Muslim in Thailand
Muslims comprise Thailand's largest religious minority and are concentrated mainly in the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun. Islam is said to have been introduced to the Malay Peninsula by Arab traders and adventures during the 13th century. Most Thai Muslims are Malay descent, reflecting the common cultural heritage Thailand's southernmost provinces share with Malaysia.
Ninety-nine percent Sunni and one percent Shi'ite Thai Muslims enjoy inspirational and finacial support from His Majesty the King, who provided money for translating the Koran into Thai. Each year the King or his representative also presides during celebration commemorating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Moreover, His Majesty appoints a respected Muslim religious leader as Chularajamontri, or State Counselor for all Islamic affairs. The government also provides funds for building and renovating mosques.
In some southern provinces where the Muslim population is substantial, government-employed Muslims are allowed to leave for important Muslim festivals and allowed to work half-days on Friday, the Muslim holy day. In such provinces family and inheritance cases are judged according to Koranic with a Muslim religious judge, or "kadi", sitting on the bench. In addition, one four months' leave with full salary is also granted to allow an employee to make the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
There are approximately 2,000 mosques in Thailand, about 100 of which are in Bangkok. Some 200 Muslim schools offer secular as well as religious instruction. All in all, Thailand's Muslims enjoy full state support and are free to teach and practice their religion according to their own tenets.
1. THE THAI MUSLIM COMMUNITY
The Thai Muslim community is not regarded by the Thai authorities and society as a “minority” group. The minorities who live in Thailand consist of various ethnic groups such as Thai Yai, Karen and Wah. The Thai Muslim community, on the other hand, consists of Thais who profess the Islamic faith. They enjoy the same legal and political status as Thais of other religious beliefs such as Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Confucians. Each of these religious groups has its own identity, religious values and practices, as well as distinct cultural traditions and way of life. The fact that they have their own identity, however, is not grounds for differential treatment or deprivation.
At present, there are approximately 7.5 million Thai Muslims in the Kingdom or about 12% of the total 62.5 million Thai populations. The approximate numbers of Thais as categorized by religion are as follows :
(Hindus, Confucians, Sikhs, etc.)
Almost all of the Thai Muslims belong to the Sunni sect. very few are Shiite and a very small number of those who follow Wahhabism can also be found. This is a living proof of the freedom of religion enjoyed by the Thai people.
As for the 3 southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, in which the majority of the people are Muslims, a recent census by the Ministry of Interior shows that the inhabitants of these provinces can be grouped by religion as follows :
The Thai Muslims living in the 3 southern border provinces therefore constitute about 18% of the total Thai Muslim population. Meanwhile, a recent survey by the Ministry of Culture shows that Thailand has a total of 3,406 mosques located in 61 of the 76 provinces. These mosques are situated in different regions of Thailand as follows :
2. SOCIAL AND POLITICAL EQUALITY IN THAILAND
The constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand stipulates the following :
“Section 38 A person shall enjoy full liberty to profess a religion, a religious sect or creed, and observe religious precepts or exercise a form of worship in accordance with his or her belief; provided that it is not contrary to his or her civic duties public order or good morals.
In exercising the liberty referred to in the above paragraph, a person is protected from any act of the state, which is derogatory to his or her rights or detrimental to his or her due benefits on the ground of professing a religion, a religious sect or creed or observing religious precepts or exercising a form of worship in accordance with his or her different belief from that of others.”
In accordance with this section of the Constitution, Thai Muslims enjoy the same support and protection accorded to all Thai citizens. They have the full liberty to practice their faith and propagate the Islamic belief as well as take part in religious and social affairs. They are also entitled to the same political rights as all other Thai citizens to participate fully, without any discrimination, in the Thai political system of democracy with the King as Head of State.
These equal opportunities and full liberty are manifested by the fact that a large number of Thai Muslims have made remarkable achievements in all walks of life. Some of the Thai Muslims have assumed positions of high public prestige. For example, in the Parliament there are at present 7 Muslim senators and 21 Muslim members of the House of Representatives. In the Executive branch of Government, Mr. Wanmuhamadnoor Matha, a Thai Muslim, is currently a Deputy Prime Minister. In the past, several Thai Muslims had served in important positions such as President of the National Assembly, President of the House of Representatives, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and ministers of other ministries. Moreover, a large number of Thai Muslims currently occupy high-ranking posts such as Permanent Secretary, Ambassador and so forth. Some female Thai Muslims have played an important role in public activities and have been bestowed Royal Decorations with prestigious titles such as Khun Ying and Than Phuying.
3. THE INSTITUTION OF THE MONARCHY AND ISLAM
By the long-standing tradition of the Thai Monarchy and in accordance with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, the Thai King, who is the Head of State, is the Patron of all religions. The Thai monarch has always extended Royal patronage and support to Thai Muslims as He has done to people of other religious faiths. Islam and Thai Muslims have thus been supported by every Thai King during every reign and period.
The Thai monarchs have consistently supported Islamic affairs and have been involved in many activities and ceremonies connected to Islam. The King appoints the Chularajmontri (Shiekhul Islam or Grand Mufti), as nominated by the Prime Minister, after first receiving approval from the Provincial Islamic Committees, to be the leader of Thai Muslims. The current Monarch, his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, had initiated the translation of the Holy Loran into the Thai language. His Majesty often allocates His personal funds for the construction and restoration of mosques. Their Majesties the King and the Queen have always participated in the ceremony marking the anniversary of the birth of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Maulidinnabi) which the Thai Muslim community celebrates every year. In the event of being unable to preside over the ceremony, Their Majesties would appoint a high-ranking member of the Royal Family to Their Royal representative.
4. THE ROLE OF THE EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT IN ISLAMIC AFFAIRS
Successive Thai governments and parliaments have attached great importance to promoting Islamic affairs and the status of Thai Muslims. Both institutions and also committed to the protection of Thai Muslims so that they can preserve their identity and live according to Islamic principles, traditions and ways of life. Efforts have also been made to ensure their rights and freedom to pass on the Islamic message to their descendants.
In this spirit, the Act on the Administration of Islamic Organizations was enacted in 1997, leading to the formation of the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand. The Central Islamic Committee is presided over by the Chularajmontri (Shiekhul Islam or Grand Mufti), who acts as a state adviser on Islamic affairs. Under the Central Committee, each province with a sufficiently large Muslim population has its own Provincial Islamic Committee. The provincial committee acts in an advisory capacity on Islamic affairs at the provincial level and has the power to appoint the Committee of the Mosque. At present, there are a total of 3,460 committees of the mosques nationwide.
In the field of education, the National Education Act stipulates that individuals, families, communities, and social and religious institutions, including non-governmental organizations, shall have the right to provide basic education and shall be entitled to equitable benefits given by the government. The Thai Muslim youth thus has the full liberty to study Islam offered by various Islamic entities at a very young age. Usually, young Thai Muslims are first enrolled in the pre-school development center (rawdah) run by local mosques. After that, they are enrolled at a center for religious and ethics training (tadika) also run by the local mosques. At the primary and secondary school levels, Thai Muslims are able to choose between attending regular schools or private Islamic schools (Pondok or Ponoh) or private schools that offer instruction in both religious studies and regular subjects. At the university level, the government had set up the College of Islamic Studies in Pattani Province in 1988. in the year 1998, a private Islamic college was set up in Yala Province, with financial support from the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and other sources including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
Currently, the Government, in collaboration with the Al Azhar University of Egypt, plans to establish another Islamic university in Narathiwat Province.
The education of the Thai Muslim youth has always been well linked to the Muslim Ummah. They receive financial support and donations in accordance with Islamic principles from Islamic charitable organizations. A number of Thai Muslim students receive government scholarships from Muslim countries to further their studies abroad. The approximate numbers of Thai Muslim students who are studying in Islamic countries are as follows :
As most of the population of the southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Satun are Thai Muslims, the Government has since 1946 enacted a royal act to provide Thai Muslims in these provinces with the right to opt for the application of Islamic law concerning heritage and family affairs. The law also provides for the appointment of 2 ‘Dato Yuttitam’ (Islamic Judges) per provincial court.
Furthermore, in order to enable Thai Muslims to conduct their trade and financial affairs in accordance with Islamic practices, the Government established the Islamic Bank of Thailand in 2003. Brunei is one of the major shareholders of the Bank and the Kingdom of Bahrain has already expressed its interest.
5. THE SITUATION IN THE SOUTHERN BORDER PROVINCES OF THAILAND
In the three southern border provinces of Thailand (Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat), most of the people are descended from the indigenous people on the Malay Peninsula. The local language is the Yawee language. The social characteristics of the area are those of Malay Muslims, who form the majority of the people in the society and live in harmony with ethnic Thai and Chinese minorities. At present, there are about 1.4 million Thai Muslims in the three provinces, which accounts for 18% of the Thai Muslim population.
The problems in the three southern provinces are in general similar to those existing in remote provinces of other regions in Thailand. They include poverty, being underdeveloped, unemployment, low education, as well as discrimination from corrupt and misbehaving officers. However, due to the specific social and cultural conditions mentioned above, these problems have been used as a pretext for creating divisions and attempting to separate the three southern provinces from the rest of Thailand by claiming the history of semi-autonomous Pattani over 100 years ago.
Several separatist movements have exploited the differences in ethnicity, religion, language, and culture by using them as a tool to mobilize people and seek external support in order to further their political and other objectives. These attempts have been unsuccessful in inducing the local people since they resort to violent means and thus undermine public safety and security. They include illegal activities such as kidnapping, drug trafficking and smuggling of weapons as well as attacks on people and the authorities in order to create fear (such as setting fire to schools and telephone booths, plotting bomb attacks, and robbery).
In addition, the movements are often subject to their own internal conflicts. For instance, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) is divided into three groups : BRN Coordinate; BRN Congress; and BRN Ulama. Other movements include Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), which is split in to the new PULO and the old PULO, and Mujahideen Islamic Pattani Group (BBMP), which has separated from Barisan Islam Pembebesan Pattani (BIPP).
Each of these outlawed movements has a few hundred members. Some movements have less than 100 members and their operations usually end with failure. They have become weakened and eventually have to dissolve their movements. Thus, their role has effectively been reduced. Most of the former insurgents have surrendered to the authorities and have been peacefully reassimilated into the society. Some of the members immigrated to other countries. More than ten years ago, there was an attempt to combine all the movements under the name of United front for the Independence of Pattani (BERSATU). However, that attempt was unsuccessful.
6. THE RECENT SITUATION
Since 4 January 2004, incidents have taken place in the southern provinces without any particular targets. Nobody has claimed responsibility. The targets include the authorities and ordinary people who are Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. On 4 January 2004 alone, there were 19 arson attacks on 19 schools and a raid on a military depot which resulted in the killing of a number of soldiers and the seizure of a large amount of weapons from the authorities.
The attempts to instigate instability have continued. In the early hours of 28 April 2004, groups of militants launched coordinated attacks at 11 locations in Yala, Pattani, and Songkhla which were well guarded by the authorities. This resulted in the loss of many perpetrators’ lives.
The above-mentioned incident has created increasing tensions and conflicts, which are deliberately set to become a religious issue. Some militants took refuge in the Krue Se Mosque, which is an ancient site and a place to perform religious rites. The authorities had surrounded the area and persuaded the militants to surrender. After 10 hours, the situation was not improved and ultimately the fighting began, involving many losses of lives. Nevertheless, some circles criticize the authorities for using excessive force. The Prime Minister has therefore appointed an Independent Fact-Finding Commission on the Krue Se Mosque, Pattani Incident to investigate and evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident. The Commission consists of a former judge of the Constitutional Court, a former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, an Islamic leader, former ambassadors and academics.
According to the interrogation of the arrested insurgents, most of the militants were youths in the area of the southern border provinces. They were misled and incited to violence. Distorted religious principles and bribery were used to indoctrinate and lure them. The Thai Government realizes that what has happened is due to erroneous belief and, thus, adheres to peaceful means in solving the problem. These include accelerating economic, social and community development in the area in order to achieve sustainable prosperity, raising people’s standard of living, and improving the local administration of the basis of the needs of the people and community.
With regard to those who harbour separatist ideas, the Thai Government is poised to hear about their ideologies as fellow Thais. However, the Thai Government will neither regard this as a negotiation nor accept their status as negotiators.
The problems in the southern provinces stem from neither religious conflict nor the infringement of religious freedom. The Thai Government believes that cultural diversity and religious pluralism can serve as a constructive force in social development. Therefore, the Government refrains from any act which may affect the religious, cultural and traditional sentiments of Thai Muslims. In some cases, this has led to an excessive exercise of liberty and the Government is too cautions to interfere. For instance, there is no requirement for children in the southern border provinces to study the Thai language, unlike those in other provinces. Also, there exist no regulations for the establishment of a ponoh Islamic school, which differs from rules and regulations obliged by other schools. Without the regulations, even one religious teacher is able to set up a ponoh Islamic school and arrange his own curriculum. Moreover, the Government grants substantial freedom to the media, including freedom of expression. Even the viewpoints of small groups or academics in support of the separation of southern Thailand are publicized in national newspapers.
Therefore, it is clear that the Thai Muslim community enjoys the same civil liberty and equality as well as religious, political, economic and social protection as Thais of other religions. The Government has always endeavored to provide support and assistance to Islamic affairs as well as to the Thai Muslims. Also, it has exerted every effort to improve in every aspect the conditions of the Thai community in southern Thailand so that they can enjoy a good standard of living, similar to that of the Thai Muslim community in other regions and all Thai citizens.