Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Thailand : Malays

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Thailand : Malays, 2008, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Estimated population: 5.5 million

Ethnicity: Malay

First language/s: Malay

Religion/s: Mainly Muslim


Ethnic Malays comprise about 5 per cent of Thailand's estimated population in 2007 of 65 million (about 60 million in the 2000 Census). Almost all of them are Sunni Muslims and live primarily in the four southernmost provinces (Yala, Narathiwat, Satun and Pattani) where they constitute more than 70 per cent of the population (and close to 90% in the province of Pattani), near the border with Malaysia, though some live around Bangkok. Their language is a variety of Malay, of the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages, and is closely related to Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. Theirs is one of the country's poorest regions.

Historical context

Some 4,000 years ago, a group of people moved into the Malay peninsula area from what is generally thought to be south China: these are known as the first Malay people - or Proto-Malays. Today's Malays of Thailand are in the main the descendants of a later Malay influx around 2,300 years ago. More advanced technologically than the Proto-Malays, they appear to have come across the sea, perhaps from Borneo. Islam probably first arrived in the region with Arab traders before the tenth century. Islam's progress from this point on accelerated, with the state of Terengganu becoming the first Malay state in 1303. The conversion of Malacca's Hindu prince Parameswara in 1414 (thus becoming Sultan Megat Iskandar Shah) was a milestone in the Islamification of Malaysia.

The Kingdom of Siam was however able to exert at various times some degree of control over the northern part of the peninsula from about the sixteenth century. This for the most part did not directly impact on the Malay Muslim population who were ruled by local leaders. This changed dramatically after 1902, when what was then known as Pattani was formally annexed as part of Siam. Later, Pattani was divided up into the provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. After 1938, Thai authorities adopted policies forcing the adoption of Thai names and the assimilation of the Malay minority by making the Thai language the exclusive language in all schools and government business.

It was, at least partially, as a reaction to these discriminatory policies that the first incidents of violent insurgency against the Thai state appeared from the 1930s onwards. Rebel and separatist groups began to make their appearance, especially after 1948 following a further drive to centralize administration and have Thai officials replace local leaders. It was also the drive by Thai authorities to close down traditional Malay schools in the 1960s if they did not switch to Thai-medium instruction and teach the national secular curriculum which led to the creation of the separatist BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional) by a former headteacher of one of these pondok traditional schools.

More conciliatory policies towards the minority in the 1980s were followed by a marked decrease in the level of violence involving the Malays for much of the 1990s, but promised measures in the areas of the language of education and development did not materialize. The election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2001 was followed by the dismantling of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, which had been set up in 1981 under General Prem. Following these and other measures seen as leading to a centralization of control over the region and a series of broken promises affecting the minority, the level of discontent increased and resulted in renewed insurgent attacks. The ensuing aggressive crackdown by state authorities, and in particular the October 2004 incident in the village of Tak Bai, where 85 Malay Muslims suffocated to death after being stuffed into army trucks, ended up radicalizing new segments of the Malay Muslim society and re-energizing the insurgency.

Current issues

Despite overtures from the new Thai government after the coup of 2006, the situation involving the Malay Muslim minority in the south of the country has not improved much. Killings of Buddhists and government officials continue, as well as attacks and killings of Malay Muslims, including school children in 2007, blamed by some on Thai reprisals and by others on militant Muslim agents provocateurs. According to a July 2007 Human Rights Watch report, separatist groups have killed 2,463 people in bomb attacks, shootings, assassinations, ambushes and machete hackings since January 2004 (89% of victims were Buddhist Thai and ethnic Malay Muslim civilians). The use of strong-arm tactics by the Thai state has reinforced the separatists' claim that the entire Muslim community is being repressed, and has helped them recruit more militants. The government blames Islamic schools for teaching radical Islam, and also blames Islamic radicals in Malaysia for helping the separatists.

The Malay Muslims' demands for greater autonomy and language rights still remain largely ignored. Most government jobs - including teaching positions in state schools - continue to be occupied by ethnic Thais, despite Malay Muslims representing the vast majority of the population in the southern provinces. Many Malays choose to send their children to private Islamic schools or schools outside Thailand rather than to state schools, which continue to use Thai as the only medium of instruction. This is despite a demand to use Malay as a language of education going back to the 1940s. Only after 2005 were recommendations by the National Reconciliation Commission (established to address some of the grievances of the Malay Muslims) to have Malay taught in state schools seriously considered. In 2006, small tentative steps in this direction had started for primary education, but by the end of 2006 they remained largely unimplemented and opposed - often by teachers who are ethnic Thais with no knowledge of Malay. The National Reconciliation Commission had also recommended in 2006 that Malay be made an additional working language for administrative offices in the southern provinces, recognizing that many Malay Muslims were in fact disadvantaged and even excluded from accessing government services - and jobs - because of the exclusive use of the Thai language by government officials. Most of these recommendations have not moved forward since the September 2006 coup, even though this coup was led by a prominent Thai Muslim, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin.

The first general elections following the 2006 coup are planned for December 2007, and, in continuing meaningful negotiations with Islamic separatists Surayud Chulanont's government faces potential political suicide. Any concessions made to the Malay minority, including provisions of more self-governance and local autonomy, would likely not be popular with voters outside the South, most of whom took no issue with the previous administration's hard-line approach and are largely hostile to negotiations that could be interpreted as a prelude to the break-up of the Thai nation.

Malay Muslims also continue to be disadvantaged by the disappearance of mangroves because of the drive to set up shrimp farms in southern Thailand. While some locals are involved, it is large Sino-Thai corporations such as Charoen Pokphand that dominate the industry. Because shrimp farming eventually destroys mangroves, Malay Muslims end up losing areas where they had previously been able to fish or carry on some rubber tapping or mangrove wood extraction. There is Thai legislation to protect community forests that may protect the region's coastal mangroves, and which has been used successfully by Malay communities to halt in recent years at least one shrimp farming project, but in general Thai officials appear reluctant to forcefully address this issue.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld