One nation, many religions: Thailand needs to fully embrace its diversity

At a time of heightened nationalism, Thailand needs to double down on promoting harmony between religions.

By Zachary Frye  

Like many places in Southeast Asia, Thailand is home to varied religious traditions. Although approximately 95% of the population adheres to local interpretations of Theravada Buddhism, 4% are Muslim, in several southern provinces near Malaysia, Islam is the predominate religion. In Bangkok, there are significant concentrations of Christians, Muslims, and Hindus.

Despite a simmering conflict in the south between the Thai government and Malay-Muslim separatists, peaceful coexistence between religions is observed in the rest of the country.

Spurred on by the military’s takeover of the government in 2014, nationalism has reemerged as a powerful narrative in the country.

In Thailand, there is no state religion. The Thai government’s official policy is to propagate goodwill between the faiths.

This is a worthy policy goal. But the military-backed constitution pushed through in 2017 casts doubt over the government’s commitment to religious impartiality.

Although the constitution still contains language in support of other faiths, Section 67 holds two new mandates that could be used to infringe on the freedoms of religious minorities in the country.

The first stipulation states that the government should “promote and support education of dharmic [Buddhist] principles.”  

The second instructs the state to protect Buddhism “from being undermined in any form.”

The lack of similar protections for other religions is concerning. For better or worse, it demonstrates a willingness from the Thai government to extend special treatment to its Buddhist majority.

The government is promoting compulsory Buddhist education

In light of its constitutional changes, the Thai government has sought to renew its emphasis on Buddhist education.

In 2018, the military-led government proposed a national religious studies curriculum that focuses solely on Buddhism. Regardless of the merits or demerits of Buddhist-centric programs, it is a glaringly shortsighted policy to ignore the proper study of all major world religions.

This is especially important in Thailand, where religion plays vital, diverse, and nuanced roles.

While it’s clearly important to promote a deep understanding of the practices and beliefs of the majority’s religious philosophy, it is equally crucial that Thai students get exposure to a broad tapestry of religious practices.

Anything less will ill-equip future generations for the task of crafting and maintaining peace and understanding between disparate faiths – both in public policy and daily life.

A new video accompanying the national anthem is causing controversy

The government made a nominal gesture to include religious minorities in a new video accompanying the national anthem, which is played twice daily on all national stations.

In the clip, Muslims and Christians, as well as people from other minority religions, sing the anthem in front of a building that resembles a Mosque, if only for a few seconds.

A clip from the National Anthem video.
Photo: YouTube

As for the video’s Buddhist references, several Thais sing in front of a temple. Near the end, army personnel stand to attention under the backdrop of another temple-like structure.

But that wasn’t enough for some Buddhist groups. After the video aired in May, the Association for the Defense of Buddhism swiftly lobbied the government to include more explicit references to the majority faith.

“We do not despise other religions. Other religions can be included, but the depiction should include the national identity,” it said in a statement.

The government subsequently altered the video to include monks collecting alms.

There is nothing wrong with this addition. But the notion that Buddhism represents Thailand’s national identity is a misguided view. Although the majority’s faith is clearly a foundational aspect of life for many Thais, for other significant segments of the population, it isn’t.

The military ostensibly supports religious pluralism, but autocracy stands in the way of progress

Religious freedom under Prime Minister Chan-o-cha has been mixed. On the one hand, his government has made an effort to safeguard minority faiths. In 2017, hardline monk Apichat Punnajanatho was arrested by the military for espousing extremist views against Muslims.

He was deemed a national security threat and defrocked by the national Buddhist clerical body, but was later released without charges.

In another positive step, a special order passed by the military government in 2016 affirmed the state’s promotion of “all recognised religions.” This includes Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians.

According to the law, any organisation operating under the banner of recognised religion is eligible for state benefits, including property tax exemptions and subsidies.

But Chan-o-cha has also presided over the use of intermittent martial law provisions against Malay Muslims in the south.

Ongoing separatist violence is used to justify pretrial detentions and searches without warrants. In one high-profile case, 17 student activists were arbitrarily arrested and forced to give DNA samples to authorities.

Despite the government’s rhetoric, the consolidation of power around central Thailand’s culture, language, and religion has fostered distrust in the Deep South.

Systemic inequalities are weakening efforts at inclusion. While terrorism is never justified, many ethnic Malays feel politically marginalised from national politics. There were no Muslims in the national parliament until 1991, the same year the new Constitution acknowledged the rights of minorities to practice and propagate their languages. Prior to this, Thai Muslims had been subject to the assimilation policies of previous governments. 

The Deep South had 11 constituency seats in play in this year’s election, out of 350 total.

A sign for a mosque in Bangkok.
Photo: Nick Gray

There is little sign that the military-led government is willing to move beyond its security concerns in the southern provinces. Mr Chan-o-cha’s government has made surface-level efforts to support minority faiths, but the political elite’s stranglehold on power and privilege limit the effectiveness of minority representation in Thai politics.

For the sake of real harmony between religions, ethnic groups, and affinities, the majority has an obligation to accommodate the varied voices that make the country whole.  In order to make a pluralistic society function, there has to be fair principles of representation in Thailand – both culturally and politically.