07/16/2009, 00.00
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No longer only Buddhist monks: militant Islam is penetrating Thailand

by Piero Gheddo
The Muslims dream is to return to the Malay sultanate. Irredentism has grown since September 11th. The Thai government is trying to assimilate Islam and in official ceremonies, places Muslim dignitaries and Buddhist monks alongside on another. But not Catholics.
Milan (AsiaNews) - Thailand it is fighting one of the many "forgotten wars" of which little is known. Thailand is a country with a large Buddhist majority of 65 million inhabitants and a small percentage of Muslims (4.5%), concentrated in the three southern provinces, bordering Malaysia. The demands of Islamic people to become part of Malaysia stretch back many years, because in the past those territories belonged to the Islamic Malay sultanate under the protection of England, such as Malaysia, the Malaysian Borneo and Brunei. After the last world war, the sultanate was occupied by Thailand.

Already in the 1970’s there was a strong campaign for regional autonomy on the part of Muslims, with bombings, violence and brief periods of warfare. Then a period of calm followed, only for the problem to be rekindled in the wake of the collapse of the twin towers in New York on September 11th  2001, which was seen a sign by the followers of Islam in countries where they are a minority to assert themselves: for example, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines and the region of Xinjiang in China.

The current situation in southern Thailand is very serious. The Muslim separatists recruit new fighters in the Islamic schools, in an attempt to raise the level of confrontation with the Thai government and the army. According to a study prepared by Thai Army experts, Thai Muslim separatists guerrillas are playing on Malay nationalism and pride as well as the sense of belonging to the old sultanate. "They tell the students of the [Muslim] schools that it is the duty of every Muslim to take their land back from the Buddhist infidels."

I speak to PIME missionary, Father Claudio Corti di Lecco, who has worked in northern Thailand for 11 years and is on holiday in Italy. He says: "Every day, newspapers report on the attacks, fires in schools, increasingly Buddhist monks will not leave the monastery unless under police escort as they have been killed too;  several inhabitants of the three provinces of the south have fled and are in the north because the situation is untenable. To entice people to go to work in the South, the government gives much higher wages and many people take up the offer. There is a large industry in rubber there and it pays very well. Our tribal people in order to earn more money or because they are unaware of the situation go there and then some come back when they realize the dangers. There is a real guerrilla war against the government, the military, Thailand. With accusations that the government has never helped to develop the south, because the South is a fairly depressed area of Thailand. And even the parliamentary minority accuses the majority of this".  


"But in the end - continues the missionary – it has become a clash between Islam and Buddhism. In fact the government, to try to overcome this moment of crisis, gives a lot of support to the Islamic schools and Islam. What Muslims want they get. The most striking example is that Muslims have been recognized as Thai, before being Thai meant you were Buddhist, for over two years now, Muslims are recognized as Thai. It is a concrete example. Every day, at eight o'clock in the morning and every evening at six the national anthem is broadcast. The country stops, radio and television stations broadcast the national anthem and everyone sings. The television show images of  Thailand. There is the king, there are the Buddhist monks, and now there are also Muslims with their distinctive dress, there are the Buddhist pagodas and Muslim mosques”.  

"This is not the case for our tribes. Christianity is considered a foreign religion, even if now there are few foreigners: our priests and nuns are almost all local. In Thailand, there are  about 300,000 Catholics nearly one million Christians all together out of a population of 65 million, Muslims are about three million. In the diocese of the South,  founded by the Salesians,  Catholics number about 6,000, while in our Diocese of Chiang Mai in the north there are 50,000 baptized and 25,000 catechumens. Chang Mai is the second biggest diocese in Thailand after Bangkok”.



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