Sungai Golok – One tiny river, two separate nations

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

Sungai Golok - One tiny river, two separate nations
Lessons to be learnt from the current fate of the Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand.


The provinces of Satun, Trang, Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla are synonymous to the Muslim community in Thailand.All of these provinces, in exception of Trang and Pattani share their borders with Malaysia. Even though the Malay-Muslims form the majority population of these provinces, however, these territories are today, not part of our nation.

Without clear understanding of the history of this region, one may wonder why the tiny Sungai Golok that runs through the state of Kelantan becomes the international line separating the Malays of Kelantan and those of Narathiwat, Thailand.


The existing Sultanate of Kedah is a legacy of old Malay kingdoms having large territories in northern part of the Malay Peninsula, extending beyond the current boundary of Malaysia-Thailand border.According to history, Langkasuka was the earliest Malay kingdom that was established in the Malay Peninsula.

It emerged sometime in the third century AD having its capital in Kedah which later on was shifted to Pattani. “ If peoples of other race are proud of their history and legacy, why not the Malays as well? ” -The Kingdom of Old Kedah was later established in the sixth century AD claiming its power over the important maritime trade route of the Straits of Malacca in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula. The might of the Old Kedah Kingdom could be seen in the extensive achaelogical ruins in Lembah Bujang area in the modern-day state of Kedah.

The seventh century witnessed the emergence of the most powerful Malay kingdom ever to rule the Malay Archipelago – Srivijaya. It was a maritime empire, controlling much of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Java and Borneo.After reigning for more than 500 years, Srivijaya was replaced by Majapahit, a Javanese-based kingdom having its territories over much of the area where Indonesia today stands. The huge territory of modern-day Indonesia is a manifestation of how large and great these Malay kingdoms were in the days of yore.

The might of these Malay kingdoms started to gradually erode with the arrival of European powers to this region. In addition to the Europeans, the Malays had to face Siam, a regional political entity with considerable power at that time. Siam had always wanted to extend their powers to the deep south of the Malay Peninsula.For instance, the province of Satun in Thailand used to be under the influence of Kedah until 1813. The Sultanates of Kelantan and Terengganu were part of the Great Pattani Kingdom until it was crushed by Siam in 1785.


The current Malaysia-Thailand border is not a boundary demarcation that separates the actual territories of the Malays and Siamese.This boundary line was drawn by the British, the suzerain of the northern Malay states and Siam, without consulting the Malay rulers and it was ratified by both sovereigns in the Anglo-Siam Treaty of 1909 concluded in Bangkok.As a result, the tiny Sungai Golok now become the international border that separates ‘one people of two nations’- Kelantan and the Thai province of Narathiwat.

This treaty had an everlasting effect of separating the Malay territories of southern Thailand with their Malaysian counterparts of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. Upon having sovereignty over the southern territories, Siam modified the original Malay names of Setul to Satun, Singgora to Songkhla, Terang to Trang, Jala to Yala and Menara to Narathiwat.

These provinces later on experienced the migration of the Siamese to balance out the majority Malay-Muslim population in the southern region. Satun for example, had a Muslim population beyond 90% in the early 19th century but now this percentage has reduced to 65%. In strengthening their foothold of these southern provinces, the Siamese authorities imposed Thesapiban Policy upon the locals to facilitate the assimilation of the Malay Muslims into the majority Siamese-Buddhist society.

This policy was introduced by the Siamese Prime Minister Pibul Songgram between the years of 1939 to 1944. At that time, the local Malays were made to accept and practice the culture, language and way of life of the Siamese-Buddhist society. Siamese language was taught in schools with the Malay language being totally neglected by the Siamese authorities. This policy however, did not coerce the Malays to leave Islam as the religion that they have been embracing for generations.


When Siam was renamed Thailand in 1949, the Malays were labelled as ‘Thai-Muslim’ to further erode their Malay identity.The Thesapiban Policy was succesful in gradually ‘Siamise’ the younger generation of the Malay-Muslim community in modern-day Thailand. Today, a huge proportion of the younger generations of Thai Muslim could no longer able to converse in Malay, the language of their ancestors, but are more comfortable to speak Thai.Even though the Malays of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are still adamant in preserving their Malay identity and heritage with that of their Kelantanese counterparts, this is not so for those Thai-Muslims in Satun, Trang and Songkhla.

The Thai-Muslims in these three provinces do not regard Malay as their mother tongue although they may seem to be culturally identical to the Malay-Muslim communities in Kedah or Kelantan. Today, only about 9.9% of the Muslims in Satun and Trang acknowlege themselves as ethnically Malay.History has dictated that the Malays were empire builders through the maritime empires that used to dominate the seas. Colonisation had, one way or another, changed the fate of the Malays. Centuries of Siamese rule have in a way shun the Thai Muslims in Satun and Trang of their Malay cultural identity.

Having said this, it is quite regretful that there are Malay political leaders in Malaysia who openly proclaim that they are not proud of being Malays.The Japanese became one of the world’s super power in the Second World War because of their love to their Japanese race and nation.The British were so proud of their language that they have now effectively transformed English into the world’s premier global language.

The Chinese Emperors were proud of their Chinese ancestry that they erected the mighty Great Wall of China to fend off the non-Chinese barbarians from intruding into their kingdom.If peoples of other race are proud of their history and legacy, why not the Malays as well?


Though historically Satun, Trang, Pattani, Yala, Songkhla and Narathiwat were part of the Malay World, these provinces are now part of the sovereign nation of Thailand.Lessons should be made from the fate of the Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand. The Malays should not give away what rightfully belongs to them as it will later be quite impossible to get them back once these rights are lost.

Indeed, Malaysia is a legacy of the old Malay kingdoms which still remains with the Malays (Peninsula Malaysia was once home to a number of Malay Kingdoms while Sabah and Sarawak used to be part of the Malay Sultanate of Brunei).History will always remain as history and it is now time to look forward.Malaysians inherited this country from their forefathers and it is indeed the duty of all Malaysians –Bumis or non Bumis – to protect it and to drive it towards success.

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph. D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of Astro AWANI.

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