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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

Letter to heaven: An eulogy to Luang Poo Boonyarith Bundito

Rattana Lao

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Luang Poo Boonyarith with a Pagoda in the Thai Forest

Everyone knows him as a great monk who was an exceptional teacher of meditation. From the royal family to a layman, Luangpoo Boonyarith Bundito was well loved and respected.

Luang Poo Boonyarith was a forest monk who ordained since the age of 31. Like forest monks before him from Luang Poo Mann Puritat to Luang Poo Chob Thannasamo, he followed a strict tradition of solitude. For decades, he traveled to the furthest parts of Thailand and remained there on his own. For at least 9 years, he lived by himself in the peak of a Karen Mountain in the Northern Part of Thailand.

“The karen has an innocent mind” he said in his meditation preaching.

In 1974, he was sent by Wat Bawornnivetviharn on a diplomatic mission to preach Buddhism in Australia. During more than 30 years of his tenure there, he built, strengthened and taught the beauty of mediation to foreigners and Thai alike.

An epitome of what a modern diplomacy is.

With his compassion and open-mindedness, he welcomed Christian, Jewish and Muslim into his temples to learn how to meditate, even though they were clear not to be Buddhist.

He was equally straightforward to them. “Meditation and Buddhism is intertwined and Buddhism is a religion, not a philosophy nor a lifestyle”.

Something that would kill the New Age followers.

I had the privilege of knowing him since I was nearly four years old, where he would stay at our house during his trips and sabbatical to Bangkok. Sometimes he stayed for a couple weeks, sometimes that would last for a couple months. At least for 20 summers, we were lucky enough to host him.

While his disciples came to our house to seek truth and find peace, for a 4 years old me, Luang Poo was my English tutor. Having been fluent in French, German and English, Luang poo was a great linguist who paid attention to details of grammatic rules and depth of meaning and complexity of the vocabulary.

He is an avid reader – with extensive collection of books on philosophy, history, maps, arts and great classics. His gifts for me involved pens and notebooks, collection of postcards from foreign lands I never been or books I had never heard of.

At the age of 16, he gave me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. With the density of idea and complexity of vocabulary, I quickly returned it to him.

He insisted: “keep it, when the time comes, you will get it.”

I did. When I joined Thammasat as an undergraduate student, Brave New World became my favourite, inspiring reference to make a difference in a toxic society.

As I became more interested in graduate schools and had my eyes on the most prestigious scholarship in Thailand, the Anandamahidol scholarship under the royal patronage the late king Bhumibol of Thailand, our conversation became more intense, focused and intellectual.

We debated ideas. With his wealth of knowledge on world history, we would always talk current affairs and politics. Theories and concepts.

Who would have thought a forest monk would be on point on world political affairs?

Luang Poo continued to guide me through the hardship of graduate schools. We would talk on the phone on the books I read, the papers I wrote and the difficulty things were for me to conceptualise.

“Sati, Ninja, Sati.” Conscious that meant. He said, “one word at a time. Never skim”.

He loves dictionary so he taught and trained me to open up every word I don’t understand.

If you open his books, you will find scribbles on the sideline on the explanation of words he did not know or his interpretation of them.

As studying theories became more complex, that kind of attention to detail allowed me to be on point, concise and succinct.

He said however that a Buddhist is not a theorist. A Buddhist is a doer. Test the theories, he meant.

When I consulted him with the idea of creating UNITE Thailand, he was on board and gave me the most life changing advice to an idealistic me with heavily foreign influences.

“Forget the theories, forget democracy, forget Buddhism, make kids happy, as many as possible.”

We did.

Before the tragic day of the 14th of November 2018 where he parted this world for heaven, he has suffered severe health issues and complication for 7 years that he could not talk, move or eat by himself.

He was the educator who loved Thailand so much. The last sentence he ever said to me was “a great person is one with gratitude. We are indebted to this land, be good. Be kind. Be nice. Be helpful.”

Thailand loses a great monk who taught them Dhamma. I lost a grandfather who helped me through the intensity of life, who taught me to read, write and question, who taught me the beauty of life, the necessity to serve our society.

Enjoy heaven, Luang Poo.

I will always remember you.

Ninja.

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Southeast Asia

Decoding The MoU Between India And Brunei For Space Research

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Brunei Darussalam or Brunei is one of the oldest continuing monarchies in the world. The ancient name “Negara Brunei Darussalam” means “State of Brunei- Abode of Peace”. Its earliest documented history dates back to 6th century when Brunei was apparently called “Puni” a possible distortion of the Sanskrit word “Baruni”. Brunei was then a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which had linkages with the famed Sri Vijaya and Majapahit empires of the region, as well as with China.  It was in the late 14th century, Brunei converted into an Islamic Sultanate when its ruler, Awang AlakBetatar, married a Muslim Johore princess from Malacca and embraced Islam to become Brunei’s first Sultan – Mohammed Shah.  Bilateral diplomatic relations between India and Brunei were cemented in May 1984. India and Brunei by virtue being developing countries with strong traditional and cultural ties, enjoy a fair degree of commonality in their perceptions of major international issues. Brunei is a constant partner of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and expansion and deepening of cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Diplomatically, Brunei supports India’s claim for permanent membership in an expanded United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and also supported India for its candidature for a Non-Permanent Seat of the UNSC in 2012.

India’s export trade with Brunei in 2013 valued USD 32 million while imports mainly crude oil from Brunei were valued at USD 763 million. According to trade stats, India is the third-largest importer of crude oil for Brunei. The two important reasons enabling a positive bilateral trade have been relatively flexible shipping costs and Brunei’s small population base. Indians constitute around 2.3 per cent of Brunei’s total population. Indian migration to Brunei started since 1929 when oil was discovered in the country. Presently, the majority of the doctors in Brunei are from India and other professionals include engineers, IT professionals, bankers, teachers etc. Indian businessmen have managed to maintain a clear monopoly in the textile industry. According to the Census, there are approximately 10,000 Indian nationals living and working in Brunei.  Bilateral trade between India and Brunei stood at over $504 million in FY 2016-17, according to figures published by Brunei’s Department of Economic Planning and Development. The southeast Asian nation is critical for India’s Look East Policy and geopolitical expansion for strengthening of cooperation with the 10-nation regional bloc (ASEAN). Brunei also has served India’s country coordinator and political facilitator with the ASEAN for three years from 2012.

“When India celebrates the 75th year of Independence in 2022, and if possible, even before, an Indian son or daughter will undertake a manned space mission on board ‘Gaganyaan’ carrying the national flag,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his 2018 Independence Day Speech. This milestone will make India the fourth nation to send a human in space after the United States, Russia and China. Future plans include the development of Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV), Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), development of a reusable launch vehicle, human spaceflight, controlled soft lunar landing, interplanetary probes, and a solar spacecraft mission. The Department of Space was allocated Rs 8,936.97 crore in the 2018 Budget for various space-related projects. The total allocation for the Department of Space for the second fiscal was around Rs 10,783 crore a leap from Rs 9,155.52 crore allocated for the FY 2017-18 net of recoveries and receipts. ‘Space economics’ suggests that spending on science and technology leads to all-round social development. The Government is also planning on investing extensively in research, training and skill development in robotics, AI, digital manufacturing, Big Data intelligence and Quantum communications, among others. Space Research has been one of the most important areas of interest of the present government.  In the current era of outer space research and development, India is heavily banking on bi-lateral and multi-lateral tie-ups to delve into this area.

The Union Cabinet chaired by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi has approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between India and Negara Brunei Darussalam on coordination in the operation of Telemetry tracking and Telecommand station for satellite and launch vehicles, and for collaboration in the field of Space Research, Science and Applications. The MoU authorises India to continue to operate, maintain and augment its ground station meant for supporting India’s launch vehicle and satellite missions. This will also enable India to share its experience and expertise in space activities through training of officials and students from Brunei Darussalam on Space Technology applications. Cooperation with Brunei Darussalam through this MoU would facilitate operation, maintenance and augmentation of Indian Ground Station to support India’s launch vehicle and satellite missions. The MoU will provide momentum to explore contemporary research activities in ground station operations and training on space technology applications. The MoU was signed in New Delhi, India on 19th July 2018. India also signed an MoU with South Africa on 26th July 2018, which shall enable both the nations to coordinate on the potential areas of cooperation such as space science, technology and applications including remote sensing of the earth, satellite communication and satellite-based navigation, space science and planetary exploration, utilise spacecraft and space systems and ground systems and application of space technology.

India has also signed similar MoUs with Russia, Oman and Japan for expansion of cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. Joint projects, sharing of expertise and resources, development of space systems and components, scientist training and exchange of vital information are the central components of these agreements. India is marching towards economic prosperity and being labeled as the fastest growing economy in the world, it is geopolitically and strategically crucial for India to have a powerful outer space technology and to have a strong space relationship with other countries.

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Southeast Asia

Ahok biopic: The making of a man, the unmaking of a nation

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After comedies, ghost horror films are the genre most liked by Indonesians, with 44 percent saying they enjoy them. Apparently they produce a thrill, stimulate the imagination, invite curiosity and induce anticipation that the protagonist will prevail over evil forces.

Personally, I’m not a fan of such movies but I found myself looking forward to Nov. 8, when a “ghost“ movie was to be screened in theatres all over Indonesia. How come? That’s because the film was A Man Called Ahok — yup, about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former governor of Jakarta, currently jailed on blasphemy charges. I thought he was one of the best governors Jakarta has had, indeed, one of Indonesia’s best leaders, someone who wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo.

It was a “ghost” movie in that it contained an apparition of Ahok, which embodied not just his spirit, but also the spirit of values that Indonesia seems to have forgotten, values needed to build a nation.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ahok, from the no-nonsense way he ran his office, his zero tolerance for bad management, laziness and corruption, his unpopular policies (notably the eviction of squatters from slums), his fiery temper and tough talk (which enraptured and excited, agitated and outraged at the same time), his blasphemy trial and subsequent imprisonment, his divorce from Veronica Tan, his wife of 21 years while in prison, but also his amazing achievements during the short time he was Jakarta governor: disciplining civil servants, eliminating the ubiquitous pungli (illegal levies), transparency of the city budget, responding to citizens’ complaints, transforming Jakarta city transportation into one fit for a metropolitan city, cleaning up filthy polluted Jakarta rivers, beautifying and greening the city — achieving many things his predecessors were unable to do.

But you’ll see none of that in the film that was far from controversial. A review of the film stated that the “biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling” (‘A Man Called Ahok: Journey from childhood to prominence’, The Jakarta Post, Nov. 10).

While the review provides a good summary of the film, I don’t think it was at all a matter of playing it safe. The filmmakers made a very deliberate, wise and insightful choice to portray the making of a man, from his childhood origins in Bangka Belitung, which makes us understand better why he turned into the leader that he did.

The film started when Ahok was aged 10 ( 1976), and stopped just about the time he became regent of East Belitung (2005). Ahok was born and raised in Gantong, East Belitung. His father Kiem Nam was a tauke (Chinese businessman), owner of a tin mining company, who raised his five children with tough love, teaching them to cooperate with each other, instilling the values of hard work and ambition, not for selfish personal reasons, but to serve others.

Kiem would drive his wife to despair, as he was always giving out money to people in need, even borrowing, so he could continue helping them. He said to her that their family still had a roof over their heads, and good food to eat. Yes, that was the case, because she sold some of her gold jewelry, so that the family could continue to eat.

While their relationship was often strained, clearly Ahok was a chip off the old block. He gave up being a doctor (his father’s dream) and a businessman (his own dream), to become a politician so that he could help people in a systematic way, unlike his father, not using his own money, but state funds.

The film is a biopic, true, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s in fact a microcosm of Indonesia, raising issues that remain relevant.

Discrimination: despite Kiem’s known humanitarianism and generosity, when Ahok decided to run for office, he faced resistance because of his Chinese ethnicity. As a child, he had once asked his father, “Are we Chinese or are we Indonesian?”. The father responded unequivocally, “We are Indonesians”. The film shows clearly how his father instilled the love of people and nation in his son.

Bangka Belitung has one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who have helped the tin industry flourish. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of tin in the world, after China, this means the ethnic-Chinese have contributed to creating revenue for Indonesia.

That’s not the only thing they have contributed. They have contributed to our culture (look at all those dragons, phoenix, snakes and Chinese lions motifs on batik!), food (too many to mention), much needed capital, sporting prowess and guess what? Also Islam, which was brought in by Chinese traders in the 15th century. And yet the Chinese remain reviled and have been targeted as scapegoats throughout Indonesia’s history.

Poverty: There was clearly poverty depicted in the film throughout Ahok’s life in Bangka Belitung. While in 2018 poverty has fallen to a historic low, the Statistics Indonesia (BPS) figures show that almost 10 percent (27 million) of Indonesians are poor. That is still a very large number.

Corruption: in the film, there was a corrupt government official who kept trying to extort money from both Kiem, and later Ahok when he was an adult running the company. So far, corruption is still the cancer that is eating up the nation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th out of 175 of the least corrupt countries. Well, at least it’s better than in 2007, when we ranked 143rd.

The lack of health services portrayed in the film is still the reality for many families in Indonesia, as are education facilities, still out of reach for many children.

Watching the film was a very emotional experience for me because of the injustice Ahok has had to endure. Talk about being punished for doing good! But it was emotional also because I thought of Indonesia and how the nation is currently ruled by mindless sectarianism, where religion is used to incite evil instead of fostering good, where selfish, narrow group interests prevail over the greater good.

A Man Called Ahok is a timely reminder of what it takes to build a nation. Hopefully, like a good ghost movie, the (good guys) protagonists will prevail over the evil forces currently haunting Indonesia.

An early version of text appeared in the Jakarta Post

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