A community in northeastern Thailand has voted down a local Muslim cleric’s request to register as an official place of worship a mosque that has been operating from a house in the area for decades.
The sting of the crushing 528 to 6 vote was amplified by Buddhist activists who arrived in Khon Kaen province Sunday from elsewhere in the country to campaign against the mosque’s registration. In a widely-viewed video clip, they expressed anti-Muslim views and tied that day’s referendum in Pra Lub, a cluster of villages in Khon Kaen, to violence in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Deep South.
The cleric said he was trying to register the property in Ban Lerng Peau, one of those villages, as required by laws regulating Islamic organizations, in order to expand the facility into a fully-functioning mosque.
“I wanted to register this mosque, an old house donated by a man, in accordance with the government’s 1997 Islamic administration law. Because of the negative result, I cannot expand it,” Somwang Nettippayanond, president of the Khon Kaen Islamic Committee, told BenarNews.
Somsak Jangtrakul, the provincial governor, said the majority of residents in the tambon (village cluster) voted against the mosque’s registration request.
In the majority-Buddhist country, referendums are required ahead of the registration of houses of worship of all faiths under a regulation enacted in 2005, according to a letter from the local district office announcing the referendum.
“This past Sunday there was a referendum on a request to register a mosque in Maung district of Khon Kaen, with 528 against and six in favor of it,” Somsak told BenarNews. “So let it be, the registration of the mosque cannot be completed because the consensus must be honored.”
Somwang, the cleric, said he had applied to register the Ibadur Rahman mosque, which has been in service since 1974, long before the Prime Minister Office’s regulation took effect and the house of worship went through a renovation in recent years.
“In regard to fears of violence, you cannot compare Khon Kaen to the Deep South. We acknowledge the fact of violence there, but here, the Internal Security Operations Command keeps a close watch,” Somwang said, referring to the southern border region where Muslims form the religious majority.
He invited local non-Muslims to come and see the mosque for themselves.
“A mosque is like a temple, it is a place for good people to pray. If you fear us [Muslims], we are open for everyone to look,” the cleric said, adding that his mosque was usually busy on Fridays.
Governor: ‘We don’t see conflicts’
According to the Thai Ministry of Interior, there are some 3,000 Muslims living in Khon Kaen, among about four million Muslims nationwide. There are nearly 4,000 registered mosques across Thailand, with an average of 32 requests each year to register new ones, officials with the ministry said.
Khon Kaen is a peaceful province, Gov. Somsak said. He wants to keep it that way.
“At the moment, we don’t see conflicts,” the governor told BenarNews. “But my concern is how to be fair to all sides, to preserve a peaceful environment, to let everyone express themselves and to have [different groups in] society living in harmony.”
On Sunday, however, a group of about 20 Buddhist activists, including from the Deep South, came to Somsak’s province to show solidarity with locals opposed to the registration of the mosque in Ban Lerng Peau.
In 2017, Buddhists in the province filed a petition to stop Muslim people in the village from registering the mosque, which was the focus of Sunday’s referendum.
“May I beg you that if the Deep South unrest doesn’t end, don’t you allow any more establishments of mosques nationwide,” one of the activists said in a video of Sunday’s demonstration that had drawn more than 22,000 page views on YouTube by Tuesday.
The leader of a Thai organization that calls itself Protect Buddhism for Peace, and whose members took part in the demonstration, said his group viewed the Deep South and the Middle East as sources of Islamic extremism.
“We resist Islamism from the Middle East because they see Thais as strangers. Malay Muslims in the Deep South don’t see Thailand as their motherland but as the colonizer of Patani state,” Iyr Petchthong told BenarNews.
“They indoctrinate youngsters in Pondok schools in order to change Thailand into an Islamic state, separate the country and smuggle foreign men into northern and northeastern regions of Thailand,” he added, referring to Islamic campuses.
A separatist rebellion against Bangkok has lasted for decades in the Malay-speaking Deep South. But Thai officials, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, have said there are no links between the border region and Islamic State extremists or any foreign militant group. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence there since the insurgency reignited in 2004.
Saki Phitakkumpon, a former professor at the Institute of Peace Studies at Prince of Songkla University in the Deep South, said Islamophobia had seeped into Thailand.
“We [Muslims] are not dividing the Thai society. In fact, the Islamic organizations are trying to preserve harmony and get rid of Muslim extremism,” Saki, who serves nowadays as secretary to the Sheikhul Islam, the leader of Thai Muslims, told BenarNews.