U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 - Thailand

Freedom of religion is protected by law, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, it does not register new religious groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Relations among the major religious communities were generally amicable. However, the Government places some limits on foreign missionaries, and it does not recognize new religious faiths outside of the seven existing groupings.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

Freedom of religion is protected by law, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, it restricts the activities of some groups. The Constitution requires that the monarch be a Buddhist. The state religion is in effect Therevada Buddhism; however, it is not designated as such. When the Constitution was being drafted in 1997, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly rejected a proposal to have Therevada Buddhism named the official religion on the grounds that such an action would create social division and be "offensive" to other religious communities in the country.

The Government plays an active role in religious affairs. The Religious Affairs Department (RAD), which is located in the Ministry of Education, registers religious organizations. In order to be registered, a religious organization first must be accepted into an officially recognized ecclesiastical group. During the reporting period, there were seven groups including one for the Buddhist community, one for the Muslim community, one for the Catholic community, and four for Protestant denominations. Government registration confers some benefits, including access to state subsidies, tax-exempt status, and preferential allocation of resident visas for organization officials. In practice unregistered religious organizations operate freely.

There were no reports of extortion by local officials.

Under the provisions of the Religious Organizations Act of 1969, the Department of Religious Affairs recognizes a new religion if a national census shows that it has at least 5,000 adherents, has a uniquely recognizable theology, and is not politically active. However, since 1984 the Government has maintained a policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths. This has restricted the activities of some groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds.

The Constitution requires the Government "to patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." The State subsidizes the activities of the three largest religious communities (Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian.) During the period covered by this report, the Government provided approximately the equivalent of $56.3 million to support religious groups. Included in this amount are funds to support Buddhist and Muslim institutes of higher education; to fund religious education programs in public and private schools; to provide daily allowances for monks and Muslim clerics who hold administrative and senior ecclesiastical posts; and to subsidize travel and health care for monks and Muslim clerics. This figure also includes an annual budget for the renovation and repair of Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques, the maintenance of historic Buddhist sites, and the daily upkeep of the Central Mosque in Pattani.

During the period covered by this report, the Government also provided approximately the equivalent of $75,000 to Christian organizations to support social welfare projects. Catholic and Protestant churches can request government support for renovation and repair work but do not receive a regular budget to maintain church buildings nor do they receive government assistance to support their clergy. The Government considers donations made to maintain Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian buildings to be tax-free income; contributions for these purposes are also tax-deductible for private donors.

Religious Demography

In a 1997 survey, over 99 percent of the population of 60 million professed some religious belief or faith. According to government statistics, 93 percent of the population are Buddhist, and 5 percent are Muslim. However, recent estimates by academics and religious groups suggest that approximately 85 to 90 percent of the population are Therevada Buddhist, and up to 10 percent of the population are Muslim. Estimates also suggest that Christians constitute about 1 percent of the population. There are small animist, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist, Jewish, and Brahman populations. No official statistics exist for atheists or individuals who do not profess a religious faith or belief, but recent surveys suggest that they make up less than 1 percent of the population.

The dominant religion is Therevada Buddhism. The Buddhist clergy or Sangha consists of two main schools, which are governed by the same ecclesiastical hierarchy. Monks belonging to the older Mahanikaya school far outnumber those of the Dhammayuttika School, an order that grew out of a 19th century reform movement led by King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces, which border Malaysia. Minority Muslim populations also live in 74 of the 76 provinces. The majority of Muslims are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population encompasses groups of diverse ethnic and national origin, including descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Government agencies did not use consistent figures to describe the size of the Muslim population during the period covered by this report, but most estimates suggest that Muslims constitute as much as 10 percent of the population. There are approximately 3,200 mosques in 57 provinces, with the largest number (552) in Pattani province. All but a very small number of these mosques are associated with the Sunni branch of Islam. The remainder, estimated by the Religious Affairs Department to be from 1 to 2 percent of the total, are associated with the Shi'a branch.

According to Government statistics, Christians constituted approximately 1.6 percent (1,012,871) of the population in January. Almost half the Christian population lives in Chiang Mai. The rest are in the Bangkok area and in the northeastern provinces. Approximately 25 percent of the Christian population is Roman Catholic. There are also several Protestant denominations. Most Protestant churches belong to one of four umbrella organizations. The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand, was formed in the mid-1930's. The largest is the Evangelical Foundation of Thailand. Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists are recognized by government authorities as separate Protestant denominations and are organized under similar umbrella groups.

There are six tribal groups (chao khao) recognized by the Government, with an estimated population of 500,000 to 600,000 persons, whose members generally are described as animists. Syncretistic practices drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and ethnic Tai spirit worship are common. The Hindu and Sikh communities have an estimated population of about 19,000 persons. Both are associated with small immigrant groups that arrived from South Asia during the twentieth century, although Brahman temples had been established in Bangkok as early as 1784. The majority of Hindus and Sikhs live in Chonburi, Bangkok, and Phuket provinces.

The ethnic Chinese minority (Sino-Thai) has retained some popular religious traditions from China, including adherence to popular Taoist beliefs. Members of the Mien hill tribe follow a form of Taoism.

Mahayana Buddhism is practiced primarily by small groups of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. There were 8 Chinese temples and 11 Vietnamese temples in 1998.

The Government actively sponsors interfaith dialog in accordance with the Constitution, which requires the State to "promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions." The Government funds regular meetings and public education programs. These programs included the RAD annual interfaith meeting for representatives of all religious groups certified by RAD. The September meeting in Bangkok drew 200 participants. They also included monthly meetings of the 17-member Subcommittee on Religious Relations, located within the Prime Minister's National Identity Promotion Office (The Subcommittee is composed of one representative from the Buddhist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Sikh communities in addition to civil servants from several government agencies), and a 1-week education program coorganized by the National Identity Promotion Office and the National Council on Social Welfare. The latter event is held each December in celebration of the King's birthday. Representatives from every religious organization recognized by the RAD are invited to attend seminars associated with the event. The program also targets the general public through films and public displays.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government has not recognized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Two branches of the Government investigated religious groups alleged to be engaged in cult activities prior to the period covered by this report. In 1998 the National Security Council and the House Standing Committee on Religion, Arts, and Cultural Affairs initiated an investigation into the alleged "cultish practices" of the Hope of Thai People Foundation after complaints were filed at the Religious Affairs Department by parents claiming that their children had isolated themselves from friends and family after joining the church. In January 1999, the House Standing Committee moved to consider a petition filed by a Senator requesting that the foundation's activities be investigated. In response the foundation filed a law suit against the committee chairman for defamation in May 1999. The law suit against the former chairman, now a senator-elect, remains in litigation. No further committee action was taken.

The Government permitted foreign missionary groups to work freely throughout the country, although it also maintained policies that favored proselytizing by its citizens.

The number of foreign missionaries officially registered with the Government is limited to a quota that originally was established by the Religious Affairs Department in 1982. The quota is divided along both religious and denominational lines and is considered sensitive for this reason. The Government does not publish or release its quotas for particular religious denominations. In May 2000, there reportedly were from 1,900 to 2,000 foreign missionaries legally registered, including 422 Roman Catholic, 1,050 Protestant, 150 Mormon, and 10 Muslim missionaries. In September 1999, the RAD increased the quota for Mormon missionaries from a quota of 100 to 150.

While official registration conferred some benefits, such as longer terms for visa stays, it was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity during the period covered by this report. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized or disseminated religious literature without the acknowledgment of the Religious Affairs Department. There were no reports that foreign missionaries were deported or harassed for working without registration, although the activities of Muslim professors and clerics were subjected disproportionately to scrutiny on national security grounds because of continued government concern about the potential resurgence of Muslim separatist activities in the south.

Citizens proselytize freely. Monks working as Buddhist missionaries (Dhammaduta) have been active since the end of World War II, particularly in border areas among the country's tribal populations. In April 2000, there were approximately 3,000 Dhammaduta working in the country. In addition the Government sponsored the international travel of another 748 Buddhist monks sent by their temples to disseminate religious information abroad. Christian and Muslim organizations also reported having smaller numbers of citizens working as missionaries in Thailand and abroad.

Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary (grades 1 through 6) and secondary (grades 7 through 12) education levels. Students at the primary level are required to take 80 hours of instruction per academic year in religious studies classes. Instruction is limited to Buddhism and Islam. During the period covered by this report, some parts of the country with large Muslim student populations did not have Muslim studies courses. Muslim students in these schools generally were directed to school libraries to participate in Muslim self-study courses.

The Constitution provides for, and citizens generally enjoy, a large measure of freedom of speech. However, laws prohibiting speech likely to insult Buddhism remain in place under the 1997 Constitution. The police, who have legal authority under the Printing and Advertisement Act of 1941 to issue written warnings or orders suspending the publication or distribution of printed materials considered offensive to public morals, confiscated a book in December, written by a Phra Dhammakaya temple follower, which attacked a monk who is one of the chief critics of that temple. In December the police issued an arrest warrant for the author for defamation of character.

National Identity Cards produced by the Ministry of Interior since April 12, 1999 include a designation of the religious affiliation of the holder for the first time. The 1999 change in policy was implemented in response to the demands of parliamentarians who wanted easier identification of individuals requiring Muslim burial. Individuals who fail or choose not to indicate religious affiliation in their applications can be issued cards without religious information.

Muslim female civil servants are not permitted to wear headscarves when dressed in civil servant uniforms.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the major religious communities were generally amicable. As of June, the case of a March 1999 attack in Nonthaburi province, while still open, has not generated any new actions. Although police continue to suspect intradenominational conflict, whether the bombing was due to religious motives is not known.

None of the religious communities led "ecumenical" movements.

The Constitution states that discrimination against a person on the grounds of "a difference in religious belief" shall not be permitted. There was no significant pattern of religious discrimination during the period covered by this report. Religious groups closely associated with ethnic minorities, such as Muslims, experience some societal economic discrimination. The Government maintained longstanding policies designed to integrate Muslim communities into society through developmental efforts and expanded educational opportunities, as well as policies designed to increase the number of appointments to local and provincial positions where Muslims traditionally have been underrepresented.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discussed religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The current Ambassador as well as his predecessor, met repeatedly with government officials to request an increase in the number of visas for missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and to call for official recognition of the church.

This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The 2000 Report covers the period from July 1, 1999 to June 30, 2000

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