Western tourists flocking to Bangkok would be hard-pressed to envision Thailand without its Buddhist temples and monks collecting alms.
But a campaign to see Buddhism become the official religion has exposed an ugly side of religious division in the country.
As Kannikar Petchkaew reports, there are growing concerns about the rising tide of Buddhist fundamentalism, hate speech, and Islamophobia in Thailand.
It’s the end of Friday afternoon prayers for the Muslim community in Denchai district, northern Thailand.
Most are heading home after the prayers, chatting with their neighbors along the way.
But not Somjit. He’s hurrying to get the bus.
Somjit and a group of his neighbors travel nearly 145 kilometers every Friday for their prayers because there is no mosque in their province.
“I leave my house at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning to go to the bus station and take a bus or van to this province, then I take another bus to this town and another ride to the mosque. It takes about 4 to five hours and often I don’t make it on time.”
Somjit lives in Nan province, home to 500,000 Buddhists, 60 Muslims, and no mosque.
They have tried to build a mosque several times, but each time their plan has been blocked.
Recent protests by Buddhist monks and everyday Thais have seen the construction of several mosques, and a halal food industrial zone, also halted in northern Thailand.
In Thailand’s deep south there has been a long running conflict between government forces and Muslims. Since 2004, some 6,500 people have been killed in the insurgency.
While in the past religious conflicts has been confined to southern areas, such as Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, now religious tensions seem to be spreading – fuelled by comments like this:
“Any single monk in the deep south killed by a blast or bullet, that should be traded with a burning single mosque; start from the northern part of the country.”
That’s a comment from Aphichat Promjan, an academic and monk from a famous temple in the capital, Bangkok.
He believes Buddhists should avenge the deaths of monks in the south, and he has been preaching this kind of hate speech since last year.
Meanwhile, Suchat Sethamanilee, a local Muslim and an academic who teaches peace studies at Pyap University, shows me the house of Khunchuangliangleukiat, one of the first Muslim traders in Chiang Mai.
Suchat, who was raised in the area, tells me that Muslims have a deep history in Thailand. The first Sheikh-ul-Islam, for example, was appointed 400 years ago.
“There were Chinese Muslims, Bengalis, Muslims from India and Pakistani Muslims,” Sethamanilee says.
“They all moved to here more than 100 years ago. They ran businesses as middlemen and distributors between the locals in the mountainous area with their horse caravan.”
Sethamanilee also shows me Ban Ho mosque, which this September will have been standing for 100 years.
The mosque shares a wall with a Buddhist temple.
“When the Buddhists pray their voices travel into the mosque when we conduct our prayers,” Sethamanilee tells me.
“Our Azan, or call to prayer, which is quite loud, is played through the speaker, so it is also heard when they pray. But we have never had any problems between us.”
Thailand’s new draft Constitution will go to a referendum vote this August.
A clause to see the country officially become a Buddhist state was eventually rejected in the draft, but it does include a statement about how Thailand must protect Buddhists, which account for 90 percent of the population. There was no mention of protecting the minority Muslim community.
Surapot Taweesak is a Buddhist academic at Rajabhata Instistute in Bangkok.
“Politically the objective, pushing for Thailand to be a Buddhist state, is obvious, Taweesak says.
“But in the long run I don’t think it would have a positive impact on the health of democracy and peace between religions.”
Taweesak says the idea to have an official Buddhist state was initially included in the draft Constitution for political reasons, to please the Buddhist majority.
Many Thais supported the idea, arguing that Buddhist morals could help guide Thailand out of political turmoil.
In the current political climate, Muslim academic, Suchat Sethamanilee, says the Islamic community has an important role to play, to help educate Buddhist Thais, and ensure that all non-Muslims are treated like brothers.
“I won’t blame people from other religions for their lack of understanding. I would ask for all Muslims to understand this issue in a fair manner and with self criticism. See how we have portrayed our Islam to others. Did we try to make them understand clearly what is the real Islam?” Sethamanilee commented.
But for others like Taweesak , the current divisions also need a political fix.
“In the end we have to be democratic. Any religion in Thailand should live under the principle of democracy,” says Taweesak .
“And at the very least, we have to respect the principles of human rights.”