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Muslims in Thailand: A Minority Challenge

Religious Minorities' Report
By Phaison Daoh
Freelance Writer-Songkhla, Thailand
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Muslims make up the second largest minority group in Thailand, after the ethnic Chinese population.

Those living outside of Thailand often imagine the country as a homogeneous society, but closer examination reveals much diversity.

Although the majority of Thais practice Buddhism, the unofficial state religion, small but notable Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Taoist populations exist, and many estimate that up to 10 percent of Thailand's 64 million inhabitants are Muslim.

Muslims make up the second largest minority group in Thailand, after the ethnic Chinese population. And while some Thai Muslims are ethnically Persian, Cham (Cambodian Muslim), Bengali, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese, most are Malay, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Malay Peninsula and parts of Sumatra, Borneo and Malaysia.

Muslims & Thai Cultures

Although Thailand's Muslims live in different parts of the country, Malay Muslims live mainly in Thailand's southern provinces of Pattani, Yala Naratiwat, Songkhla and Satun, bordering Malaysia.

Unlike their fellow non-Malay Muslims who tend to be more assimilated, Malay Muslims have found it difficult to become an integrated part of Thai culture. A significant number of separatist movements have emerged as a result. And measures by the Thai government to suppress these movements have resulted in decades of violent conflict.

Violent clashes  has created a renewed urgency to find alternative solutions to the conflict. One such approach is to review the assimilation and integration policies that the Thai government has tried to implement in the south for decades.

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The government needs to reconsider its integration policies.

Malay Muslims lived in what is now Thailand before the formation of the Thai Kingdom and were incorporated into the Kingdom during the latter part of 18th century. The Malay Muslim population opposed this incorporation because they had been living under an independent Muslim sultanate and preferred to be integrated into a Malay state or govern themselves.

Massive assimilation policies launched by the Pibul Songkhram-led nationalist party in the 1940s created further resentment amongst Malay Muslims. The government tried to force the Malay people to shed their identity both as Malay and Muslims. They were prevented from wearing the traditional Malay skirt-like sarongs and head coverings, or Kerudung, were not allowed to speak Malay and were expected to adopt Thai names. They were also prohibited from practicing Islam on the basis that Buddhism was the dominant religion of Thailand.

The government abolished Islamic courts that had been established to rule on Muslim family affairs, and Malay students were made to pay their respects to images of Buddha placed in public schools.

Those who refused to adhere to these policies were arrested; some even tortured. This policy had a devastating effect on the relationship between the Thai government and people in the south.

Although these policies were later lifted, one thing that seems unchanged over decades is "the government's unwillingness to recognize the nature of the conflict as one involving deep-rooted social and cultural issues", to quote Michael Vatikiotis, a Singapore-based scholar on Southeast Asia.

A greater understanding of cultural and social realities could also result in policies that are less focused on military action and lead to engaging southern populations in culturally respectful ways.

While the government has made efforts to engage in constructive initiatives, the cultural insensitivity of many policies demonstrates this continued lack of understanding. For example, former Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra's government implemented a scholarship for southern students allotted by lottery – which is considered a form of gambling unacceptable to Malay Muslims.

Instead Bangkok tends to see the conflict as a result of criminal activities by religious militants in the south. Military operations therefore are always the backbone of government policies.

And government officials from the Malay Muslim region are still predominantly ethnically Thai and religiously Buddhist, resulting in a lack of representation for the majority Malay Muslim population in the region at the national level.

The government needs to reconsider its integration policies. One way peaceful integration of Malay Muslims into Thailand could be achieved is for the government to grant Malay Muslims the autonomy to govern themselves. Autonomous rule could enable Malay Muslims to directly impact their ability to improve the standard of living in their communities.

A greater understanding of cultural and social realities could also result in policies that are less focused on military action and lead to engaging southern populations in culturally respectful ways.

Assimilation and integration policy lies at the heart of the conflict in southern Thailand. Conflict in this region will continue to erupt unless those involved proactively address the problem.

This article is part of a series on lesser-known Muslim societies written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Related Links:
Islam in Igbo Land
Islam in the Eyes of Non-Muslims
Muslims in China- Past and Present
Phaison Daoh is a political science lecturer at Prince Shongkla University in Thailand.

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