Appropriating a Space for Violence: State Buddhism in Southern Thailand

Article excerpt

On 9 November 2006, the Bangkok Post published a brief article about 100 Thai Buddhist villagers fleeing their homes in Yala, one of the southernmost provinces in Thailand. Women, men and children, abandoning their homes and livelihood, travelled to their capital district where they found refuge in Wat Nirotsangkatham. (1) By the beginning of December their numbers had grown to over 228 people. (2) None of the Buddhist refugees felt they would be safe returning to their villages. Instead, they made a temporary home at the wat (Buddhist monastic compound). The villagers were not the only laity then residing at the wat. Thai soldiers were already living at Wat Nirotsangkatham, guarding the entrance and fortifying its perimeters.

Drawing upon fieldwork in southern Thailand between July 2004 and August 2007, this article argues that the Thai State's militarisation of southern Thai wat and the role of Buddhist monks fuel a religious dimension to a civil war in southern Thailand. (3)

It is difficult to give an accurate account of the southernmost provinces' demographics. Thailand's government commits to a 10-year cycle in their census reports, and the next extensive report will not come for several more years. There have been smaller projects done by the National Statistical Office as late as 2003. Information from these reports indicates an 80 per cent Muslim majority in the three southernmost provinces as well as a substantial differential in Muslim/Buddhist growth rates; in each province Buddhist populations were shrinking as opposed to the growing Muslim populations. (4) Since the recent escalation in violence began in 2004, we can speculate that the Buddhist population levels have decreased even more.

Previously in southern Thailand, a wat signified a place for communal gatherings and Buddhist veneration. These shared spaces attracted Thai Buddhists, Thai Chinese Buddhists and Thai Malay Muslims. Southern Thai monks consider the space of the wat changed in the contemporary context; they feel locals viewed and used their wat in a distinctly different manner prior to 2004 (and the State's declaration of martial law). Emblematic of this, the abbot of Wat Kuannaw in Pattani province explained in a phone interview that before the increase in violence: 'Islam was just Islam and Buddhism was just Buddhism. They did not intermingle. But, whenever we had Thai cultural events like Mother's Day or Father's day, Muslims would come to our war.' (5) Locals, whether they were Malay Muslim or Thai Buddhist, gathered together at war for Thai national celebrations such as the Thai New Year (Songkran) and the Thai king's birthday.

In the past 50 years Malay Muslim attitudes toward entering a wat have fluctuated. (6) Chavivun Prachuabmoh noted in the 1970s that the majority of Pattani Malay Muslims felt that 'if they just watch or study [at a wat], it is all right because they do not participate in the religious ceremony'. (7) These Malay Muslims saw the wat as a communal resource: a place to sit and chat with other locals about everyday events, a space to use for celebrations or work (such as ngaan wat, nora wayang kulit and silat performances). Though engaging in Buddhist ceremonies at a war was shunned, local Malay Muslims would come to borrow supplies or seek medicinal and charm-related help from the monks who resided at the wat, such as in the case of de-hexing. (8)

Southern Thailand has had a long tradition of Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist interaction and co-existence. Kenneth Landon writes that in the early half of the twentieth century, 'older Malay communities have members who speak both Malay and Siamese and who follow their religion only to the point of refraining from pork-eating and wearing the tarboosh.' (9) A clear indicator of this surviving tradition is the record of Malay Buddhist monks in the southernmost province of Narathiwat, who are venerated for their spiritual achievements. …