As we head South on the Thai Southern Line, we head more and more into the Islamic World. Thailand’s relationship with Islam is an interesting one.
About 5% of Thais are muslims, mostly Sunnis. They are mostly either in Bangkok, or in the southernmost provinces torwards Malaysia.
Ethnically, there are indigenous Thai muslims, as well as muslims from Malay, Chinese, Javanese, Acehnese and South Asian ethnic origins. In more recent decades, ethnic Rohingya and other South Asian decendent muslims have come from Myanmar – mainly as refugees – and scattered throughout Thailand’s refugee camps and areas closer to the Myanmar border.
The popular assumption seems to be that Islam is the dominant faith in the southernmost provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, and are an exception to an otherwise religiously and ethnically homogenous country. My sources tell me that somewhere between 60 to 70% of Thais in these provinces most southern provinces are still Buddhists, and are from different ethnicities.
I figure that this popular misconception is likely fueled by the politicising of violence that has occurred in the southern regions for decades, which has been deemed as “separatist” by the government or by popular media.
Having spent quite a few years in countries with conflicts and even violence, I know that all conflicts stem from mixed causes of identity, politics, and economics, and that media can often prey on our human failings to blow things out of proportion and sway popular opinion. So if I tried to summarise the nature or causes of the conflict in this humble format, at best I’d present half-truths based on disputed sources that are likely to just offend people. Best not.
At present, martial law seems to be in place in the 4 southernmost provinces (those that border the Malaysian border) since 2006. So do check the appropriate sources before you plan a vacation there.