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Buddhist-Muslim harmony alive and well in Thailand

SATUN THAILAND - Hamzah Desa, a 42-year-old Thai Muslim, sits cross-legged on the veranda of his one-room wooden house in Kampung Che Bilang in Satun, a Muslim-majority province in southern Thailand.

It's a typical Sunday afternoon in his village. A handful of villagers wearing headscarves are buying papaya salad and grilled chicken from a street vendor.

"Look at them. The seller is a Chinese Buddhist and the buyers are Malay Muslims", Hamzah, a community development officer for Kampung Che Bilang, says in Malay laced with a thick Kedah accent. "That is a sight that is difficult to find in Pattani (a region consisting of three Muslim-dominated provinces—Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani—on the eastern seaboard of the Isthmus of Kra)."

Hamzah then points to the grocery store next door owned by his neighbour, Bunleur Karnsannok, a 62-year-old Chinese Buddhist, as an example of how Buddhists and Muslims in Satun province live side-by-side, harmoniously.

"We are like siblings. When it is Eid el Fitr, a Muslim festival to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, we will give Bunleur's family cakes; when it is Chinese New Year, his family will give us cakes", he says.

"We are all the same", echoes the grocery store owner who has lived in the village for 40 years.

The sibling relationship between Muslims and Buddhists in Satun province is in sharp contrast to the Pattani region where separatist-related unrest has killed more than 3,700 people—Buddhists and Muslims—since January 2004.

Satun province, adjacent to Kedah and Perlis, two states in Northern Malaysia, was once part of the Kedah Sultanate.

In a 1909 treaty, the British and Siamese authorities split the northernmost Malay regions of Pattani, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. The Siamese secured Pattani and a section of Kedah (now Satun) while the British took Kelantan, Trengganu and most of Kedah.

Satun's provincial capital is called Satun (pronounced "S-toon"), which is approximately 973 km southwest of Bangkok. About 70 per cent of its 280,000 population is Malay Muslim.

Pattani Muslims and Satun Muslims have different aspirations, notes headscarf-wearing Siti Hajar Sasen, who lives in Kampung Che Bilang.

The 27-year-old homemaker is married to a 50-year-old Malaysian who owns a restaurant that serves halal food (permissible according to Islamic law) in Satun town, and exports fish from Ranong in Thailand to Kuala Perlis in Malaysia. "The Pattani Malays want to be separated from Thailand, while we want to live harmoniously with the other communities", she explains. "We only want peace; fighting against the Thai government will not be good for business."

Economically, the local population in Satun has benefited from the absence of inter-communal tensions. Its per capita income is roughly 50 per cent higher than Pattani's, which sees killings related to the separatist movement almost every day.

Siti Hajar acknowledges that she's comfortable in the Buddhist-dominated kingdom. "If a Muslim wants to do business and become a millionaire, the government will not interfere. If Muslims want to build a mosque, the government will not interfere. What else do I want?" she said.

Ali Man, a 75-year-old respected Muslim religious leader in Kampung Che Bilang, shares the same sentiment: "Although we are a minority in Thailand, when we apply for land the Thai government does not care whether you are Muslim or Buddhist", says Ali, who was dressed in a traditional Malay outfit, a gift from his brother, a Malaysian living in Kuala Lumpur.

Ali smiles when asked whether he owns huge swathes of a rubber plantation. "Praise be to God", he says, "I'm thankful the government does not discriminate."

There's also no discrimination in Kampung Che Bilang, according to Hamzah. "Although we form the majority (90 per cent of the 500 households in this village), we don't force our religious views on the others", he says.

For example, the Kampung Che Bilang community development committee allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol publicly in a designated zone in the village that has a dockyard serving Western boat owners.

Does Hamzah wish Satun province was still part of Kedah? "That is history. In a blink of an eye, my ancestors became Thai", he says. "I don't regret it. When I was born, I was a Thai."


* Philip Golingai is a Bangkok-based Malaysian journalist, as well as an editor for Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 Asian newspapers, including Malaysia's The Star and Indonesia's The Jakarta Post. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.

Source: The Star Online, 1 August 2009,


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