Nita Ro$hita, Contributor, Yogyakarta, Pattani, Southern Thailand.
It takes almost half a day's journey for Muslim Thai students to travel to study at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), Yogyakarta. They also had to work hard to earn their degree. During that time, they were under the surveillance of the Royal Thai government concerned about whether they were being radicalized in Indonesia.
On the evening of Sunday, May 6, after evening prayers, a veiled college girl waited for me at a friend's house in Kaliurang, Yogyakarta.
She was a little upset because I was late. For security reasons, she asked me not to reveal her real name. So I gave her a new one -- Nurul.
She is studying Bahasa Indonesia in INCULS (the Indonesian Languange and Culture Learning Service) at the UGM cultural sciences school for seven months before studying at Muhmmadiyah University.
She won a scholarship from Indonesia's Ministry of Religion to study for a Masters degree in Education Management.
She is not alone; at least six other Thai students are in the same INCULS class. They came from all over Thailand and from different religious backgrounds. Four are Buddhist and three Muslim from southern Thailand. All seven have come on Indonesian government scholarships.
For Nurul, Indonesia is the best place for her to learn Islam since the Thai government has not provided scholarships for this. Other places where she could apply for a scholarship are Malaysia or the Middle East.
Back in their homeland in southern Thailand, the conflict still continues. Since the conflict in three main provinces in southern Thailand, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat erupted in 2004, more than 2,000 people have died.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) noted at least 73 teachers and school officials have been killed since January 2004. The Education Ministry stated that more than 30 private schools were set alight since March 2007.
The issue of education in southern Thailand has become a focus of attention in the conflict. For Malay nationalists, the state school system is viewed as a vehicle of assimilation and cultural domination.
On the other hand, for the Thai government the pondok (traditional religious boarding schools) are viewed as a center for radicalization and recruitment for the separatist movement. The government says that foreign graduates have been disseminating radical Islamic doctrine within the pondok.
The parents, however, in these Muslim majority areas prefer to send their children to learn religious section. There is a strong perception that the learning of religion can protect them from the ills of secular modern society.
After graduating from high school, the children do not have much choice, either, because there are too few good-quality colleges of Islamic studies.
There are only two Islamic colleges in southern Thailand. One is the state-run College of Islamic Studies attached to Prince of Songkhla University's Pattani campus and privately run Yala Islamic College.
The next-best option is to go abroad to study Islam.
The Indonesian Embassy to Thailand has noted that 300 students from southern Thailand graduated from Indonesia.
The latest ICG report in March 2007 estimated 2,000 to 10,000 young Muslims from three main provinces in south Thailand, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat left their families to study abroad, mainly in Middle-East countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most are studying religion, but troubles await them in their homeland after they have graduated.
Threat of incarceration back home
"Daughter, if you have graduated, please do not come home yet. Things are not safe here; one of your cousins was just arrested by the police," said Nurrohmah's parents over the phone.
She is another Muslim Thai student at UGM. She recounted her stories about her cousin who was suspected of being a militant. He had just come back from studying in Indonesia when the police captured him at his house and put him in jail for two months in 2006.
Getting arrested can happen easily in southern Thailand where the government has given officials on the ground a "license to kill", as dubbed by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun and quoted by the by the ICG. Under the Emergency Law, suspects could be detained for a maximum 30 days without charge.
Mansour Salleh noted that the Thai goverment has become too prejudiced againts graduates of pesantren (traditional Islamic schools.) "The Thai goverment believes that terms used by militants, for example Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK) are from Indonesia. The goverment suspected that this new strategy for fighting has been transfered from Indonesian to Thai students."
The Thai government suspects that the RKK or Runda Kumpulan Kecil has a connection to Jemaah Islamiyah, an alleged terrorist group from Indonesia.
The Indonesian government, through its embassy in Bangkok, has explained to the Thai government that that was merely prejudice without sufficient evidence.
Indonesian ambassador Ibrahim Yusuf said it was just regular activity in the village or kampong to protect their area from criminal activity. If Thai students joined regular security patrols, they were seen as participating in military training.
The prejudice against graduates being thought of as Islamic radicals is not only those who graduated from pesantren or madrasah but also students at formal Islamic colleges like State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta.
During 2004 to 2006, the Thai government, through its embassy in Jakarta, asked the university for the names of Thai Muslim students who study there. But the request was declined many times by former rector of the State Islamic University Professor Azyumardi Azra.
Even though the Thai embassy tried to convince him that it was just a database, Azyumardi sees it in a different way. That list could put his students in danger of being spied upon.
Limited job opportunities
The problem that Muslim Thai students face in Indonesia is not only being suspected as militants. After they have graduated, they have no guarantee of getting a better job.
The ICG has stated that many graduates of religious studies or the professions such as medicine, engineering or architecture end up unemployed.
The Thai government does not recognize their degree based on the Thai educational system. There are limited chances for them within the field of work.
That is why these Thai students expecting to get a job here in Indonesia, as Nurrohmah said, "will get paid well. If you get lucky, you will hired by a Thai company as a translator. And the salary is much better than working as a teacher in the south.
"A graduate teacher from a Thai university will receive a salary of around 6,300 baht; from an Egyptian university it is 7,500 baht but from an Indonesian university it is only 5,500 baht.
And if you work as a translator in Indonesia, you will get 20,000 baht at the start, or around Rp 5 million."
Ahmad Samboon Bualuang, a former member of the National Reconciliations Commission from the education subcommittee, said that the discrimination in industrial work is real. If a woman with a veil applies for work, there is only a very small chance that she will get the job.
"In their mind-set, people from the south are not educated enough. Most factory owners and government officials are Thai or ethnic Chinese. Only Malays who can speak Thai fluently have a chance of getting a job," Ahmad added.
The rest remain unemployed. Most graduates return to pondok to teach, and fall under suspicion of disseminating radical Islamic values.
Azyumardi said that in this kind of situation, they could easily fall prey to recruitment by insurgents and be radicalized.
Based on ICG reports in March 2007, Intelligence officials insist that Pattani student organizations in Indonesia, for example, are linked to the separatist movement and conduct military training around Bandung and Medan, and that a handful of suspects interrogated by police have admitted to being recruited there. However, the Crisis Group has not been able to obtain independent verification.
In April 2006, before Royal Thai government officers and analysts at a seminar at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Azyumardi Azra noted the Thai government should be proud of Muslim Thais studying in Indonesia.
They were learning progressive Islam in Indonesia, and when they graduated, they would be more tolerant. "The Thai government should use them as mediators in the peace process in southern Thailand, because they are moderate Muslims and also tolerant. But of course the key to peace is in the Royal Thai Government's policies."
In December 2006, The State Islamic University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Prince of Songkhla University Pattani to exchange lecturers and students. The MOU also mentioned cross-border education and accreditation for graduates from two countries, including those from Islamic colleges.
Nurul ended our meeting with her dream of being a good teacher for children in the south. And since she is only here to study she is not afraid of being held under suspicion.
Nurrohmah believes that the fight is not always about guns and weapons. "We can fight in many different ways, especially with education. If the children are well educated enough, life can be much better."
This article was produced under the auspices of the South East Asian Press Alliance fellowship 2007