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Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
Vol. 32, No. 6
London Review of Books


In recent decades, Thailand has been running one of the world's most successful national marketing campaigns. Building on its reputation for hospitable people, beautiful beaches and splendid food, the tourism ministry has created an image of Thailand as an exotic paradise where travellers are ushered from spa to floating market to Buddhist ruin, all beneath a never dimming tropical sun. In 2008, the country had more than 14 million visitors--neighbouring Cambodia had two million--and tourism was the country's biggest source of foreign exchange. Once sleepy islands like Koh Samui and Koh Chang have traded fishing for sea bass for fishing for package tourists; even the smallest Thai towns seem to have boutique hotels offering wifi and fancy coffee.

Now the number of tourists visiting Thailand is beginning to drop, perhaps becausethey have sensed what many Western governments, focused on crises in Pakistan,Iraq and North Korea, have ignored: Thailand, once known as one of the most stable democracies in Asia, has been in political and economic crisis. The scale and speed of the meltdown have been staggering. In 2001, I travelled in southern Thailand, through the three provinces near the Malaysian border. A large majority of the inhabitants here are Muslims, ethnicallyMalay people who speak their own dialect,and the region feels more like Malaysia than Buddhist central Thailand. At that time, the south seemed Women sold crispy fried chicken from handcarts at the side of the road, and Buddhist monks and Muslim prayer leaders walked down village streets. In Pattani, one of the larger towns, busloads of Western backpackers wandered through the central market, where they stared at plates of biryani and mounds of jackfruit.

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