YALA: The ongoing insurgency in Thailand’s deep south is harming ties between Buddhists and Muslims.
While the conflict has its roots in a struggle for independence by Malay nationalists against the Thai state, the continuous violence over the past 13 years is paving the way for the rise of a new Buddhist nationalism in Thailand.
Since 2004, the separatists have directed their attacks on Buddhist monks and teachers, as well as at government officials.
These attacks have made many Buddhists living in the south feel more insecure. Many Buddhists living in rural areas of the three southernmost provinces have migrated to town centres - and some have even moved out of the region entirely.
Thailand's national census has shown that the number of Buddhists in the area gradually declining over the last two decades.
According to data provided by the National Statistical Office, the Buddhist population in Narathiwat in 1990 was 20.5 per cent, 17.9 per cent in 2000, and 14 per cent in 2010.
In Yala, it was 35.9 per cent in 1990, 31 per cent in 2000, and 23.3 per cent in 2010. In Pattani, it was 21.4 per cent in 1990, 19.2 per cent in 2000, and 15.5 per cent in 2010.
INVOLVEMENT FROM DHAMMAKAYA TEMPLE
The National Office for Buddhism said the number of monks in the area has also dwindled. Although this has been a nationwide trend, for some, this represents a prospect that Buddhism may eventually disappear from the area.
This is a scenario played up by the powerful Dhammakaya movement, a strong advocate of Buddhist nationalism in Thailand.
Recently at loggerheads with the military government, the Dhammakaya temple has long been expanding its influence in the deep south. Over the past 13 years the Dhammakaya movement has created new branches in the area, as well as hosted many religious activities which bring together many Buddhists in the three southernmost provinces.
Their followers in the area said this has helped them feel like they belong in a community that shares similar concerns.
Sumon, 63, a retired teacher who migrated from rural Yala to the town centre, said she found the Dhammakaya events useful.
“I don’t see any government agencies helping out in the three southernmost provinces. Only the Dhammakaya temple helps us," she said.
NEW BUDDHIST ORGANISATIONS
Successive Thai governments have provided funds and support to Muslim communities in the southern provinces to avoid making the conflict a religious one.
But many Buddhists feel neglected by these moves, and since late 2016, a group created “the Network of Buddhists for the Protection of Buddhism”, with a head office based in Yala province.
Its chairman, Somnuk Rakang said the network will soon become an active civil society organisation aimed at assisting Buddhists who have suffered from the insurgency.
“More than 70 per cent of Buddhists have abandoned the south," said Somnuk. “If this continues, then in five to six years' time there will be no Buddhists left in the region.
“And if this is the case, then I’d say the area will no longer be part of Thailand”.
Somnuk said the government in Bangkok must do more to safeguard the Buddhists.
“I want to propose various projects to the government," he said. "First, better protection against violence for Buddhists here. And second, encourage Buddhists to stay and immigrate to the deep south. It’s the government's fault that many of us have left.”
More ambitiously, Somnuk and the Buddhist network are calling on the government to build a Buddhist Park in Pattani, a project first mooted in 2016.
Currently there is only one Buddhist park in Thailand - on the outskirts of Bangkok - and the proposal to build another one in a Muslim-majority Pattani has been met with opposition from many local people.
“A Buddhist park is something very important to us," said Somnuk. “We know that the government has a limited budget, but I am sure we can find a way to finance the project privately via our network throughout the country."
LESS CONTACT BETWEEN RELIGIOUS LEADERS
Buddhists and Muslims in the south have lived together peacefully in the past, especially in urban communities, but things have changed, according to Buddhist monks Channel NewsAsia spoke with.
“I have listened to the elders, both Buddhists and Muslims, and they say things were very different before," said Phra Ratchamonkol Wuttajarn, 86, who is the head monk of Muang district in Yala. "People from different faiths helped each other, even on religious-related matters."
He added: “I don’t think things will go back to the way it was. People now have a different attitude due to the violence.
"Some see Buddhists as the victims and interpret events linking the violence to Islam. Or they think the Muslims gave their support to those behind the violence. People have lost trust."
His colleague who lives in rural Yala, Phra Krue Panya Visarat said there is very little dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims in the rural areas, although he stressed that he has cordial relationships with all Muslim households in villages around his temple, Wat Nerancharawat in Bannang Sata district of Yala.
“It is difficult because we all live apart now," he said. "I only get to meet with the Islamic preachers in the area only once a year”.
A local man, Kae, who was ordained at Wat Nerancharawat told Channel NewsAsia that he felt that Buddhists were being pushed out by the violence.
“I think in five to six years' time, many temples will not survive,” Kae said. “There won't be enough Buddhists, especially living in rural area to sustain them."
ROAD TO SECTARIAN CONFLICT?
Despite the rising tensions, observers said the anti-Muslim sentiment in Thailand is still relatively contained, compared to neighbouring Myanmar.
“It will be difficult for the conflict in the deep south to become a sectarian one, simply because the Thai state has been active in trying to prevent it”, said Dr Srisompop Jitpiromsi, the Director of Deep South Watch.
"There are some Buddhists who are upset by the violence but this has not resulted in them arming themselves."
He added: “But when there are some government policies that provide money to help Muslims in the area, the Buddhists became upset and said the government favours the Muslim too much; in reality these policies are results of (a) government balancing act to try keep all religious groups happy."
Don Pathan, who is a long-time observer of the situation in the Thai south, said the growing sectarian tensions is a major concern for Thai policy makers.
“A lot of the Buddhists are looking at the insurgency in the south through a religious lens and as a result, there is a growing Islamophobia in some parts of Thailand," he said.
“But essentially the conflict here is not about Islam, it's an ethno-nationalist conflict. I think civil society and the government need to do a better job in explaining the nature of the conflict here to the rest of the country.”