The name Haji Sulong is little known in Thailand proper, despite being considered a hero and the founding father of the modern separatist movement in Thailand’s deep south ‘Patani’ region. Little is known outside the region about the conflict that erupted following his death, showing just how localised a civil war can be. This nescience is embodied in Haji Sulong, a man who lived an extraordinary life, was wildly influential and yet almost totally unknown to Thai society at large.
Haji, originally Muhammed Sulong, was born in 1895 to a Jawi family of religious teachers in Lukson Village in the Patani Sultanate, Thailand (then Siam). The Jawi are a Malay Muslim people localised in what is today the ‘Three Deep Southern Provinces of Thailand’. Sulong attended the local Jawi religious school where he was trained in Malay, basic Arabic and Islam.
The greater kingdom of Siam would have had little influence on the young Sulong, as Patani was almost entirely self-governing at the time, in fact, it is said that Sulong never spoke a word of Thai in his life. The local Sultans of Patani had for centuries paid tribute to distant Siamese kings, who in return offered their protection from encroachment by the other Malay Sultanates to the south. This arrangement also kept the British Empire at bay, as they gradually conquered the Malay states, formalising Siam’s ownership of Patani in the treaty of 1905.
At just 12 years old, Sulong was chosen to make Haj and to study in Mecca, a rare honour in the Jawi community. This was seemingly made possible by his family’s influential religious status and his intellectual prowess shown as a student. Making Haj for a member of the Jawi community at the time was not only expensive but extremely time-consuming, the trip would typically take around one full year to complete, on top of that it was dangerous, around 15% of pilgrims did not survive the journey.
Time in Mecca
On arrival in Mecca, Sulong had the opportunity to meet Syeikh Wan Ahmad bin Muhammad Zain al-Fatani, a leading scholar from Patani and a prominent modernist. He spent the next two decades studying Quranic Arabic and Islamic theory, moving between several mosques and schools. Eventually, he earned a reputation as a scholar and attained the position of Junior Lecturer at al-Haram Mosque specialising in Islamic law. At some point, after completing Haj he attained the name Haji.
The Islamic world that Sulong had entered into was tumultuous, with power towing and throwing between the Ottoman and British Empire as well as resistance from local rulers. Without a doubt, the secular nationalist influences of the new Young Turks impacted on the young Sulong as well as the teachings of the legendary scholar Muhammad Abduh, who is today known as a key founding figure in Islamic Modernism. During this era, he also spent time in colonial Jerusalem and Egypt.
Islamic Modernism was a relatively new and bold current in Islamic thought at the time. The concept attempted to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern values such as democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress. Sulong pursued this avenue of theology rather than the reactionary Wahabism which was also on the rise.
Age 29 Sulong, now a widower after a brief first marriage, remarried a woman named Khadijah who was a member of Kelantan Royalty, from British Malaya, which increased his ties and influence among the Jawi community back in Southeast Asia.
Living in Mecca during the First World War, Sulong witnessed what many Arab Muslims considered to be a betrayal by the British and French Empires after they fought against the Ottomans. The western empires carved up the Arab world as their own newly-acquired colonies, leading to much resentment. This would later give rise to post-colonial Arab nationalism, which was highly influential on Sulong. Shortly after WWI, however, Wahabist Islamic extremists took control over Mecca. The new rulers did not at all favour the Jawi community, many of whom left for elsewhere in the Islamic world, including Sulong and his wife, who, shortly after the death of their young son, departed back to Patani.
During Sulongs time in Mecca, he witnessed tremendous upheaval and was exposed to numerous strains of synthesised Islamic thought in nationalism, colonialism, identity, theology and self-determination. He left Patani as Muhammed, the child and returned as Haji, the widely respected scholar, well versed in theology, politics and their synthesis.
Return to Patani
On his return to Patani, he saw his homeland in desperate need of redevelopment, particularly in regards to Islam. He considered typical Jawi spirituality to be far removed from authentic Islam, with many people incorporating aspects of Animism, Hinduism and even Buddhism into their religious practices, this influenced both the individuals’ spiritual lives and their systems of education and governance.
He felt a responsibility to teach Islam as he had learnt in Mecca. As such he began touring the south of Siam, lecturing and meeting with local spiritual leaders. His teachings were described as ‘progressive and bold’ upsetting many of those local leaders. The purpose of this tour was first seeking to revive Islamic teachings, then to reform Islamic education and finally to implement modern political and legal systems within a pluralist Islamic context.
Following his tour, Sulong decided to build a school in Patani. This would not be another Jawi Islamic school, as were typical in the region, but an institution that taught a modernist progressive curriculum within an Islamic context. As construction of the school neared completion Siam was rocked by the 1932 coup that toppled the absolute monarchy of King Prajadhipok.
This development made necessary a completely new relationship between Patani and the new civilian post-coup leadership in Bangkok. Sulong saw this as an opportunity to forge good ties with Bangkok so as to have more influence over what he considered the reactionary old guard in Patani. In 1933 he travelled to Bangkok to meet with the new leadership and request funds for his school. Prime Minister Phahol agreed and future Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, while he was Minister of the Interior, visited the newly built school where he was warmly received. This cemented the perception from Bangkok of Sulong as the leading authority in Patani, despite the existing influence of other powerful families who hadn’t yet been able to forge ties with the new regime.
Sulong became headmaster of his new school and gained tremendous influence among the local community. The school also served as a mosque for the community, proselytising Sulong’s modernist teachings on Islam.
The warm relationship with Bangkok, however, was short-lived as the national leadership began to see Sulong’s movement as a threat to their governance over the region and the school was closed down just 2 years after opening. Sulong then resumed his touring of the South, continuing his education program with his dedicated followers.
In 1937 Siam held its first general elections, which included votes from Patani. In the Patani election, Sulong controversially supported a Buddhist candidate, Jaroen Suebsaeng, over the more locally populist Muslim candidate Phraphiphitphakdi who was a descendent of the Jawi Sultanate. Sulong saw Jaroen as being more inclined to his own political aims of modernism and pluralism rather than supporting a member of the old Jawi elite purely on the basis of shared identity. Jaroen was also aligned with the reformist Pridi who Sulong surely admired. Phraphiphitphakdi won the election, however, Jaroen would later become elected as governor of Patani in large part due to Sulongs support.
The fall out of the general election spelt bad news for not only Sulong but the majority of the Jawi community in the deep south. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram replaced Phahol as the Prime Minister of Thailand and established a military dictatorship inspired by the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini. Phibun launched a reactionary modernization campaign known as the Thai Cultural Revolution that included a series of cultural mandates, changing the country’s name from “Siam” to “Thailand”, and enforced promotion of the Central Thai language. This cultural mandate program was particularly problematic for the people of Patani as after centuries of near-complete autonomy from Bangkok they were now suddenly being forcibly assimilated into the Thai state.
School curriculums were forced to focus on Central Thai culture and all lessons had to be in the Thai language. Traditional Jawi clothing was banned and Islamic courts, which were previously used in civil cases were prohibited. The local population passively resisted, when there was a dispute among Muslims it would be arbitrated informally, Sulong was often chosen to act as arbiter in these cases.
Sulong became the leader of an informal extrajudicial legal system in Patani and part of the tacit resistance movement to Thai imperialism. Certainly to Sulong, this would have been all too familiar, having spent decades living under western colonial powers while in Mecca.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II saw Phibhun’s Thailand align with Imperial Japan. The Japanese Army also conquered Malaya from the British Empire and the British sought allies to resist the Japanese in the region. Many Jawi joined the underground Thai resistance movement against the Japanese-Phibhun alliance. The British supported the Jawi independence movement, which had grown stronger during the Phibhun era and supposedly promised them national independence post-war, thus further undermining Bangkok’s control over the deep south.
Sulong used this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the pro-independence movement and the British, however, he was always sceptical as he had witnessed the dark side of British colonialism during his time in Mecca and the middle east.
At the close of the war, however, the British didn’t live up to their promise. The United States wanted to treat Thailand as an ally, despite its alignment with Japan. This was due to the encroaching threat of communism, the US saw Phibhun, who managed to hold onto power post-war, as a useful anti-communist ally and as such the issue of Patani independence was ignored.
The Pridi Years
The post-war years in Thailand were chaotic, with an ever-shifting political climate, as the reformer and anti-Phibun politician Pridi came to power briefly in 1946 prospects were looking optimistic for Sulong and his movement. The young King Ananda even donated 20,000 Baht to promote welfare in the region and Pridi indicated his willingness to allow greater autonomy.
In 1947 the Bangkok government sent a team of representatives to the deep south on a fact-finding mission regarding the possibility of greater autonomy for the region. Sulong was chosen by religious leaders as their representative and he proposed the following:
1. That the four southern provinces be governed as a unit, with a Muslim governor.
2. That for the first seven years of the school curriculum, Malay be allowed as the language of instruction.
3. That all taxes collected in the four southern provinces be expended there.
4. That 85 per cent of the government officials be local Malays.
5. That Malay and Thai be used together as the languages of government.
6. That the provincial Islamic committees have authority over the practice of Islam.
7. That the Islamic judicial system be separated from the provincial court system.
The delegation held extensive discussions with Sulong over the requests but had no authority to implement them, as such they returned to Bangkok. The national government was slow to respond, so Sulong started a very public pressure movement, collecting funds and again travelling around the region promoting his movement and its goals. He also declared that if Bangkok approved his suggestions he would invite back Haji Mahayiddin to govern the region, Mahayiddin was the son of the last Sultan of Patani and former leader of the underground movement during WWII. This demonstrated that Sulong had no real interest in governing, rather he was more interested in continuing his educational work.
During this period, just over the border in British Malaya, separatist movements were becoming increasingly bold and insurrectionary. This along with Sulong’s increasing popularity made Bangkok nervous about the region falling into all-out separatist revolt. Some government officials in Bangkok saw Sulong’s movement as being the Patani branch of the independence movement that gripped Malaya.
Conservatives Reclaim Bangkok
In November 1947 a coup overthrew the reformist national government, replacing it with a conservative royalist regime who were extremely hostile to the movement in Patani. A crackdown on reformists and dissidents followed and Sulong was arrested in January 1948 along with his more active supporters. Charged with sedition Sulong was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment, all of which were served in Bangkhwang Prison in Bangkok. In jail, he wrote extensively, however, all of his writings were screened and censored by prison officials.
Without Sulong the movement in the deep south became increasingly paranoid and moved further underground. Those who were still free made little progress with a government in Bangkok who had no intention on ceding any ground.
Sulongs release after 4 years saw him return to a hero’s welcome in Patani where over a thousand followers came to greet him at the train station. However, he was barred from taking part in any political activity and was told to stop teaching or else he would be imprisoned again. Sulong apparently obeyed but struggled personally without being able to fulfil his purpose in life.
During the next year, the Bangkok government grew increasingly paranoid of internal threats. The Communist Party of Thailand was becoming more influential, while the independence movement in British Malaya grew ever stronger.
In August of 1954 Sulong was summoned to a police station in nearby Songkhla province for questioning. He attended with two colleagues and his 15-year-old son to act as a translator. The four were never seen again. Years later the police officers involved would admit to the brutal murder of Haji Sulong and company. Their bodies were never found.
To this day Sulong’s battle for self-determination lives on. However, the movement he helped to define has taken on an entirely different shape. A far more radical tendency has come out of the deep south in terms of its resistance to Bangkok, nowadays bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations are commonplace as the Thai authorities have taken an increasingly heavy-handed approach to the separatists.
Patani is a city under military occupation, full of checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers, brought in from distant provinces to crush the unrest. The era of reformist post-colonial Islam seems like a distant memory in the Muslim world. However, the influence of Haji Sulong as a martyr and as the intellectual force behind Patani’s self-determination movement remains. Indeed the current insurgency has generally continued its tradition of nationalism, rather than embracing a more Salafist creed, as has become increasingly common in rebellions throughout the rest of the Islamic world and we can only assume that this tradition in Patani stems from the extensive teachings and influence of Haji Sulong.
Extensive paper on Haji Sulong from which much of this information is sourced: