In Thailand’s Deep South, Muhammad Ayub Pathan is empowering the silent majority to speak up for peace in the face of violent armed conflict. By broadening the participation of stakeholders, including women, youth, and both extremes of the conflict, Muhammad-Ayub is enabling communities affected by violence to foster the necessary conditions for initiating and sustaining peace.
The New Idea
Ayub is creating a bottom-up peace process in Thailand’s Deep South, the three southernmost provinces mired in long-lasting violence between an Islam separatist movement and national military forces. Ayub believes that peace can be achieved and sustained only if local communities have a collective voice and can put pressure on all conflicting parties. Instead of waiting for outside experts to propose conflict solutions which often do not match the local context, he builds a bottom-up movement to engage local communities in promoting and sustaining peace. Ayub is facilitating dialogue among local residents, previously silenced by fear of the ongoing violence and by discrimination from central authorities as supporters of terrorism. He has initiated a journalism movement to equip local residents—particularly women and youth—to report their own stories and broadcast them in local media, in both the national Thai language and local Yawi dialect. This is the first time in decades that newspapers and radio stations are available in Yawi, perceived by central authorities as the language of terrorists, but promoted by Ayub as the native tongue spoken by three million Muslims in the Deep South. He is creating a variety of mutually supporting mechanisms to provoke dialogue and develop consensus among citizens at three levels: leaders of conflicting factions, local citizen organizations (COs) and diverse communities at the grassroots level.
As a result of Ayub’s efforts, local citizens have spoken against both conflicting factions and civilian attacks have reduced. Local citizens are more engaged and their perspectives are gaining more media coverage as the Thai government and militant groups are beginning negotiations toward a peaceful resolution.
Ayub is expanding his collaborations to media and citizen sector networks in other conflict zones in Asia. In 2011, he set up a training program for Deep South Journalism School students in collaboration with a major newspaper, university, and COs in Aceh, Indonesia.
Although Thailand endorses Buddhism as the national religion, there is a Muslim minority population of an estimated four to seven million people. Most Muslims today live in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, originally land of the Patani Kingdom, before the Thai government ceased control with support of British colonial power in 1909. In the three southernmost provinces, also known as Thailand’s Deep South, Muslims are the majority population. However, as with all of Thailand’s provincial governments, most public administration is controlled by central authorities who are mostly non-Muslim. Government officials are assigned from the capital city, with little understanding of local Muslim culture and identity.
Armed groups have fought to restore political sovereignty in the Deep South for more than fifty years, targeting symbolic figures of the Thai national state such as attacks on police officers and teachers at the secular public schools. Violence has escalated in the past decade due to renewed efforts of the central government to suppress the conflict by using severe military force and by overlooking the political ideology at the heart of this dispute.
In 2002 the Thai prime minister gave a press interview dening the existence of a separatist movement and belittled the violence to an act of “sparrow bandits” without political ideology. In October 2004, during a public demonstration for the release of six men charged with supplying weapons to insurgents, the army arrested hundreds of people in the town of Tak Bai in Narathiwat province. In the arrest, soldier’s tied people’s hands behind their backs and stacked them into trucks, five to six people deep. Five hours later, the trucks arrived at an army base and 78 men died of suffocation. The prime minister’s initial response was that the men were weak from fasting during the month of Ramadan.
In 2004 the central government issued a state of martial law in the Deep South, permitting officials to arrest suspects and conduct searches without a warrant. In 2005, the government increased military power by issuing an emergency decree, permitting “preventive detention” of anyone—including those who are not criminal suspects—at undefined sites for up to 30 days. This emergency decree also declared state officials exempt from charges of human rights violations. In response to the government crackdown, violent attacks have become more severe and widespread, extending to commercial areas and causing civilian casualties. Over the past eight years, violence continues in the Deep South with more than 5,000 deaths and almost 10,000 injuries, both Buddhists and Muslims.
Ayub believes that local citizens living amidst armed conflict have an important yet overlooked potential to advance the peace process. He is creating safe spaces and flexible tools so that local citizens are able to voice their opinions and create a bottom-up negotiation process for a peaceful resolution without fear of retribution.
As violence reached its height and communities became silenced in fear, Ayub recognized that lack of communication and voice can sustain violence rather than just being an effect of it. He founded Deep South Watch in 2006 to create an enabling environment for dialogue. Ayub believes in generating animated yet peaceful debate, in order to replace a war of guns with a war of words. He has set up the “Insider Peace Process” dialogue to stimulate conversation across diverse sectors of the local community. Ayub developed a set of criteria to identify influential local voices: participants must have real community networks in which ideas can later replicate, must have a “multiplier” personality—the ability to influence their networks, must be open-minded and articulate, and most importantly, must be personally committed to peaceful solutions. Ayub believes that individuals may be opposed to violence even if they are part of militant groups or the state military. By engaging these individuals in dialogue, they can return to their organizations and spread ideas of peaceful solutions through peer networks. He also conducted a mapping survey to identify influential local COs in all fields of work. The first Insider Peace Process dialogue in 2011 had fifteen participants. Since then, Ayub has been hosting dialogues at least once each month, now with over 50 participants representing diverse sectors of the local community, including religious leaders of Muslim and Buddhist communities, soldiers, police officers, representatives from militant groups, rural and urban community leaders, and COs.
To ensure that each Insider Peace Process dialogue reverberates in grassroots communities, Ayub has built a movement of local journalists. Most outside journalists report only the outbursts of violent attacks and the number of casualties, perpetuating the myth that violent conflict involves only the political leaders. Ayub trains local residents to become reporters and photographers, to amplify voices of the silent majority and communicate more in-depth and diverse stories than existing news coverage. He has established the Deep South Journalism School, offering journalism training in both central Thai language and local Yawi dialect. Despite the fact that Yawi is used by some three million Thais in the Deep South, this is the first time in many decades that people are reporting news in Yawi, perceived by national authorities as a language of terrorists. Yawi-language media has created a new channel of engagement with conservative religious communities and their leaders, who do not communicate in central Thai language. For example, Muslim housewives and religious school students can now write and broadcast their stories in Yawi dialect through local newspapers and radio stations. Ayub also organizes monthly community forums in different localities, bringing together and featuring both conservative religious leaders and national government representatives in the same room. Ayub works with over 100 local radio stations in organizing talk shows and inviting the public to call in and discuss their views. He estimates that almost half of the local population is now involved in these dialogues, directly and indirectly. Ayub is setting up a cable television station, to extend these conversations to a larger audience at the household level.
In addition to initiating civic participation in the peace process, Ayub has also created a mechanism to ensure that the local peace process influences national decision-making. He has set up the Deep South Civil Society Council, made up of members who include religious leaders, CO leaders, and political leaders, representing both the national military and militant groups. The objective of this council is for local leaders to find common ground, on any issue—large or small. For example, the council issued a public statement—the first joint statement of such diverse representation—calling for an end to violence against civilians. This council is the top of a three-tiered system of dialogue, supported by the Insider Peace Process and grassroots journalism and public forums. Together, these three layers of dialogue are mutually supporting and self-perpetuating, resulting in an enabling environment for local citizens to increase the pressure for a peaceful resolution. Today, there is a reduction of civilian attacks. Leaders of militant groups have approached Ayub for guidance on achieving their goal of protecting local political and cultural identity by peaceful means. The national government has opened up channels of communication in the local language, broadcasting television programs and posting billboards in Yawi dialect. A representative of Deep South Watch has been invited to sit in recent negotiations between the Thai government and militant groups. Most importantly, the local society affected by violence has shown the courage to criticize both conflicting sides—the national military and militant groups.
Recognizing that quality peaceful dialogue will be sustainable only from providing information, not just emotions, Ayub has initiated collaborations with local and national academic institutions. He has formed a network of academics working in conflict and peace studies in the southern region, and influenced the founding of two research units at Prince of Songkla University: the Center for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity in Pattani province and the Peace Studies Institute in Songkla province. Research projects include annual public opinion polls in the three provinces of the Deep South. Through this annual poll, Ayub is able to identify emerging trends that are significant to the peace process. For example, some of his findings reveal that most people have friends or family members who have been injured or killed by the armed conflict, more people support immediate ceasefire on both sides than do not, and most people rank public health officials and religious leaders as most trustworthy, while soldiers are ranked the least trustworthy among local authority figures. Ayub publicizes such research findings through academic forums and mass media. He shares these findings with editors of national newspapers and television news desks, encouraging mainstream media to become more reflective of local sentiments and concerns. In 2009, Ratchapat Yala University awarded Ayub the Honorary Master of Arts Degree in Mass Communications. In 2013, Ayub co-founded the People’s College to create leaders of change in the Deep South. Students range from grassroots community leaders to government officials.
Ayub realizes the importance of spreading his work to other conflict zones in Asia. In 2011, he collaborated with a major newspaper, university, and CO in Aceh, Indonesia, to bring the media and citizen sector together.
Born and raised in the Deep South, Ayub first realized the lack of political participation from the local Muslim majority when he was in high school. He was president of the Muslim Youth Society of Yala province at a time when the national government issued a policy banning Muslim female students from wearing hijabs to school. Raised in a liberal family of Muslims, Ayub was struck by the lack of debate and consensus-building at the local level. Ayub is a self-taught reporter and photojournalist with three decades of experience working with major national newspapers such as Matichon and Bangkok Post. He has witnessed the power of media in perpetuating violence by depicting only two extreme sides to the dispute. Ayub’s ability to speak both Thai and Yawi languages has enabled him to literally and figuratively translate the ideas between national authorities and local religious communities. He is invited as a regular speaker for public service orientation workshops, held by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center for soldiers, police officers, and other public servants moving to work in the Deep South.