Nakorn Sri Thammarat (Southern Thailand) - The Ma`had Misbahuddin (Torch of Islam) or Prateepsasana Islamic School is something different from the typical religious schools found in south Thailand.
The school is situated about 800km to the south of Bangkok. It is one of the many religious schools or `pondok bantan` that can be found in the restive southern provinces. They are viewed with suspicion by the authorities as they feel it is where the seeds of extremism are planted and militants harboured.
Yet the 66-year-old school has proved itself otherwise and today it`s an exemplary pondok where religious studies are integrated with secular and vocational subjects.
But foremost, it has produced one of the country`s well-known intellectuals - former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan - and now the Asean secretary-general designate.
"Students need to be educated in a comprehensive manner in religion. But the problem is how are we going to prepare them to face challenges brought by modernisation while convincing their parents that their children`s faith will remain intact," said Surin during an interview here.
Torch Of Islam
Surin, who has been nominated by the Thai Government to be the next Asean secretary-general, said the Ma`had Misbahuddin was established in 1941 when a small number of Thai Muslim students returned from Mecca.
Led by his grandfather they decided to set up a small Pondok Bantan, as it is known locally, for basic Fardu`ain education for boys and girls in the southern province of Nakorn Sri Thammarat.
Beginning with 50 plus students in the early 1940s, the school now has 1,361 students. The students come from other provinces including Krabi and Songkhla. It now has 73 teachers who teach traditional Islamic studies and modern Islamic and secular subjects.
Although the Government pays 60 percent of the teachers` salary, the pondok remains independent.
Parents Don`t Favour Mainstream Schools
"Parents here are reluctant to send their children to government schools because Islamic subjects are not taught there. This pondok teaches Quran, ritual, ethics, theology from the sixth to 12th grade," he added.
Surin said the school run by five of his siblings provides value added education from kindergarten up to high school level by providing studies in information communication technology and accounting that enhance their value in the job market.
"So when they leave the school, they have something to back them up. Some start book keeping or business when they return to their villages...even selling curry paste or mobile phones...this is an economic transformation," he added.
Surin said this is a stark contrast compared to the past when students returned home to become farmers or fishermen.
Parents More Open To Secular-Religious Education
The Thai authorities had partly blamed the pondok education for the rise in youngsters joining separatist movements in the ongoing violence in the Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
There are more than 500 pondok operating in southern Thailand but only about 300 registered with the government.
Surin said the estimated 2.5 million Muslims in the south have been struggling to catch up with the political, social and economic changes affecting the country and the world.
The National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) on the Southern Conflict estimated that about 5,000 students graduate from the pondok school system annually in southern Thailand but not many go for higher education in science or economics.
"Some go to Middle East while many go to the open admission at the Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. But with our religious-secular subjects, more students are going to universities to study law or science, teachers` training colleges and vocational schools," he said.
Asked if the religious-secular combination were objected by parents, Surin said they are comfortable if their children could absorb both and become more marketable.
"In fact, I am surprised to see well-to-do parents sending their kids to our school. They are prosperous but very much attached to traditional values...the message is that they want to maintain their identity," he added.
Pondok School Still Close To His Heart
Despite his busy schedule, Surin remains close to the pondok that nurtured him into a public figure and recently hosted Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont during the pondok`s 66th anniversary celebrations.
"He (Surayud) was amazed when he stepped into the school compound. He thought he was going to officiate the celebration at a small mosque and did not expect to see modern and nice buildings," he said.
The old style pondok has long gone, replaced by buildings and mosque donated by the Islamic Development Bank, Emir of Kuwait and businessmen from West Asia.
The `pondok` education also received a shot in the arm when Japan`s Sasakawa Peace Foundation came forward to offer its assistance to a group of 32 pondok to enhance their academic standards.
Surin said education could be one of the key components in finding a lasting solution to the conflict in south.
"Surayud is using the right approach but the success depends very much on the implementation by officers on the ground and how far they understand the complexity of the problem," he said.
Source: www.bernama.com (12 Juli 2007)