Thailand’s 4M Muslims to elect successor to nation’s top Islamic leader

Mariyam Ahmad
Pattani, Thailand
Thailand’s 4M Muslims to elect successor to nation’s top Islamic leader Wisoot Binlatah, a candidate for the post of Sheikhul Islam, Thailand’s top Islamic community leader, speaks during the funeral of Aziz Phitakkumpon at the central mosque in Songkhla province, Oct. 23, 2023.

Provincial committees representing Thailand’s 4 million Muslims will soon elect a new leader to oversee the affairs of the Islamic community in this majority-Buddhist country.

The three candidates for the post of the Sheikhul Islam – the nation’s top Islamic authority – include one from the insurgency-wracked southern border region and two from the capital Bangkok. 

They’re vying to replace another Muslim leader from the widely impoverished Deep South who died last month after serving as the Sheikhul Islam for more than a decade. The results from voting by 800 people who sit on Islamic provincial committees nationwide are due out Nov. 22.

The Sheikhul Islam serves as the Thai government’s top adviser on Islamic Affairs, including on efforts to bring peace to the mainly Muslim Deep South.

“The troubles in the Deep South are the chronicle of identity, culture and different thoughts, including extremism,” Wisoot Binlatah, one of the candidates and a native of southern Songkhla province, told BenarNews. 

“In order to solve the problems, it needs the approaches on culture and religious understanding which could lead those who consider violence to be moderate.”

The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces along with four districts in Songkhla.

More than 7,300 people have been killed and 13,500 others have been injured since a Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in this region along the Thai-Malaysia border flared up again in January 2004. At the time, scores of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents raided an army battalion and made off with hundreds of military weapons from an arms depot.

In recent years, government negotiators held peace talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella group bringing together various rebel organizations and factions, and later with BRN, the region’s largest insurgent group, but violence still persists.  

“The authorities must realize the cultural approach. I don’t want to see the use of brute force but soft power – culture and religious teaching to mold their minds to feel that all are brothers and sisters under the same nation,” Wisoot said, adding that he had the backing of the local Islamic committee.

Thailand allows more religious freedom than some Muslim-majority nations, he noted. 

“We can build Muslim identity under the framework of the constitution and laws without using violence,” said Wisoot, who was educated in Egypt.

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Muslims in Thailand’s Deep South attend the funeral of the Islamic community’s national leader, Aziz Phitakkumpon, at a cemetery near the central mosque in Songkhla province, Oct. 23, 2023. [BenarNews]

The other two candidates, Prasarn Sricharoen and Arun Boonchum, are natives of Bangkok who were educated in Saudi Arabia. They did not respond to BenarNews requests for interviews.

A local BRN leader in Pattani province, who asked not to be named over security concerns, had advice for whomever is elected.

“The moderate leader must be brave in deciding what is right, otherwise the problems will go on and on like what happened in the past,” the BRN official told BenarNews.

The new leader will succeed Sheikhul Islam Aziz Phitakkumpon who died on Oct. 22 at the age of 76. A native of Songkhla province, Aziz was elected leader in 2010. 

The Sheikhul Islam, also known as Chularatchamontri in Thai, advises the government on Islamic affairs, issues fatwas (rulings or clarifications on Islamic law) and announces religious events to be observed. 

About half of Thailand’s Muslim population is concentrated in the Malay-speaking Deep South, where locals expressed hope for the new leader. 

“The Sheikhul Islam has an important role in the joint efforts to solve the violence in the Deep South. Surely, he needs to know the religion, but everyone has to bear in mind how we can elect the right person who can help on both religious matters and the deterrence of violence,” Rusdee Bakok, the deputy chairman of Yala Islamic Committee, told BenarNews. 

“People [here] want an indigenous Sheikhul Islam because the majority of Muslims live here. If we can have a local person, we will have a Sheikhul Islam who knows the troubles and it is tacitly known that Deep South Muslims are more ardent than those elsewhere in the country,” he said.

A villager in Pattani said he wanted to see a change.

“I want the 19th Sheikhul Islam to be a moderate who is good at and strictly observes the teachings to lead us accordingly,” Ismail Doloh told BenarNews.

“I don’t like the previous Islamic leaders who did not duly follow the religious principle,” he said without elaborating because it is considered a sin to criticize the dead.


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