International Portrait

International Portrait: Thailand (2007)



Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist South East Asian nation, with small Muslim and Christian communities. The Thai government is officially secular, and the constitution guarantees religious freedom, a guarantee that is generally observed in practice. Despite this constitutional secularity, however, the overwhelming importance of Buddhism to Thai society makes it the de facto state religion. This has been a significant factor contributing to the friction and violent confrontation in Thailand's three Muslim-majority southern provinces.

Statistics and Demographics

According to the Thai Government's National Statistics Office, Thailand is 94.6% Buddhist, 4.6% Muslim, and 0.7% Christian, with another 0.1% adhering to various other religions. Some other sources, such as the 2006 US International Religious Freedom Report cast some doubt on these numbers, noting that Thailand may be only 90% Buddhist. Percentages aside, Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with Islam being the largest minority religion. Thailand's Buddhist population adheres to the Theravada school of Buddhism almost exclusively, though there are also a few Mahayana temples and institutions scattered around the country.
Most of the nation's Muslim population is ethnically Malay, and live near the Malaysian border in the three southernmost provinces of the country. In addition, there are some ethnically Chinese Muslim enclaves in northern Thailand, and a few Muslim communities in Bangkok. Other religious minorities include Christians, Taoists, Confucians, Sikhs and Animists. Even though these groups do not figure prominently in the country's overall statistics, they may constitute large percentages of some minority ethnic groups. Interestingly, atheists form only a small fraction of a percentage of the whole.
  • The CIA Factbook for Thailand provides a wealth of relevant statistics.
  • Assumption University in Bangkok has provided a succinct introduction to the major religions practiced in Thailand.
  • The Thai National Statistics Office does not provide religious statistics on its website. However, it does provide statistics on many other aspects of Thai society, including education, wealth, and population.

Religious History

Many Thais date the origins of the modern nation of Thailand to the founding of the Sukhothai Kingdom in 1238. In that year, two Thai chieftains, Pho Khun Muang and Pho Khun Bang Kland Hao, declared their independence from the Khmer empire. Prior to this period, Buddhism had been present in Thailand, but it was mostly of the Mahayana variety, brought to the country by Chinese immigrants. The Sukhothai kings, particularly Ramkhamhaeng the Great (ruled 1277-1317), sent to Sri Lanka for Theravada Buddhists monks, and established the Theravada form of Buddhism as the court religion. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, several different Thai kings continued this pattern, inviting Sri Lankan missionaries to come to Thailand in order to establish Theravada Buddhist monasteries.
By the mid fifteenth century, Theravada Buddhism had become firmly established as the main form of religion in Thailand, a position that it has occupied to this day. Along the way, this form of Buddhism interacted with pre-existing animist and folk traditions, absorbing some of the beliefs and ritual forms of these indigenous traditions. This intermingling of religious traditions is still clearly visible in modern Thai Buddhism, where the rigorous study of Buddhist texts co-exists with animist-derived funerary practices and spirit cults.

The Chakri dynasty was founded in 1782 and its kings have continued to serve as the head of state until the present. Under these kings, Theravada Buddhism's place as the national religion was cemented even more firmly. Notably, the nineteenth century king Rama IV (also known as King Mongkut), spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk before ascending the throne. As king, Rama IV continued his involvement in the Buddhist community, overseeing a significant re-organization and strengthening of it. This pattern of close association between the king and the Buddhist community is still observable today. In fact, under the modern Thai constitution, the king is the only citizen of the country required to be a Buddhist.

It was also under Rama IV that Thailand made its first significant treaties with western powers. Thailand was able to maintain its independence during this period, but was forced to sign trade deals with Britain and to allow for the work of Christian missionaries. Such missionaries had, in fact, been active in the country since the sixteenth century. The trade agreements signed with the British, however, allowed them to become significantly more widespread.

From their first arrival, these Christian missionaries were allowed to proselytize freely, though they made few converts. Youth With a Mission notes that after eighteen years in the mid-nineteenth century, twenty-two missionaries had failed to make a single convert in Bangkok. They were more successful in the tribal regions on the borders of the country. This was, and is, an area where Buddhism had penetrated the culture less firmly, and these Christian missionaries found members of the hill tribes, particularly the Karen, more receptive to their teachings. While there are many missionary groups currently active in central Thailand, they continue to have the most success among these ethnic groups.

The Chakri dynasty continued their direct authority over the country until 1932, when a military coup relegated the monarchy to the largely symbolic role it occupies today. The leaders of the coup wrote religious tolerance into the constitution, and it has continued to be official policy since that time. While modern Thailand remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, the government has always been officially secular and tolerant. The ways this policy of tolerance plays out in modern Thailand will be considered more fully below.
Throughout Thailand's history, but especially during the last two centuries, waves of immigrants have arrived from China. Many of these immigrants have assimilated ethnic Thai religious practices, but others have held onto their customs and religious traditions. Accordingly, while most Chinese immigrants have adopted Theravada Buddhism, some communities continue to maintain their ancestral forms of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism.
Thailand's relationship with Islam dates to the fifteenth century. At that time, Thailand's king undertook sporadic military ventures in an attempt to control the sea routes around Malacca, in what is now Malaysia. Following this, from the seventeenth century onwards, Thailand made repeated attempts to control the Patani Sultanate, an ethnically Malay country bordering southern Thailand. The Muslim inhabitants of these regions were, and are, ethnically and religiously distinct from their Thai neighbors.
By the early twentieth century, the Thai government had conquered and dissolved the Patani Sultanate, dividing its territory into the three Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. Around this time, the Thai government decided to implement policies aimed at integrating this ethnically and religiously distinct community into larger Thai society, discarding Islamic religious courts and outlawing the Malay language in education. This perceived attempt at integration has angered many Malay-Muslims in Thailand, who see themselves as distinctly separate from the Buddhist majority. In Patani: From Sovereign State to Subnation, WK Che Man summarizes this sentiment well, "The incorporation of the former Patani sultanate into Thai nation-state and the determination of the Thai government to carry out vigorous integration programs are viewed by some Malay-Muslim leaders as internal colonialism." (WK Che Man, p. 121). For many leaders of the Malay-Muslim community, integration into Buddhist Thailand is something to be fought, not embraced. Growing resentment over this issue has resulted in repeated calls for the independence of these three provinces, sometimes involving violence. Beginning in 2004, as will be discussed below, the violence has increased dramatically.
Throughout its history, Thailand has seen the interplay of many different religious perspectives. Theravada Buddhism has been the majority religion for the last seven centuries, but there have always been significant minority religions present. With the important exception of the Muslim population in the south, these religious traditions, whether Animist, Christian or Mahayana Buddhist have managed to exist peacefully with their Theravada neighbors. In fact, Thailand has experienced relatively little inter-religious violence or strife, especially when compared to its neighbors. The recent surge in violence in the south, however, threatens this record of tolerance, offering the possibility of protracted religious conflict between Buddhist Thailand and the three Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.

Further Historical Resources

  • Amnesty International has provided a very thorough report on the human rights situation in the south, including some important historical information.
  • Buddhapadipa Temple provides a brief history of the early spread of Buddhism in Thailand.
  • Dhammathai presents a brief history of the the kings of Chakri Dynasty, along with their influence on Buddhism.
  • Mahidol University provides a detailed discussion of the role of Brahaman priests in Thai history and ritual.
  • Youth With a Mission provides a brief history of Christianity in Thailand.
  • Wikipedia has a collection of detailed and useful pages concerning different stages in Thai history. They can be accessed through the main 'History of Thailand' page.

Constitution and Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is incorporated prominently into the constitution. All citizens are granted the right to practice religion in whatever way they see fit, without fear of persecution or defamation. The only exception to this rule is the King, who is constitutionally obliged to be a Buddhist. The government is officially secular, but the overwhelming number of Theravada Buddhists in the country makes Buddhism the de-facto state religion.
While the constitution defends the right of individuals to practice whatever religion they desire, it does require the government "to patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." This patronage is largely in the form of monetary support. While the bulk of this money goes to Buddhist organizations, large amounts are also allocated to Islamic and other minority religious organizations.
In the spring of 2007, Thailand embarked on a project to write a new constitution. Some vocal activists have been lobbying to have Buddhism declared the official state religion in this new constitution. Though few analysts expect the measure to pass, it has the potential to reverse the official secularism that has been part of every Thai constitution since the 1932 coup. The Pluralism Project's Religious Diversity News contains up to date news articles covering this ongoing debate.

Government Policy and Practice

The 2006 US International Religious Freedom Report presents the US Government's findings on the state of religious freedom in Thailand. It gives a thorough analysis of the legal protections afforded to the practice of religion, as well as an accounting of the various ways the government interacts with religious groups. This report presents a very positive view of religious freedom in Thailand, observing that the constitution's guarantee of religious freedom is generally observed in practice. Moreover, the report concludes that when the government does promote religion or otherwise interferes in religious practice, it does so in an even-handed way. This glowing perception is not always shared by other accounts, however, particularly in regards to the Muslim-majority provinces in the south.
With the exception of the southern Muslim population, the Thai government's relationship with minority religious groups in Thailand is very amicable. The country's various Christian groups are generally allowed to worship freely. Furthermore, Christian and non-Christian missionaries, both those with government approval and those without, are allowed to evangelize freely. Among Thailand's ethnic minorities, Buddhist and Christian villages are generally reported to have peaceful and cooperative relationships, with no governmental preference for one or the other.
The generally tolerant atmosphere in Thailand has lead to significant mission activity by foreign Christian organizations. Missionary-Blogs.com provides links to several different web pages provided by individual missionaries. These sites provide an intimate look at the lives of Christian missionaries and the freedom the government's policies grant them. Other websites that are representative of different trends in Christian missionary activity in Thailand include Hand in Hand, Thailand Missions, and OMF.
According to the 2006 US International Religious Freedom Report, the Thai Government distributes financial and other support fairly to different religious groups. Generally, this aid is divided roughly in accordance with the percentage of the population that adheres to each religion. Most of the money, therefore, goes to Buddhist organizations, while Muslim and other minority organizations also receive significant support. The Thai Government also mandates classes on religion for both primary and secondary school students. These courses are designed to introduce students to each of the recognized religions in the country. In addition to these general courses, government-supervised Islamic education is available.

Muslim Insurgency in the South

Despite Thailand's constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, there have been some significant difficulties in the relationship between the state and the predominantly Muslim south. For several decades there has been a violent separatist movement in the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala (click here for a map). Since 2004, the violence has increased dramatically; as of December 2006, more than 1,800 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
The inhabitants of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces are predominantly ethnic Malay-Muslims, with a culture and religion distinct from the rest of Thailand. The Thai Government's attempts at assimilating this population into larger Thai society have led many of these Malay-Muslims to view themselves as victims of official discrimination by the predominantly Buddhist government of Thailand. As a result, the separatist movement often defines itself in religious terms: as Muslims seeking release from Buddhist persecution.
Religious discrimination is not the only factor contributing to the dissatisfaction that has fueled the insurgency. The three southern provinces also have notably lower education and income levels than central Thailand. There are also many cultural differences that are not specifically religious in nature, but that contribute to feelings of disenfranchisement. Many accounts of the conflict, particularly those written by Thais living in Central Thailand, focus on these secular problems as the main causes of the conflict. Many Thai Muslim commentators, on the other hand, emphasize religious discrimination and bias as the main source of friction, often explicitly downplaying the more secular elements of the conflict.
2004 marked a dramatic escalation in hostilities and violence in the conflict. Since then, separatist groups have routinely carried out attacks on both civilian and government posts. In particular, Buddhist civilians, teachers and monks have been targeted. In return, government forces have attempted to suppress the revolt, often using methods that have led to high numbers of civilian deaths. Human rights groups routinely criticize both sides of the conflict.
  • Amnesty International has provided a very thorough report on the conflict.
  • Global Security, an online organization that describes itself as a purveyor of military and security related information has a site describing the conflict in Southern Thailand. While many of the articles this group has published display an anti-Islamic sentiment, their article on Thailand is particularly useful because of its descriptions of the individual separatist groups involved.
  • The Nation, a prominent Thai newspaper, has a special online section, updated regularly, dedicated to the conflict in the south.
  • Wikipedia provides a thorough account of Patani history, sympathetic to the desires of the separatist movement.

One of the most significant incidences of violence by government troops occurred in October 2004 in a town known as Tak Bai. There, the government arrested more than a thousand people protesting against government policy. Many of those arrested were piled horizontally in the beds of trucks and driven to detention facilities. Along the way, 78 of them died of suffocation.

The separatist groups are also routinely criticized for their actions, in particular their targeting of civilians. These attacks are often gruesome, and can include beheadings and other forms of violence intended to create an atmosphere of fear.
Since the coup that occurred in September 2006, the situation has changed rapidly. The incoming Prime Minister, Surayud Chulanont, has apologized for past misconduct and has announced that he will be seeking reconciliation through peaceful means. The violence has not abated, however, and the situation remains extremely turbulent.

Interfaith Activity

There are relatively few organizations in Thailand dealing specifically with inter-religious issues. Despite the paucity of such groups, however, a number of joint Buddhist / Muslim prayer services have occurred in recent years. Some of these events have been directed towards peace in the south, while others are related directly to the Tsunami that struck in December 2004. Religious Diversity News provides several articles reporting on these interfaith events.

Interfaith Centers/ Organizations

The Asian Muslim Awareness Network (AMAN)
AMAN is a Thai Muslim organization dedicated to increasing inter-religious understanding and peace. Among other projects, AMAN publishes the magazine AMANA, featuring articles promoting moderate and peaceful visions of Islam. AMAN has also been active in combating HIV/AIDS in Muslim regions of Thailand.
Thai Inter-religious Commission for Development (TICD)
Sulak Sivaraksa is one of Thailand's most prominent social activists. The Thai Inter-religious Commission for Development is a Buddhist organization under his umbrella that works on bridging differences between religions through initiating dialogue, particularly on shared social problems.

AIDS-Related Interfaith Activity

Thailand has been hit hard by the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the face of this disaster, many religious organizations have formed interfaith alliances in order to fight HIV/AIDS as effectively as possible.
The Interfaith Network on AIDS in Thailand
INAT, comprised of Buddhist, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, is a partner organization with The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a large international organization that distributes grants and other assistance to organizations that are working to eradicate these diseases. The Global Fund provides contact information for this group, listed under the name of Ms. Somthong Srisudhivong.
15th International AIDS Conference
This conference, held in Bangkok in 2004, brought leaders of various religions together to issue a statement pledging to work towards the elimination of HIV/AIDS. The text of the document can be downloaded here. Additionally, The World Council of Churches reported on an International Pre-conference Muslim Workshop on HIV/AIDS, spoonsored by the Asian Muslim Action Network, the Asian Resource Foundation, and the Thai Muslim Network, to address the HIV/AIDS situation from a Thai Muslim perspective.
In addition to these interfaith efforts, many individual religious groups and NGOs are engaged in HIV/AIDS-related work in Thailand. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are all well-represented in this work. The examples given below are by no means an exhaustive list of these organizations. Instead, they were selected as representative examples of the kind of work being done on this issue by Thailand's various religious groups.
Buddhist Temples
In December 2005, The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare published an extensive study of the role played by Buddhist temples in treating those in Thailand affected by HIV/AIDS.
The Camillian Social Center
This Christian missionary organization helps indigent people infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. They have been active in the Interfaith Network on AIDS in Thailand.
The Sangha Metta Project
The Sangha Metta Project is an organization run by Thai Buddhist Monks who give lectures on prevention, visit homes and provide material support for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Relevant Research Centers

The Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture (ISRC)
Payap University in Chiang Mai hosts this academic institution founded to increase religious tolerance and understanding among world religions. Their activities include hosting lectures, publishing articles and sponsoring workshops.

International Organizations

Cebu Dialogue on Regional Interfaith Cooperation
In March 2006, Thailand participated in a Filipino Government-sponsored inter-religious conference on the island of Cebu. The joint report issued by this conference can be found at: www.dfa.gov.ph/news/pr/pr2006/mar/pr192.pdf.
The Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church has reportedly been involved in sponsoring Buddhist / Muslim dialogue, aiming for peace in the south. This activity has been reported on by Asian News, a Church-affiliated news source.
The World Conference of Religions for Peace
The WCRP is an international organization seeking to promote peace by coordinating the efforts of various local religious groups. The contact information for Religions for Peace Thailand can be found here, under Asia (National Inter-Religious Councils and Groups).

Religious Minority Organizations

The Foundation of Islamic Center of Thailand
This Islamic organization maintains a website presenting Thai language news stories to Thailand's Muslim population. In addition to the website, they run a radio program geared towards Thailand's Muslim population.
Halal Thailand
Halal Thailand maintains a website that presents English language news relevant to Thailand's Muslim population. This news is primarily focused on events in Thailand, but also covers major international events which are of concern to Thai Muslims.
Mahapanya Vidayalai
In 2002 the head of the Anamikaya School of Mahayana Buddhism founded Mahapanya Vidayalai (University of Wisdom). This university caters to members of Thailand's small Mahayana Buddhist community, offering degree programs in Buddhist Studies with an emphasis on Mahayana traditions.
The Thai Sikh Organization
The Thai Sikh Organization represents Thailand's small Sikh Community. Their website contains general information on Sikhism as well as specific information about the community in Thailand.
The Young Muslim Association of Thailand
The YMAT maintains a Thai language website that offers news articles and religious information geared specifically to Thailand's Muslim youth.

Other Resources

Religious Diversity News
The conflict in Southern Thailand has taken a dramatic turn since the coup in September 2006. The situation changes rapidly as new events unfold. The Pluralism Project's database of international Religious Diversity News related to Thailand can be found here.

Online Articles and Resources

Mahidol University has an article that discusses the history and role of the small groups of Hindu Brahman families still living in Thailand.

Bibliography

Anne Kislenko. Culture and Customs of Thailand. Westport: Greenwood. 2004.
Che Man, W.K. "Patani: From Sovereign State to Sub-nation" In Journal – Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. Vol. 14: 1993.
Chaiwat Satha Anand. The Life of this World: Negotiated Muslim Lives in Thai Society. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. 2005.
David Wyatt. Studies in Thai History Chiang Mai: Silkworm. 1994.
Roland Platz. "Buddhism and Christianity in Competition? Religious and Ethnic Identity in Karen Communities of Northern Thailand" In Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. 34: 2003.
Trevor Ling. "Buddhism and Education in Burma and Thailand" In Religion. Vol. 14: 1984.