearance and detention without trial a common occurrence. I learnt that the Thai security forces acted with impunity in the south, and that shockingly, not one member had ever been prosecuted for human rights abuses.

The youngsters I was addressing further told me that Malays were under-represented politically, that their region was the most under-developed and that the Thai authorities were openly belligerent, even towards NGO’s dealing with purely humanitarian issues.

I was told that Thailand was also reluctant to consider Malay autonomy because southern Thailand was rich in as yet untapped resources such as oil and timber.

I have no idea whether I was able to make a positive contribution media-wise – there’s also a language problem in that few Pattanis can speak an international language such as English – but I had to salute these courageous young people fighting a human rights battle out of the limelight.

After the seminar I find myself changing gear back to Palestine, and briefly addressing the musallees at a local mosque. I just have time to catch my breath before readying myself for another function that evening hosted by PRECISE, the Penang Research Centre in Socio-Economics.

I meet up again with Asti, who is its networking executive, and many others whom I fondly remember from my 2010 visit on the Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah tour.

The pro-Palestinian and anti-war network of Penang has joined forces with PRECISE, and I have an enjoyable evening signing books, conducting media interviews and answering questions. By the time I get back to the hotel it’s 2 am.

Next blog: back to KL


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