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Southeast Asia

The Islamization of Thailand

Prof. Murray Hunter

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The perceived relative homogeneity of Thai culture and society is being challenged on multiple fronts today. So much has been said about the socio-economic division within Thai society, epitomized by the ‘red’ verses ‘yellow’ shirt movements, and political outcomes over the last decade and a half.

However very little is said, publicly anyway, about the growing influence upon Thai society, that Thailand’s Muslim population is now projecting at many levels.  

The current Muslim population of Thailand is between 5-6%, depending upon which set of statistics you consult. This consists of a number of dispersed ethnic groups throughout the country. About 18% of Thailand’s Muslims live within the Southern provinces of Songkhla, Satun, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, who are primarily of the Malay, Javanese, and Acehnese origins, agricultural based, that practice the ‘Malay’ culture. These groups are domiciled around what was the former Greater Petanni Sultanate, that came to being around 9th Century, and was annexed by Thailand in 1909 from British influence.

Along the West and East Coasts of the Peninsula across Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Ranong, Nakkon Si Thammarat, and Surat Thani, are a mixture of Sea Gypsy, Thai, somewhat intermarried with the ancestors of Arab and Pakistani traders of the past. These groups were once primarily fisheries and agricultural based. Unlike the Petanni group who still keep a strong ‘Malay’ identity, this group primarily communicate in Thai and have on the whole integrated well with Thai society.

In other provinces, descendents of immigrants from the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Cham from Cambodia, Pakistanis and Indians from South Asia, and the Hui from Yunnan, China in Northern Thailand. A group of Muslims from Persia and Arabia engaged in trade and commerce, migrated to the old Ayutthaya Empire, and integrated with the nobility of Thai society at the time, and are still well integrated today. The rest of Thailand’s Muslim population is made up of a growing number of converts from those who have worked overseas.

Most Muslims in Thailand are Sunni following the Shaffie school, although there are a small number of Hanafi, and Shiites around the Thornburi area. Small deviating groups like Al-Arqam banned in Malaysia, flourish in Thailand.

Military rule tended to repress the Muslims in the South for some years, where Thai authorities liked to scapegoat and blame all Muslims for the troubles in the south. However Royal patronage of Islam due to the insurgency has given Islam much more exposure. The image of a Muslim as a dark skinned Southern ‘khaeg’ has radically changed in Thailand. Consequently there is now much less employment discrimination against Muslims today and a number of Muslims have held high offices in government, police, and the military.

Islamic affairs are coordinated by the Central Islamic Council of Thailand which has five councilors appointed by the King. This body links the Government and Islamic communities, where education, the construction of mosques, pilgrimage to Mecca are assisted.

Under the Central Islamic Council are provincial councils. Today there are 38 provincial Islamic committees nationwide, which govern many local Islamic issues within their respective communities. Many committees operate Islamic schools which teach both the national and Islamic curriculum. There are a number of Ulama who tend to come from a select number of well known families within the various Muslim communities around Thailand. These families often operate private Madrasas (Islamic schools), some teaching both curriculum and some teaching only the Islamic curriculum. Some families operate Pondoks, numbering over 1,000, which just teach Islam. This is particularly the case in Nakkon Si Thammarat, where this generational heritage is very strong. The descendents of early teachers are still community leaders like the former ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan .

The traditional Ulama in Thailand have great influence over how Islam is interpreted within their respective communities, where this tends to be a force for fragmentation rather than Ummah cohesion. As a consequence Thai Muslims don’t speak with one unified voice in Thailand, and there is very little consensus over many issues.

The various Thai Muslim communities are very distinct from each other.

Most Ulama in Thailand have only undertaken Islamic studies at college or university and tend to take a conservative Islamic perspective about social issues. This is even more so in the ‘Deep South’ where issues of Malay language, conflicts between civil and military policy, and ‘outsiders’ have led to the perception that the Central Government in Bangkok is intent on having a ‘war’ with Muslims, through ‘Siamization’.

Thus through the Ulama system and issues of the ‘Deep South’ a very conservative approach to Islam is accepted, with suspicion about anybody bringing ‘outside teachings’.

Muslims in Central Thailand on the other hand, especially around Bangkok, appear to be much more progressive and open to exploring integrative ideas that lead to community evolvement and assimilation with the rest of the Thai community. This is also the case in the young urban population, who are very tolerant and tend not to follow the taboos of their ‘Malay’ counterparts in Malaysia. In Thailand, non-Muslims are welcome into mosques, and it is very common for Muslims and non-Muslims to carry on friendships and dine out together.

There are signs of a deeper Islamization all over Thailand, from the shopping centres where you see many more women wearing Islamic dress, to the landscapes of towns and cities where many new mosques and Islamic schools can be seen springing up. Many Muslim households display Arabic verses of the Al Quran outside their homes. Some of these influences like in Chiang Mai has very old historical roots, however in other places, a very noticeable increase in Muslim presence can be felt with Muslim restaurants appearing to cater for new Muslim settlers in many areas.

From the business perspective, Thailand has become very innovative within the commerce sector through the development of ‘Halal’ tourism, ‘Halal’ hotels and resorts, Islamic banking, Islamic micro-finance, ‘Halal’ housing and condominium projects, as well as food and beverage products. There is a general awareness developing among Muslim entrepreneurs about ethical business opportunities, utilizing the ‘Tawhid’ as an ethical business model.

The ‘deep south’ as it is known by Thais has thriving market and trade economies in the major towns of Petanni, Yala, and Narathiwat. The author on a recent trip through the area found markets open very early and thriving with trade. Entrepreneurship and small business seemed to be very buoyant, even with warnings from various quarters not to go there.

Professor Winai Dahlan, the founder and director of the Halal Science Centre at Chulalongkorn University has developed a complete Halal logistical tracking system and protocols called Hal Q, which has not just been widely accepted by Muslim businesses in Thailand, but has been taken onboard as an industry standard by many multinational food manufacturers in Thailand. In addition, many Arab countries have also adopted this system and come to Thailand for training on Halal logistic management, putting Thailand more than a decade in advance of any system Malaysia has to offer. This has enabled Thailand to become one of the foremost Halal food manufacturers in the region today.  

The Islamization of Thailand is being pushed through demographic changes. Muslim parents are having more children than their non-Muslim counterparts today in Thailand, and this is shifting the population balance towards a higher percentage of Muslims. This is particularly so in the rural areas of the ‘deep south’. To some extent this appears to be under the official radar. However some websites now report the Muslim population in Thailand to be as high as 10%.

The growing percentage of Muslim population within Thailand will have a number of effects upon Thai society over the coming years. Just as the South was Thai-ized in the period 1902-1944, now Thailand is being Islamized in a way never seen before.

The Thai-Muslim sense of identity will need accommodation within existing narratives of what is ‘Thainess’ today. “Thainess’ will have to allow some plurality in the future. Although as mentioned before, the younger generation of Muslims see themselves as Thais, it is the small extreme groups that will put pressure for new dualities of ‘Thainess’.

One can see an acknowledgement of this by the Thai army in their signs outside military bases in the south. Signs outside military bases once said, “For Country, Religion, Monarchy, and People”. Now they read “For Country, Religions, Monarchy, and the People”.

However the road to these accommodations will be a rocky one due to the long historical struggle in the south. The conflict is between a number of ‘separatist groups’ and the government. Various interests have painted this as a religious based conflict, especially with the attack upon monks and Buddhists over the last decade. However history shows that this struggle is more about ethnic identity, than Islam, where many leaders of these ‘separatist groups’ have called themselves ‘Bangsa Petanni’, rather than Muslims. Internal interests and outside interests like the United States have tried to widen the perspective of the Southern problems, which thankfully have been rejected by various Thai Governments over the last few years.

The Islamization of Thailand represents just as a challenge as the rich and poor divide of Thailand, which has had such a profound influence on the political scene over the last decade. Discussion of Islamization of Thailand has been generally suppressed, except within the higher circles of power. Great changes in Thai society are inevitable in the near future, due to the Islamization of Thailand.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

France returns to Laos

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The geographical location of Laos, a small landlocked state surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, has made it imperative for this country to pursue a well-balanced multi-faceted foreign policy that hinges on the development of a mobile system of economic and political counterbalances.

Regional integration is key to the economic development of Laos. A major integration mechanism is ASEAN, of which Laos has been a member since 1997. 99% of Laos’ residents believe that their country’s membership in this organization yields tangible economic benefits; 92.5% say it has improved their personal financial standing.

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is committed to developing relations with China, Thailand and Vietnam but pursues a preferential policy as regards each of them.

China remains number one investor in the Laotian economy ($ 8.5 billion) with the bulk of the finances channeled into the mining, transport infrastructure and energy sectors. In 2016, trade turnover between the two countries reached $ 2 billion , a significant amount for Laos with its less than 7 million population. The largest Chinese-Lao project is the railway from Kunming Province (PRC) to Laotian capital, Vientiane. China is ready to inject more than $ 6 billion in the project

Meanwhile, Laos has been stepping up cooperation with Vietnam, which maintains a wait and see position in relation to China. Laos views Vietnam as a political and ideological counterweight to China. Cultural ties with Vietnam serve as an additional means of preventing the transformation of Beijing’s economic influence into the ideological one. Members of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Laos receive training in Vietnam.

With a view to diversify foreign economic and foreign policy relations, Laos is developing contacts with France, whose colony it used to be in the past. Paris is seen as a remote neighbor of Laos, a partner in the economic and cultural spheres. Since 1991 Laos has been a member of the international organization for the cooperation of the francophone states “Francophone”. According to the French Embassy in Vientiane, the number of Laotians who speak French amounts to 3% and has been increasing over the past 12 years.

Laos is home to two branches of the Institut Francais du Laos (IFL) – an organization that promotes the French language and culture abroad; the French language is on the curriculum of three of the country’s five universities. In March 2018, Laos was visited by leaders of “Francophone”, and in May 2018 – by representatives of the Francophone University Agency. The official mission of the latter is to create a new French-language communication and educational space. The visits resulted in the signing of agreements on further cooperation with both organizations.

The period that saw a catastrophic fall in the demand for the French language in Laos since the mid-1970s is coming to an end. Nevertheless, the Lao Ministry of Education has designated English as a compulsory subject in schools for the 2019 academic year. The decision was prompted by the currently prevailing position of English worldwide and Vientiane’s intention to develop economic ties not only with the Francophone, but also with the Anglosphere.

Along with the cultural influence, France is trying to build up its economic presence in Laos. In May 2018, a French delegation led by French Ambassador Claudine Ledo visited a special economic zone in the province of Savannakhet to examine the prospects for French investment. For Laos, France is the ninth largest trading partner accounting for only 0.2% of the Lao market but it holds top position among non-Asian countries in the volume of investment.

Trade turnover between Laos and France has been fluctuating in recent years between $ 34 and $73 billion. France is prepared to invest in the Lao economy but the volume of investment is determined by the extent of Vientiane’s openness to foreign investment flows and the ability of the Lao economy to ‘digest’ them.

The year 2019 will mark greater cooperation within ASEAN for Laos. Last year, economic issues within ASEAN prevailed over political ones in connection with trade conflicts between the United States, the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. ASEAN countries are planning to launch the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership program (RCEP).

If the program is fulfilled, it will become the largest trade agreement in the world. The cumulative GDP of the countries participating in it makes up 25% of the global GDP, the population accounts for 45%, and the trade turnover amounts to 30% (5). Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea may all be attracted to the program. This will provide Vientiane with more opportunities to diversify foreign economic relations amid China’s growing financial presence in Southeast Asia.

France was the first European country to sign a partnership agreement with ASEAN. Paris regards this organization as key to its policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a major economic partner. The volume of French investments in the ASEAN economy in 2017 reached € 16 billion. France’s share in the ASEAN market is 1.6%. This figure has not changed for ten years.

Paris aims to give cooperation with ASEAN a new impetus, which will impart more momentum to French-Lao relations.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Southeast Asia

On Refugees… And Myanmar: It’s Not Just The Rohingya

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,  Of my heart too sad to sing.  — Paul Laurence Dunbar

The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain.  They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies.  Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason.  Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.

It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery.  Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist.  The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries.  During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists.  It brought lasting enmity.  After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship.  Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two.  The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.

In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh.  The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:

In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000.  The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s  Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.  The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China.  Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages.   The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally.  And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US.  Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader.  Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?

The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise.  Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them.  Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing.  The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million).  The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.

Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag.  A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires.  They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help.  A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us.  We can try to make it so.

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Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Mahathir offers a hypocritical take on ASEAN unity

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“The stability and prosperity of our region,” Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad claimed earlier this week, “rely heavily on a united and integrated ASEAN.” The call for regional unity came as Malaysia’s prime minister was conferred an honorary doctorate in Thailand in the field of social leadership, entrepreneurship and politics, an occasion that marked Mahathir’s second visit to the country since winning a landmark election in May this year. His earlier visit saw him pledge to facilitate peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand amid a persistent separatist insurgency.

While his speech may have been stirring, Mahathir’s grandiose vision of a more unified ASEAN community does not extend to his own government’s policies, at least judging by the escalating border dispute Putrajaya has ignited in recent weeks with neighbouring Singapore. The same Mahathir that called for regional unity in Thailand is refusing to remove ships from disputed waters, while a senior member of his party threatened Singapore with “pain by a thousand cuts”. The provocative language harkens back to the long and tense relationship between the two countries since their 1965 split, with boundary issues typically flaring up in parallel with domestic politics.

This latest dispute straddles two sets of issues. On the maritime side, Malaysia’s October claim to extended limits of the Johor Bahru port has been rejected by Singapore on the grounds that the new boundaries exceed previous claims. In terms of airspace, Malaysia has voiced opposition to the Instrument Landing System (ILS), an assisted navigational aviation facility for Seletar Airport. Malaysia protests the system’s implementation on the grounds that it infringes on national sovereignty and creates adverse impacts on flight paths and shipping in Pasir Gudang.

Mahathir’s renewed aggression toward Singapore marks a notable about-face from predecessor NajibRazak’s efforts to build stronger ties between Malaysia and the city-state. Najib sought to increase mutual trust through cross-border infrastructure and education projects. “We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries,” he declared earlier this year in a barely-veiled barb at Mahathir’s preceding stint in office. “It was an era that we want to forget.”

That attitude was echoed by international observers, who held high hopes for bilateral relations upon Mahathir’s election as PM in May despite his widely-known frosty attitude towards Singapore. A few months in, those hopes have given way to somber disillusionment. The tensions of the past several weeks have revived uncomfortable memories of cross-causeway relations during Mahathir’s first stint in power, when he ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003.

One focal point of tensions is Mahathir’s so-called 2001 “crooked bridge” plan, designed to replace the causeway linking the two countries with a bridge to allow ships to cross the Johor Strait. Singapore refused to back the project, declaring the bridge unnecessary as long as the causeway was in good condition. Mahathir’s insistence on building Malaysia’s end of the bridge, and more recent attempts to revive project discussions, have confirmed fears that his return to power would revive old issues previously laid to rest.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why Mahathir is so blatantly after confrontation with Singapore. Two main theories have emerged to explain the PM’s enmity towards Malaysia’s tiny neighbour. According to the first theory, the idiosyncratic Mahathir holds a grudge from his university days in Singapore, where he faced anti-Malay prejudice and condescension from Singaporeans.

Mahathir does indeed have a history of holding grudges. Long before the Seletar airport issue and the revival of the Johor Strait bridge project, Mahathir had one-time protégé Anwar Ibrahim thrown in jail on trumped up sodomy charges after they disagreed over financial policy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar, who has since re-emerged as a critical political ally for Mahathir, was just one of a long list of political opponents to suffer similar fates during Mahathir’s first tenure.

That trend has carried over into the premier’s second term. Having already spoken at length of his soured impression of successor Abdullah Badawi, the newly reinstated leader is now going after predecessor Najib. Arrested in July in connection with the billion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1MDB, Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the embezzlement of large sums of money. The unfolding case against Najib is being held up as a litmus test of Mahathir’s commitment to justice. The supposedly “bitter” Mahathir is unlikely to disappoint.

The second theory, however, may offer a more straightforward explanation. It suggests Mahathir is using this latest spat with Singapore as a means of drawing attention away from domestic problems. A Nikkei Asian Review report released earlier this year held Mahathir’s government responsible for a rapidly declining ringgit, with the new administration lacking in substantial new economic policies and failing to curb capital outflow.

Mahathir’s economic woes are compounded by rising concerns over Malaysia’s ballooning debt. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, realizations that government debt exceeds RM1 trillion – more than $238 billion – are ringing national alarm bells. The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen nearly ten percent since Mahathir took office.

Amid rising debt, dubious economic policies, and broken election promises, Mahathir’s comments in Thailand earlier this week belied what could very well be a conscious strategy of exploiting regional tensions to maintain domestic control. While ASEAN unity almost certainly is the only path to shared regional prosperity, Mahathir does not seem to be to be listening to his own advice.

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