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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

Will Mahathir Reset China-Malaysia Trade Relations?

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A shock electoral upset has just returned 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministerial chair in Malaysia. The run-up to this climax was muddled by a miasma of fake news, lurid allegations and outright conspiracy theories from eitherside of the political divide. China-baiting was inevitably drawn into this tawdry mix despite mainland investments being a stabilizing main stay of the local economy.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit report last year, Malaysia was the fourth-largest recipient of mainland Chinese direct investments – right behind Singapore, United States and the autonomous Chinese province of Hong Kong. Although the sum total of Chinese investments in Malaysia has not been adequately tallied,the US$100 billion Forest City project provides a snapshot of the staggering amounts being invested into the local economy.

While former Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed these investments as an imprimatur ofhis government’s investor-friendly policies, the opposition camp (and new government) accused him of “selling out to China”. In reality, one doubts whether foreign consortiums canmatch the scale, cost-effectiveness and speed of execution of many Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Business Compradors

Dr Mahathir has particularly taken issue with the inadequate number of local jobs created by Chinese investments in Malaysia. It is an argument not without merit.Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are known for their heavy reliance on mainland labour, machines and supplies – of the lock, stock and barrel variety – tokeep costs, graft and middlemen interference to the lowest possible scale.

Curiously, the backbone of Dr Mahathir’s electoral tsunami came from the ethnic Malaysian Chinese community who openly hailedthe global ascent of China. That was until theydiscovered thatmainland business models accommodated as few middlemen as possible.It was Alibaba on a massive scale, missing 40 thieves and in perennial need of 40innovators.

Many Malaysian consumerssave thousands of ringgit each year by purchasing a variety of consumer products directly from China instead of forking out a hefty mark-upat local stores.Unsurprisingly, there are now growing calls to tax online purchases from China. This is not going to help budget-strapped Malaysians who voted in the new administration on the back of complaints over rising living costs. Malaysia’s shadow economy has been estimated by various studies to range between 30 percent and 47 percent of its GDPup till 2010.

The anti-China narrative therefore may be couched in terms of multifaceted grievances like jobs and the South China Sea but it primarily boils downtoincentives for middlemen who contribute little or nothing in terms of value-additions to projects, productsor services offered by mainland companies. These modern-day compradors have an ally in another area bereft of value – added or otherwise.

Media Compradors

The biggest impediment to the Malaysian economy is not China, its business modus operandi or the lack of local talent. It is the Malaysian media which has abjectly failed to relay grassroots ideas and innovations to national policy-makers for decades.

The author himself vividly remembers the lament of Dr Mahathir’s former national science advisor on the dearth of science journalists in Malaysia. This translates to recurring losses in taxpayer money.There is an oft-told account of how a fact-findingdelegation to the United States, seeking particular expertise in renewable energy technology,were told that the expert they were looking for was a Malaysian academic back in Kuala Lumpur!

Researchers needing critical economic or scientific data on Malaysia are likely to get them from foreign sources as even google cannot cope with the bottomless insipidity and juvenile meanderingsof the local media. Publicity-seeking experts with dodgy backgrounds are routinely sought for their banal insights and quotes in return for guaranteed filler spaces in a lack lustre media.Malaysia is gradually losing its economic and intellectual competitiveness due to the entrenched practise of mediocrity promoting mediocrity – egged on by Western interests.This forms the main backdrop to the current anti-China narrative.

Local media stalwarts privately blame politicians, in particular Dr Mahathir himself (during his previous 22-year reign) for the lack of media vigour and freedom in Malaysia. While media restrictions undeniably exist, one wonders how proposed articles on topics such as Open Governance could be seen assubversive.

It is high time to drain the swamp in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir has already indicated that the bloated 1.6 million-strong civil service in Malaysia would be pruned to promote economic and government transparency. For decades, successive governments had rewarded personal loyalty with plush posts and contracts. Malaysians now have another chance to demand efficient, meritocratic and transparent governance. Not mass-mediated bogeymen, viral passions and pies-in-the-skies.

The billion-dollar question now is whether the new administration will be able tousher in a transparent and vibrant media – one that can explore greater synergies within and abroad.Otherwise, Malaysia’s relations with its neighbours and trading partners are bound to deteriorate, along with its economy.

An abridged version of this article was published by CCTV’s Panview on May 14, 2018

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Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

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Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) spoke about a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

     ‘The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential’.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were:

‘committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier too the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. While this was discussed during Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018. In April 2018, representatives of Japan, US and India met in New Delhi and committed themselves

Indo-Pacific and China factor 

While members of the Quad continuously denied, that the Indo-pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe, that this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Macron who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India,  Australia and France to work together in order to ensure a rules based order.  Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated:

   ‘What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony,”

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

While it is good to talk about a rules based order, and Free-Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal, of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant . especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating).  Australia is a member of the Quad alliance, and has been one of the vocal protagonists of a Free and Fair Indo Pacific Narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific.  Australia has on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue, that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises, is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations. Though India has been dismissive of this argument,

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI,  as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (Wang Yi, in April 2018, such a possibility was discussed. During Wang Yi’s meeting with Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe too this possibility was discussed. The Japanese PM who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly,  Japanese led Asian Development Bank ADB which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) which have been projected as a component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has even gone to the extent of stating, that it does not perceive AIIB as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao  stated:

“AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does Indo-Pacific go from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had stated, that there was:

‘no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,

Similarly, in terms of promoting Democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. It has been argued, that Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue, is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important, for the Indo-pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders. In the ever evolving geo-political and economic dynamics in Asia, with China re-examining its relations with both Japan and China, the key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region need to do some serious thinking.

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Southeast Asia

Infrastructure Drive, Strong Domestic Demand to Sustain Philippine Growth

MD Staff

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The Philippines’ economic growth is expected to sustain its quick pace in 2018 and 2019 as the government’s infrastructure program is rolled out, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.

In its new Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2018, ADB projects Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 6.8% this year and 6.9% in 2019, up from 6.7% in 2017. Rising domestic demand, remittances, and employment, in addition to infrastructure spending, will drive growth. ADO is ADB’s flagship annual economic publication.

“Along with domestic demand, the government’s infrastructure investments will fuel the country’s growth in the next few years, supported by a sound economic policy setting,” said Kelly Bird, ADB Country Director for the Philippines. “We expect this growth to further lift wage employment numbers, add to household incomes, and benefit more poor families across the archipelago.”

The Philippines remained one of the strongest growing economies in Southeast Asia in 2017. Domestic investment recorded 9% growth last year, moderating from a brisk 23.7% in 2016, although growth in fixed investment in industrial machinery, transport equipment, and public construction remained robust. Household consumption grew by 5.8% in 2017, from 7% in 2016, on the back of higher remittances and employment, with the unemployment rate falling by 1.3 percentage points to 5.3% in January 2018 as 2.4 million jobs were added. Public spending rose by 7.3% last year from 8.4% in 2016.

Consumer price inflation reached 3.2% last year from 1.8% in 2016 due to strong economic growth, higher international fuel prices, and Philippine peso depreciation, but well within the 2% to 4% target by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank. The country’s external debt further declined to 23.3% of GDP in 2017, from 24.5% of GDP in 2016.

Moving forward, ADB projects services will continue to drive GDP growth, along with manufacturing and construction industries. The approval of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law in December 2017 will augment tax revenues and provide additional fiscal space for more progressive public spending. The policy reforms are expected to yield additional 90 billion to 144 billion Philippine pesos ($1.73 billion to $2.76 billion) in tax revenue collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

With economic growth gaining momentum, inflation is projected to reach 4% in 2018 as global oil and food prices rise, and higher excise taxes on some commodities take effect. In 2019, meanwhile, inflation is expected to marginally decline to 3.9%.

The report notes there are external risks to the Philippines’ growth outlook from heightened volatility in international financial markets and uncertainty about global trade openness, although the country’s strong external payments position would cushion these effects.

A major policy challenge to the country’s growth outlook, according to the report, is managing the rollout of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is expected to raise public infrastructure spending to 7.3% of GDP by 2022 from 4.5% in 2016. The report provides suggestions on ways to enhance government capacity, including strengthening coordination between government agencies and improving technical capacity of staff within these agencies, and fostering stronger partnerships between government agencies, the private sector, and development partners.

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