Thailand’s Deepening Muslim-Buddhist Divide

A campaign to see Buddhism become the country's official religion has exposed an ugly rift that could have serious consequences for the Muslim minority.

During the Ramadan in Thailand.
During the Ramadan in Thailand.
Kannikar Petchkaew

CHIANG MAI â€" It's the end of Friday afternoon prayers for the Muslim community in Den Chai, a district in northern Thailand. Most are heading home after the prayers, chatting with their neighbors along the way. But not Somjit, who is hurrying to catch a bus. He has a long trip ahead and little time to waste.

Somjit and a group of his neighbors are forced to travel nearly 145 kilometers every Friday for their prayers because their province, Nan, doesn't have any mosques. "I leave my house at seven or eight in the morning to go to the bus station and catch a bus or van to this province. Then I take another bus to the town and another still to the mosque," he explains. "It takes between four and five hours, and often I don’t make it in time."

Muslims are a tiny minority in Nan. There are only about 60 of them, compared to 500,000 Buddhists. They've tried several times to have a mosque built, but their plans have always been blocked. Elsewhere in northern Thailand, recent protests by Buddhist monks and everyday Thais have halted construction of several mosques, as well as halal food industrial plants.

Antagonisms are even greater in Thailand's deep south, where a long-running conflict between government forces and Muslims has claimed some 6,500 lives since 2004. No longer, though, are the problems confined to that area â€" to places such as Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Instead, tensions are spreading, fueled by comments from people like Aphichat Promjan, an academic and monk from a famous temple in the capital, Bangkok.

"A mosque, starting in the northern part of the country, should be burned for every Buddhist monk who is killed in the deep south by a blast or bullet," he says. Promjan has been preaching this kind of hate speech since last year.

Middlemen and distributors

On the other side of the country, in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Suchat Sethamanilee, a local Muslim and academic who teaches peace studies at Pyap University, shows me the historic home of Khunchuangliangleukiat, who was one of the area's first Muslim traders.

Sethamanilee, who was raised in the area, recounts details of Muslims' long history in Thailand, including the first Sheikh-ul-Islam, who was appointed 400 years ago. "There were Chinese Muslims, Bengalis, Muslims from India and Pakistani Muslims," he goes on to say. "They all moved here more than 100 years ago. They ran businesses as middlemen and used their horse-drawn caravans to distribute goods to people living in the mountains."

The professor shows me Ban Ho mosque, erected a century ago this September. The mosque shares a wall with a Buddhist temple. "When the Buddhists pray, their voices travel into the mosque, just as we're conducting our prayers," he says. "Our Azan, or call to prayer, which is quite loud, is played through the speaker, so it is also heard when they pray. But we've never had any problems between us."

Controversial clause

Thailand’s new draft Constitution will go to a referendum vote this August. A clause to see the country officially become a Buddhist state was eventually rejected in the draft, but the document does include a statement about how Thailand must protect Buddhists, which account for 90% of the population. There was no mention of protecting the minority Muslim community.

Surapot Taweesak, a Buddhist academic at Rajabhata Instistute in Bangkok, says there is "an obvious political objective" in the push for Thailand to be a Buddhist state. "But in the long run, I don’t think it would have a positive impact on the health of democracy and peace between religions," he says.

Taweesak says the idea to have an official Buddhist state was initially included in the draft Constitution for political reasons, to please the Buddhist majority. Many Thais supported the idea, arguing that Buddhist morals could help guide Thailand out of political turmoil.

Sethamanilee believes the Islamic community has an important role to play in the current political climate. They need to help educate Buddhist Thais and ensure that all non-Muslims are treated like brothers, he argues. "I don't blame people from other religions for their lack of understanding," the academic adds. "I would ask that Muslims try to understand this issue with open minds and a dose of humility, to see how we have portrayed our Islam to others. Did we do a good job of conveying what Islam is really about?"

Ultimately, the current divisions may also need a political fix. "In the end we have to be democratic," Taweesak says. "Any religion in Thailand should live under the principle of democracy. And at the very least, we have to respect the principles of human rights."

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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