The Muslim Fishermen of Phang Nga
By Antonio Graceffo
Ethnic Thai Muslims lead a life very different from their Buddhist neighbors or the ethnic Malay Muslims in Thailand’s four Muslim provinces.
The four Muslim provinces of southern Thailand Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun have made international headlines in recent years do to an extremist insurgency which has left hundreds dead. The bad press emanating from the south has left the rest of Thailand’s many Muslim groups in an undeserved dark cloud. The various Muslim peoples in Thailand are an extremely diverse group, each with their own unique history, language, and culture. Often the only similarity they share is their religion. In the north, the majority of the Muslims are ethnic Chinese, from Yunan. In central Thailand one can find the Cham people, the last descendents of the Kingdom of Champa. Dispersed throughout Thailand are various groups of ethnic Thais whose ancestors converted to Islam, centuries ago.
In Phang Nga Province, Thung Nang Dam village, Kuraburi District, near Phuket, the Muslim people are ethnic Thai, rather than ethnic Malay. The people speak Southern Thai dialect. Unlike the four southern provinces there is no insurgency. The biggest problem this poor fishing community faces is their struggle to recover after the 2004 tsunami. This was one of the worst hit areas, with countless deaths, and numerous people still missing. Entire villages were swept away by the monstrous waves which also took their fishing boats, leaving the villagers with no way to earn a living.
Through the help of foreign and local aid organizations, most of the fishing boats have been restored, and new homes have been built. Often, villagers elected to rebuild further from the sea, for fear of a future calamity. Community based tourism projects, such as North Andaman Tsunami Relief (NATR), have been trying to create tourism businesses for the locals, arranging for tourists to sleep in a home-stay, with a Muslim family. The goal of the project is to create new sources of income for the Muslim families, while hopefully educating the outside world about the plight of these gentle people.
Upon arrival at the NATR office, I was met by my guide and translator, Mustafa, who promised to give me a glimpse into the life of a Thai Muslim community. Mustafa, an ethnic Thai, converted to Islam after his fiancé, a Muslim girl, was killed in the 2004 tsunami. Her parents told him “Mustafa we just lost a daughter. We don’t wish to lose our son too.” Mustafa changed his religion and officially became their son.
“The circumcision wasn’t a bad as I thought it would be.” he said.
Traveling in the district with Mustafa was like riding around Hollywood with a big movie star. Everyone knew Mustafa and they all respected the hard work he and NATR had done in the community.
Our first stop was at a beautiful Islamic primary school, which lay across a quiet stream, along a tranquil, dusty road in the midst of scenic fields.
According to the teacher, a bright young Muslim woman, wearing a head scarf, boys and girls attend the same school but they are separated in class. They spend half the day learning religious subjects and half the day learning secular ones. The children learned an impressive array of languages. They studied Arabic, Malay, Thai and English. They used the Roman alphabet to write Malay language, which they call piasa Jawei (an old term which meant Indonesia and Malaysia). Although all Muslims in Asia attempt to learn Arabic, Malay, which tends to be infinitely easier to learn, becomes the primary religious language. The teacher explained that the school was mostly funded by the Thai government, but children paid a nominal fee of about 600 Baht per year. The school is free for orphans. The children graduating from grade 12, at the Muslim school, are qualified to attend any state university in Thailand. For those parents who prefer that there children receive a more religious based education, there are two Muslim universities; one in Bangkok and one in the south of Thailand in the four Muslim provinces.
Muslim boys, like their Buddhist counterparts, are required to attend national military service. They are also permitted to become career soldiers or police.
In other countries, ethnic minorities are prevented from participating in local government. In Thailand, however, this seemed not to be the case. The local governor is elected by the people. Typically, in a Muslim area, he is a Muslim, a member of the community. “We also have a Toe Imam, or spiritual leader of our community.” Explained Mustafa. “The Toe Imam is generally the oldest male in the community. He holds this position for life unless he dies, retires or commits some horrible act.”
Muslims differ greatly from their Buddhist neighbors. For example, Muslims burry their dead. Thais burn their dead. The Thai Muslims eat halal food and are forbidden to eat pork. They don’t drink alcohol, but some of them chew beetle and another stimulating leaf, called gaton. Gaton is a bitter tasting leaf which they chew like coca.
They consider themselves to be Sunni Muslims and pray 5 times per day. Friday is the big Muslim service, mostly for men. Some mosques allow women, but then they are separated from the men by a sheet. Many families chose to worship at home, where men and women pray together. During prayers, Men wear a saraong and a clean white shirt.
The average family has 4-5 children. Some have as many as seven, according to Mustafa, “The religion prohibits family planning.” Circumcision is done only on bys and typically at the age of five. There is a large festival once a year when all eligible boys are circumcised.
The main business of Thai Muslims is fishing. The Muslims tend to have a small garden for herbs, fruits and vegetables, but as a rule, they can’t be considered farmers.
“The people are poor.” explained Mustafa, “They know that they can go to the sea and in thirty minutes they can find food. So, they are lazy. They go out in the morning and drop their nets. In the evening they go and recover them. They could be doing so much in between. That is what the Chinese do. But our people say in the hot season it is too hot to work. In the rainy season it is too wet to work.”
Mustafa, like the rest of this coastal community, lost everything in the tsunami. “My dream is to work two more years, save my money and go to Mecca.” They use the name Haji for people who have been to Mecca. Mustafa hoped that one day he could be called Haji.
“Although we are all Thai, there is racism against the Muslims.” Said Mustafa. “Your religion is written on your ID card. Even if it wasn’t, they would know from the name.”
“Speaking of names,” He said, eyeing me thoughtfully. “Your name is too hard for Thai people. I will give you a Muslim name, so people will find it easier to talk to you. Let me think of a good name for someone like you.”
That sounded great to me, but there was only one Muslim name I wanted. It is the one name that has meant a great deal to me my whole life. I was both pleased and surprised when Mustafa suddenly said. “We shall call you Ali.”
Every Muslim house we visited had at least one song bird in a cage. “Muslim people like to keep birds.” explained Mustafa. “They also like to bring their birds to competitions to see who has the best bird.”
At the market, there were yellow shirts everywhere to show support for the King, in the wake of Thailand’s recent military coup. “We love the king here.” Said Mustafa. “But we are afraid. He is old…It is a natural fact that he will...” Mustafa couldn’t even finish the sentence.
“You mean he will eventually die?” I asked, also not happy about that eventuality.
“Yes.” Said Mustafa. Other political issues aside, it was clear that the Muslim people held the king in the same reverence as the Buddhists.
At dusk, we stopped off at the beach where the water buffalos came down to swim. Wanting to take photos, I crept up on the massive herd, slowly getting closer and closer. While the herd swam, three large bulls stood guard on the beach. The closer I got, the more agitated the centuries became. Visions of Steve Irwin began to run through my mind. Finally, when the guards looked as if they were going to charge, I backed off, fighting the impulse to run.
I stayed over night with a Muslim host family in Bahn Tatle Nock Village. The original village had been completely destroyed by the tsunami. The village was rebuilt through the help of aid projects, but unfortunately it no longer reflect the authentic Muslim way of life. Out of necessity, the villages were rebuilt in the quickest, cheapest manner. The houses were all two stories with the kitchen downstairs and the bedrooms up stairs. The living room living room and dinner table were outside under the shelter of the second story. The typical Muslim house, on the other hand, is only one story, raised off the ground, to prevent reptiles from entering. The kitchen is normally in the back.
In trying to communicate with my host family, I discovered that Southern Dialect was so different from Northern or Central, that we couldn’t understand each other at all. Another observation I made was that the people looked different than the Thais I knew in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I finally decided it was the constant exposure to the sun and the fact that they were probably pure Thai, rather than part Chinese like the people in the North. In some way, these Muslim people were more Thai than the Thais.
My host mother prepared a simple dinner of rice, eggs, and fish which the father had caught earlier in the day. I was constantly afraid of offending my Muslim hosts. I have lied with Buddhists for years. I know and understand their customs. But the Muslims were new to me. In Thailand, simple meals are eaten with a spoon alone. They rarely use a fork and never a knife. Among Buddhists, large chunks of meat or fish are held on the plate with the right hand and cut with the spoon. Eating with Muslims, I knew not to eat with my left hand. The Muslims held the spoon in the left hand and used the right hand to touch the food. But I found it impossible to navigate a spoon with my left hand. So, I put the spoon in my right hand and touched the food with my left. It probably grossed everyone out, but the fish was really tasty.
Inside the house we slept under mosquito netting which was like building a blanket fort when you were ten. Just like rural Thai families, they didn’t use beds. They slept on top of a thick blanket on the floor. For some reason, the family gave me a pink mosquito net. The light filtering through gave everything a surreal candy-world glow.
In the morning, Mustafa picked me up and we stopped by the market, where we had coffee with the fishermen. Only men sat in the restaurant drinking coffee. The fishermen lead a leisurely life. In the morning, they had nothing to do. They wouldn’t even go set their nets till noon, when the tide changed. So, they just hung out, drinking coffee, chewing leaves and talking. Later, they would throw out their nets, and then have coffee again for five or six hours, before retrieving them.
“The fishermen are very poor” repeated Mustafa, while we sipped the syrupy coffee from small glasses. “When the boat breaks, they have no money to fix it. When they need petrol or any extra expense they have to borrow from sponsors.” These sponsors are basically creditors who become partners of the fishermen, taking part of their catch.
“Debt is very common among the fishermen. In one village, of about 120 houses all but two families owe money. But because of the sea there is always hope. No matter how bad things are, they can always go to sea. And, they can always eat.”
I asked Mustafa why it is that in Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries I have been to, the Muslims generally are fishermen not farmers.
“Most families have a small farm, but the Muslims have a special reverence for the water. And, they like the freedom of being fishermen.” He answered.
Near by is Banji Island, also called James Bond Island, where the film, “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed.
“Three families came by boat from Indonesia and settled on the island. They put up a flag on the beach to signal that this was a place of good fishing. Soon, others came. Now there are 1,000 people, 250 families in the village.”
The sea no longer yields what it once did. A Muslim woman, named Pern, told me. “The fishermen used to catch ten kilos of squid per day. Now they have days when they only catch a single kilo. The gas alone cost 250 Baht a day. With ten kilos they would catch fish, subtract gas, and then split four ways with the other helpers on the boat. Even in the best of times, they would only earn a few hundred Baht a day. And that had to feed the whole family. Now a days, with 1 kg, they don’t even cover their gas. But, they still need to eat.”
Today, thanks to education and a certain degree of open-mindedness, the children may have the opportunity to do something different. An old man, named Solet, told me proudly, “My son is in ninth grade.” This was the highest level of education anyone in his family had ever achieved. “He also plays football!” exclaimed the proud papa. Even football was a foreign concept to people who normally spent all of their energy trying to feed a family. The arrival of football was also a sign that the times are changing. “I would like to see him go to university.” Said Solet. “He could qualify now for the sports high school, followed by the athletic university, but I am afraid that if he leaves home he will lose his religion.”
Mustafa reminded Solet about the Muslim university.
“Yes,” said Solet, “that might be a good idea.”
Maybe Solet’s son will go on to be the next great leader of the community. The men excused themselves, wishing me peace. It was time for them to go through out their nets.
Football, Muslim University and now community based tourism; hopefully the future will be kinder to these pleasant people than the past.
Copyright © Antonio Graceffo 2006
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