U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2006 - Thailand

International Religious Freedom Report 2006

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, September 15, 2006. Covers the period from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006.

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected 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. In practice, unregistered religious organizations operated freely, and the Government's practice of not recognizing any new religious faiths has not restricted the activities of unregistered religious groups. The Government officially limits the number of foreign missionaries that may work in the country, although unregistered missionaries were present in large numbers and were allowed to live and work freely.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom. While separatist violence in the southernmost provinces continued to result in localized tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities, religious practices were not significantly inhibited.

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of approximately 198 thousand square miles, and its population is an estimated 64 million. According to the Government's National Statistics Office, approximately 94 percent of the population was Buddhist and 5 percent was Muslim; however, estimates by nongovernmental organizations, academics, and religious groups stated that approximately 85 to 90 percent of the population was Theravada Buddhist and up to 10 percent of the population was Muslim. There were small animist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Taoist populations. According to the Religious Affairs Department (RAD), the numbers of atheists or persons who did not profess a religious faith made up less than 1 percent of the population.

The dominant religion was Theravada 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 outnumbered those of the Dhammayuttika school, an order that grew out of a nineteenth-century reform movement led by King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Islam was the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces, which border Malaysia. The majority of Muslims were ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population encompassed groups of diverse ethnic and national origin, including descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The RAD reported that there were 3,524 registered mosques in 64 provinces, of which 2,255 were located in the 5 southernmost provinces. According to the RAD, 99 percent of these mosques were associated with the Sunni branch of Islam. Shi'a mosques made up the remaining 1 percent.

According to RAD statistics, there are an estimated 438,600 Christians in the country, constituting 0.7 percent of the population. There were several Protestant denominations, and most belong to one of four umbrella organizations. The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand, was formed in the mid-1930s. The largest was the Evangelical Foundation of Thailand. Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists were recognized by authorities as separate Protestant denominations and were organized under similar umbrella groups.

There were nine tribal groups (chao khao) recognized by the Government, with an estimated population of approximately 920 thousand persons. Syncretistic practices drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and spirit worship were common. The Sikh Council of Thailand estimated the Sikh community to have a population of approximately 70 thousand persons, most of which resided in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Pattaya, and Phuket. There were currently nineteen Sikh temples in the country. According to government statistics, there were an estimated 2,900 Hindus in the country, although Hindu organizations estimated the population to be closer to 10 thousand persons.

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 followed a form of Taoism.

Mahayana Buddhism was practiced primarily by small groups of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. There were more than 675 Chinese and Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist shrines and temples throughout the country.

Citizens proselytized 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. As of May 2006, there were 8,079 Dhammaduta working in the country. In addition, during the period covered by this report, the government sponsored the international travel of another 1,038 Buddhist monks sent by their temples to disseminate religious information to 27 countries. Muslim organizations reported having small numbers of citizens working as missionaries in the country and abroad. Christian organizations reported much larger numbers of missionaries, both foreign and Thai, operating in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, it restricted the activities of some groups. The constitution requires that the monarch be a Buddhist. The state religion in effect is Theravada Buddhism; however, it is not officially designated as such.

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. The Government maintained longstanding policies designed to integrate southern 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.

The constitution provides for, and citizens generally enjoyed, a large measure of freedom of speech; however, laws prohibiting speech likely to insult Buddhism remain in place. The 1962 Sangha Act specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and the Buddhist clergy. The Penal Code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religions.

The Government plays an active role in religious affairs. The RAD, which is located in the Ministry of Culture, registers religious organizations. Under the provisions of the Religious Organizations Act, the RAD recognizes a new religion if a national census shows that it has at least five thousand adherents, has a uniquely recognizable theology, and is not politically active. A religious organization also must be accepted into an officially recognized ecclesiastical group before the RAD will grant registration. During the period covered by this report, there were five such groups: the Buddhist community, the Muslim community, the Brahmin-Hindu community, the Sikh community, and the Catholic community, which includes four Protestant subgroups. Government registration confers some benefits, including access to state subsidies, tax-exempt status, and preferential allocation of resident visas for organization officials. However, since 1984 the Government has not recognized any new religious faiths. In practice, unregistered religious organizations operate freely, and the Government's practice of not recognizing any new religious faiths has not restricted the activities of unregistered religious groups.

The constitution requires the Government "to patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." The State subsidizes activities of the three largest religious communities (Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian). The Government allocated approximately $56.5 million (2.2 billion baht) during fiscal year 2006 to support the National Buddhism Bureau, which was established in 2002 as an independent state agency. The office oversees the Buddhist clergy and approved the curricula of Buddhist teachings for all Buddhist temples of educational institutions. In addition, the bureau promotes the Buddhist faith by sponsoring educational and public relations materials on the faith and practice in daily life.

For fiscal year 2005, the Government, through the RAD, allocated $1.03 million for Islamic organizations, $56,600 for Christian, Brahman-Hindu, and Sikh organizations. Also in 2006 RAD received, for the first time, a rotating budget of approximately $51.3 million (200 million baht) to be used to offer loans for Hajj-related travel.

The budgets for Buddhist and Muslim organizations included funds to support Buddhist and Muslim institutes of higher education, fund religious education programs in public and private schools, provide daily allowances for monks and Muslim clerics who hold administrative and senior ecclesiastical posts, and subsidize travel and health care for monks and Muslim clerics. This figure also included 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. Catholic and Protestant groups 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. In 2006 the Government provided approximately $36,000 for restoration of Christian churches. Private donations to registered religious organizations are tax deductible.

Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary, (grades one through six, and secondary, grades seven through twelve , education levels. The Ministry of Education has formulated a course called "Social, Religion, and Culture Studies," which students in each grade study for one to two hours each week. The course contains information about all of the recognized religions in the country. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of other religions or of their belief may study at the religious schools and can transfer credits to the public school. Schools, working in conjunction with their local school administrative board, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. The Supreme Sangha Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand have created special curriculums for Buddhist and Islamic studies.

There are a variety of Islamic education opportunities for children. Tadika is an after-school religious course for children in grades one through six, which is under the supervision of the RAD and generally takes place in a mosque. There are currently 1,612 registered Islamic Religious and Moral Education centers teaching Tadika, with approximately 173 thousand students and more than 4 thousand teachers. For secondary school children, the Ministry of Education allows two separate curricula for private Islamic studies schools. The first type teaches only Islamic religious courses. As of April 2006, there were 92 schools nationwide with 5,684 students and 423 teachers using this curriculum. The government registers but does not certify these schools, and students from these schools cannot continue to any higher education within the country. The number of this type of school was in decline as students opted to attend schools that afford alternatives for higher education. The second curriculum teaches both Islamic religious courses and traditional state education coursework. Approximately 132 schools nationwide with 100,684 students use this curriculum. The Government recognizes these private schools, and graduating students can continue to higher education within the country. A third type of Islamic education available, mostly in the southern part of the country, is traditional pondok schools. During the period covered by this report, there were 372 registered pondok schools primarily in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces. Previously, these religious schools were not required to register with the Government and received no Government oversight or funding. The registration effort began in April 2004 following an attack on a military post and arms depot in Narathiwat in January 2004. Government investigations into that incident led the authorities to pursue suspects associated with pondok schools. The total number of pondoks is still unknown. Sources believed that there could be as many as one thousand.

The Government actively sponsors interfaith dialogue 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 and members of all religious groups certified by RAD. The programs also included monthly meetings of the seventeen-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). In March 2006 the RAD organized an interfaith convention in Bangkok, which had 1,600 participants and a major international interfaith event is planned for June 2006 during the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the king's coronation. The RAD sponsored a public relations campaign promoting interreligious understanding and harmony, including prime-time television announcements. However, a continuing separatist insurgency by militant ethnic Malay Muslims in the southernmost provinces led to concerns that the violence may be contributing to increased tensions between the local Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In the past, government officials, at the request of Chinese government officials, have reportedly monitored Falun Gong members. During the period covered by this report, the government denied the application submitted by the local Falun Gong to register as an association with the Office of the National Cultural Commission. The organization was currently challenging this decision through the court system. No action was announced on a second petition submitted to the police department to print and distribute a weekly Falun Gong magazine. The group was able to print and distribute religious materials both in Thai and Chinese on a small, informal basis for free distribution. Falun Gong maintained a website that advertises daily gatherings in Bangkok and periodic gatherings in Songkhla.

The government does not recognize religious faiths other than the five existing groupings. However, unregistered religious organizations operated freely.

Although unregistered missionaries were present in large numbers, the number of foreign missionaries registered with the government is limited to a quota that originally was established by the RAD in 1982. The quota is divided along both religious and denominational lines. During the period covered by this report, there were close to 1,500 registered foreign missionaries in the country, most of them Christian. In addition to these formal quotas, far more missionaries, while not registered were able to live and work in the country without government interference. While registration conferred some benefits, such as longer terms for visa stays, being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized or disseminated religious literature without the acknowledgment of the RAD. There were no reports that foreign missionaries were deported or harassed for working without registration. Muslim professors and clerics, particularly in the far south, continue to face additional scrutiny because of continued government concern about the resurgence of Muslim separatist activities. However, this did not appear to interfere with their activities or their ability to practice their faith.

Muslim female civil servants were not permitted to wear headscarves when dressed in civil servant uniforms. However, in practice most female civil servants were permitted by their superiors to wear headscarves if they wished, particularly in the country's southernmost provinces. Muslim female civil servants not required to wear uniforms were allowed to wear headscarves.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Violent acts committed by suspected Islamic militants in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala affected the ability of some Buddhists in this predominantly Muslim region to undertake the full range of their traditional religious practices. During the period covered by this report, one Buddhist monk and two novices were killed in an attack on a Buddhist temple in Pattani Province. The incident occurred in the early morning hours of October 16, 2005, when approximately twenty assailants attacked a temple in Ponare District, Pattani. The attackers fired guns into temple dwellings, killing two teenage novices, and stabbed a seventy-six year old monk to death, nearly severing his head. The attackers then set fire to several structures and destroyed Buddha images. At the end of the period covered by this report, no one had been arrested or charged in these attacks.

On September 2, 2005, a monk was injured by a bomb in Narathiwat Province. Four others were injured in separate incidents between March and June 2005 in Yala Province. The monks were performing the morning ritual of receiving donations of food and were guarded by armed soldiers. In June 2005, eight civilians were beheaded in six separate incidents. Some observers in the south, including some Muslim leaders, described these incidents as reprisal killings for the arrest and/or killing of suspected Muslim militants by authorities. At the end of the period covered by this report, no one had been arrested for the 2004 murder of three Buddhist monks and the beheading of one civilian Buddhist rubber tapper or for the 2004 attacks on Buddhist temples and one Chinese shrine in the southern provinces of the country. The Government continued to investigate these incidents in the context of security operations involving the ongoing separatist violence in the South. Buddhist monks continued to report that they were fearful and thus no longer able to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms. They also claimed that laypersons sometimes declined to assist them in their daily activities out of fear of being targeted by militants.

There were almost daily attacks by suspected separatist militants in Thailand's southernmost provinces on both government officials and Buddhists and Muslim civilians. The violence contributed to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the southern provinces. However, while the level of tension between local Islamic and Buddhist communities was heightened, it did not result in open communal conflict.

In response to the killings, the Government stationed troops to protect the religious practitioners and structures of all faiths in communities where the potential for violence existed, and provided armed escort for Buddhist monks, where necessary, for their daily rounds to receive alms. The Government offered compensation to the families of 106 Islamic militants slain while attacking security forces on April 28, 2004, and many of the families accepted. The Government allocated $218,000 for the restoration of the Krue Se Mosque, which soldiers damaged during the fighting. During the period covered by this report, the restoration was completed and an additional $40,000 was allocated for supplementary improvements.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

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

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

The generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society contributed to religious freedom. Religious groups closely associated with ethnic minorities, such as Muslims, experienced some societal economic discrimination; however, such discrimination appeared to be linked more to ethnicity than to religion. Continued violence in the far southern regions of the country contributed to negative stereotypes of Muslims held by persons from other geographic areas of the country. Murders clearly targeted at Buddhists increased ethnic tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities in the far south.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. embassy officers regularly visit Muslim religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy's goal of understanding the complex ethnic and religious issues at play in society.

During the fiscal year 2005, five Muslims from a broad range of professions participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program, which is the flagship professional exchange program of the Department of State and serves to introduce young professionals from a wide variety of fields to the United States at an early stage in their professional development.


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