In an effort to help Thailand quell insurgency in its Muslim-majority southern provinces, Indonesia has stepped in to provide scholarships for 50 Thai Muslims to study at Islamic universities in Indonesia, officials announced during a two-day visit by a delegation from southern Thailand to Yogyakarta, Central Java.
The 65-member group, led by Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) Secretary General Lertkiat Wongpotipun, consisted of government officials, local leaders and educators from Pattani, Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun provinces.
The delegation visited state Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga and the Al-Munawwir boarding school, and met with Yogyakarta Governor Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, during their May 30-31st visit.
"There is an established co-operation between the Indonesian government, through the Religious Affairs Ministry, and Thailand," Ali said.
He expressed hope that the latest initiative would help quell the long-running Deep South insurgency.
"We are expecting that education will improve the situation in Thailand and help to solve the long-lasting conflict in the region. We hope Indonesia can inspire the Deep South to overcome religious conflict," he told reporters in Yogyakarta.
About 90 Thai students have already studied at Sunan Kalijaga, according to Lertkiat of SBPAC.
"The university has played a role in increasing the richness of education and Islam," he said, according to Antara. "We think, through education, conflicts in the South Thailand border could be settled."
Missionaries for Ramadan
Suryadharma also said he would send a mission of Islamic preachers to southern Thailand as early as July.
Many students in Yogyakarta responded positively. Sidik Jaffar, a student at Sunan Kalijaga, said Indonesia can share its experiences.
"We have been facing a lot of religious violence in Indonesia," he told Khabar Southeast Asia. "I believe preachers from Indonesia will contribute to create peace and encourage education improvements in southern Thailand."
July is an appropriate time to launch the programme, he added.
"It will be Ramadan coming up. For Muslims, it is a good time to reflect. I hope Indonesian Muslims in the mission will be able to share what is important to increase tolerance and to improve peace in the region," Sidik told Khabar.
Zainudin Malik, an Islamic cleric from Sleman, Yogyakarta, said that similar initiatives could be extended to other countries such as Malaysia, Burma and the Philippines.
"The most important thing in the co-operation is to assure that Islam is spreading the word of peace and not violence. I hope our preachers will be able to deliver the message of the Qur'an. It is a message of peace and tolerance," he said.
According to the Head of the Religious Ministry office in Yogyakarta, Maskul Haji, the missionaries "will foster religious life in Thailand".
He assured that the mission would send a positive message of Islam and peace.
"I am sure this mission will encourage everyone to appreciate that Islam is only teaching peace and not violence," Maskul said.
Need for dialogue
At a dinner he hosted for the Thai delegation on May 30th, Governor Sultan Hamengkubuwono X expressed his belief that the Deep South conflict can be settled through dialogue and just leadership.
"To conduct a dialogue indeed takes a long time. But it is better than never having dared to try, and having people become victims," he told the gathering, according to Antara.
"I understand and I hear the problems of Thailand. I have confidence that the leaders of Thailand are also religious. Leaders must have a sense of justice," he said. He said that as leader of Yogyakarta and a Muslim, he has a duty to build unity among followers of different religions.
"Indeed, it is not an easy task, but it is the duty of a leader," he said.