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.
CHIANG MAI — 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 — 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."
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."