An estimated 40,000 people attended the Melayu Raya 2023 event held at Pantai Taluban, Pattani, on April 30, 2023. (Photo: Civil Society Assembly for Peace / Facebook)

An estimated 40,000 people attended the Melayu Raya 2023 event held at Pantai Taluban, Pattani, on April 30, 2023. (Photo: Civil Society Assembly for Peace / Facebook)

‘Melayu Raya’ Celebrations in Thailand’s Conflict-Stricken Deep South


A community event by and for young Malay/Muslims in Thailand’s south reflects identity and community aspirations amidst political uncertainty in the wider nation-state.

With the Thai elections happening on May 14, 2023, conversations on peace talks and conflict resolution in the Deep South — Thailand’s three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — have become the talk of the town again. While Bangkok would understand self-independence from Thailand as the desired outcome for Pattanians, the Malay youths that have since birth lived with the discomforts and inconvenience of the 2004 Martial Law harbour desires that are more realistic and beg the right to choose or display their own identity (attalak). This stance opposes the “Thai Muslim” identifier the state imposes on them, which they feel dismisses their Malay ethnic affiliation.

After fasting through Ramadan, Muslims around the world celebrate the month of Syawal. In Thailand’s Deep South, the Malays, who are the majority of Muslims, often dress up in traditional Malay attire and visit relatives to seek forgiveness. Syawal, or Hari Rayo as it is often called, is typically celebrated modestly on the first and sixth days of the month. However, since 2014, a much-anticipated event which occurs on the third day of Hari Rayo has been marked on calendars.

This gathering, called Melayu Raya (Malay Celebration) has rallied huge crowds — an estimated 40,000 people this year — particularly Malay youths, to a beach town called Pantai Taluban, Pattani. Anybody can attend this massive gathering, with a single condition: one must be dressed in “Malay costume” (baju Nayu). This rule is open to interesting interpretations for a community which has long been culturally restricted, specifically since 1932 when then Thai premier Phibunsongkhram’s administration imposed Thai national dress, which largely excluded Deep South or Malay emblems.

At Melayu Raya this year, some were dressed like Malay royalty, donning the headgear (tanjak); others came with baju Melayu akin to their Malay counterparts in neighbouring countries with their neatly folded kain samping (side or “merchant cloth”, like a short sarong). Most attendees wore kain lepas around their heads or slung around their neck, a trademark among Patani Malays. As cautioned by the organisers, Civil Society Assembly for Peace (CAP), through a Facebook update for this year’s event, “Minimally, one should wear the sarong with the headgear (kopiah), because [we] are Malays and not just Thai Muslims”. (Author’s translation.)

According to Anattata Naser, a member of a non-profit organisation called Saiburi Looker (the original founder of the Melayu Raya event and a collaborator of CAP), Melayu Raya was first held in 2014 as a response to the increasing “Arabisation” trend he observed in the Deep South. The homogenising of Thai Muslims (Thai Mutsalim) by the Thai government is a development which he sees as correlated with that trend. Anattata and his group of friends from Saiburi Looker are determined to reignite the Malay identity (attalak), reacting against the social identifier (ekkalak) of “Thai Muslim” which disregards their ethnic affiliations.

This year, like in past years, Melayu Raya was held on April 24, 2023, largely for Malay males (pemuda). An offshoot event, the Raya Budaya (Cultural Celebration) was held on April 30, 2023 for female youths (pemudi). This year’s event was only the second to be held in a centralised location. Prior to this, Melayu Raya celebrants were usually congregated separately in the provincial cities of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.

In 2022, with COVID-19 restrictions being lifted, bigger gatherings could be held. However, last year’s high turnout (of an estimated 30,000 youths) put Thai security personnel stationed in the region on notice and also raised concern among the organisers. According to Bong Aladee, an organising member from CAP, the organisers stopped the event short in 2022 due to fears that “semangat juwae” (fighting spirit) might grow among the crowd. The organisers did not want a repeat of the “peristiwa Takbah”, otherwise known as the Tak Bai Massacre, on 25 October 2004. The incident etched a painful collective memory among Malay Muslims in the Deep South: on that tragic day, 7 Malay Muslims were shot by army and police units when the former protested in front of Tak Bai Army Camp. Another 78 detained protesters suffocated to death in the cramped lorries used to transport them to an army camp in Pattani.

Figure 1: Jehabdullah Jehsorhor presenting his performance art which features the use of batik lepas and explains the plight of the Takbai Massacre victims. (Source: Civil Society Assembly for Peace / Facebook)

Given this history, Melayu Raya 2023 was more organised and held with the express permission (anuyak) of the local administration office (Or Bor Tor), the Thai police and the Thai army, which put the security personnel and the attendees at ease. This year’s chosen theme, “Damai Bermoral” (Peace with Morality), reinforced this commitment. In an interview with the author, Anattata explained that his fellow organisers believed that the theme was apt given the tense political climate of the upcoming Thai elections. Unlike in past years, the organisers additionally forbade the display of flags indicating any political party affiliation or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) support. This move represents what CAP stands for: a peaceful movement that foregrounds the long-oppressed Malay “dignity” (bermaruah) in the southernmost provinces of Thailand.

Unlike the age-old speculation that Pattanians yearn for self-independence, perhaps what the present Malay youths truly want is a recognition of their long-suppressed identity as Malays in Thailand…

Melayu Raya is nevertheless an event filled with heated debates and sentiments about the attendees’ “second-class status” as Thai Muslims. Included in the event’s line-up was a performance art piece by Jehabdullah Jehsorhor, a fine arts lecturer at the Prince of Songkhla University and founder of Patani Artspace, whose work reflected on the pain inflicted upon the Takbai Massacre victims. Jehabdullah explained that his intention was not to juwae (to engage in or promote armed rebellion) but to rekindle the [Malay] community’s collective emotion and convey their desire to be recognised for “who they are”.

Unlike the age-old speculation that Pattanians yearn for self-independence, perhaps what the present Malay youths truly want is a recognition of their long-suppressed identity as Malays in Thailand — as original, respected locals, distinct from the Malays of neighbouring countries. Perhaps one should consider taking grassroots actions to understand how the Malay communities are asserting themselves in the conflict-stricken Deep South. Melayu Raya presents itself as a channel towards this approach.


Said Effendy Said Iziddin is a Research Associate in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a recipient of the ISEAS Tun Dato’ Sir Cheng Lock Tan Scholarship.