by Benjamin Gottlieb
The deadly, coordinated bombings in the Patani region of Thailand over the weekend – in which 15 people were killed and hundreds injured – reminded Thais fresh off a successful democratic election of the religious and ethnic tensions that persist in the nation's southern provinces.
Since 2004, more than 5,000 people have been killed in the country's enduring conflict in the south, which pits Thailand's ethnic Malay Muslims against the majority Buddhist populous. The high death total has prompted the Thai government to impose martial law in Thailand's Patani region, which today grants military personnel free rein to apprehend and interrogate “suspected terrorists.”
It's all too easy to liken the recent bouts of terrorism in southern Thailand to the broader, global trend of Muslim fundamentalism and extremism. To the uninformed reader, the script looks familiar: a Muslim group – in this case, suspected members of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) – using religion to justify a violent political ideology and disrupt the lives of ordinary, upstanding citizens.
The problem with such discourse, which is propagated by a lack of context in news media coverage of the situation, is that it completely ignores the history of the Patani region and its fight for autonomy. While the Wall Street Journal has provided some good background information, other mainstream outlets (the BBC, Time and CNN, for example) have been far less thorough.
The struggle is, in fact, centuries old. Patani has seen a host of different rulers, from Hindu-Buddhist governance in the early second century, to an Islamic kingdom in the 13th century. It wasn't until the early 20th century that Patani was annexed by what is present-day Thailand. To think of this conflict, as the media persists in doing, as stemming from the early 2000s and the PULO is a gross omission of Patani's historic significance as a crucible of strife.
Also left out of the weekend media coverage was how the Thai government has used the Malay Muslim issue as a political weapon.
Public opinion in Thailand toward the country's southernmost provinces has become a mechanism for racist rhetoric, extending perceptions of Malay Muslims to all Thais living in the south. The Thai Buddhists who live in the region have darker skin than their countrymen in the north and, as a whole, resemble the ethnic Malay population. Although the majority of Thailand's deep south is Malay Muslim, somewhere between 80-85 percent, the region is hardly homogenous.
As acclaimed Buddhist scholar Michael Jerryson wrote in his book, Buddhist Fury, “[I]t is the implicit confluence of Malay ethnicity and Islam that generates an impasse for Malay Muslim acceptance in Thai society.”
For Western news audiences, the notion that Buddhists are the oppressors in Thailand and that the Muslim minority is being oppressed runs counter to deep biases that few in our news media are willing to challenge. It's much easier to depict the March 31 violence in southern Thailand as a product of “Muslim extremism” than to explain an inequitable political system that oppresses thousands of Thai Muslims, the vast majority of whom have no connection to the militancy.
As journalists, we have an obligation not to decontextualize instances of terrorism, like those in southern Thailand, for the purpose of packaging news coverage that is easily digestible. Such distortions will only serve to prolong the life of the self-perpetuating myth that the West is locked in a global conflict against Islam.
Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured in a variety of news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, CNN International, CNN's “Business 360” blog, NBC Los Angeles, KCET.com and the Santa Barbara Independent, among others. He is currently a graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, pursuing an M.A. in Online Journalism, and serves as the Executive Editor of NeonTommy.com — a 24/7 online-only news publication. He is also the art director of InTheFray.org, an online magazine that explores global issues with personal perspectives and critical analysis. An avid backpacker and self-proclaimed troubadour, Benjamin is constantly exploring new ways to tell stories.