Ethnohistorical Perspectives on Buddhist-Muslim Relations and Coexistence in Southern Thailand: From Shared Cosmos to the Emergence of Hatred?

By Horstmann, Alexander | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Ethnohistorical Perspectives on Buddhist-Muslim Relations and Coexistence in Southern Thailand: From Shared Cosmos to the Emergence of Hatred?


Horstmann, Alexander, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The landscape of the northern part of peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand is characterized by extreme cultural complexity and ethnic diversity, incorporating influences from China, India, and Persia, Turkey, and from the Middle East. Patani in Thailand and Kelantan on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia are known as bastions of Islamic civilization. Less known is the reciprocal hybridization and inter-penetration of Buddhist and Islamic cosmologies in the cultural landscape of northern peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand. The tradition of pre-Islamic Hinduism is also shared in the ritual life of Thai and Malay groups. Wayang kulit in Kelantan, and manora and hang talung in Nakhon Si Thammarat are examples of the common Indian tradition in performing arts on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border.

In academic representation of southern Thailand, few scholars were interested in inter-religious coexistence. Chaiwat argues in his "Patani in the 1980s" that much of the literature on Patani was carved as political stories rather than objective research (Chaiwat 1994). Much of the literature on southern Thailand (and state discourse at various levels) presented Muslims in South Thailand as a homogenous group. The main question was the various degrees to which Muslims as a minority community were integrating successfully into the Thai-Buddhist-dominant "host" society.

The years from 1969 to 2002 are chosen for this review because that was the period during which Buddhist-Muslim relations became fundamentally transformed as southern Thailand develops into modernity. The year 1969 was also the watershed in ethnographic studies on southern Thailand. Southern Thai ethnography in this period witnessed larger transformations in anthropological research in general: the shift away from structuralism towards a more interpretative approach of culture with its concerns for voice, transformative complexities, and subjectivity. Local scholarship by and large seems to take ethnic identities and religious beliefs for granted, overlooking the history of inter-ethnic marriage and conversion in both directions, from Buddhism to Islam and from Islam to Buddhism. The unique mechanisms of ritual and language that emerged in southern Thailand indicate that common beliefs in spirits and ancestors have been more important than canonical rules. The dissolution of many mixed rituals and the fundamentalisms in both Buddhism and Islam seem to overshadow unique cultural practices that gradually disappear. The mechanisms of coexistence should be noted and written down before they disappear. They will be needed to reconstruct peaceful relations in times of conflict.

Local scholarship seems to be emotionally involved and trapped in the identity politics of southern Thailand, in which nationalist positions dominated Thai-Buddhist as well as Malay-Muslim discourse, thereby marginalizing local positions of exchange, solidarity, and compromise. Buddhist-Muslim relations in South Thailand should not be romanticized. The historical perspective shows how the breaking up of the shared cosmos caused by the intervention of the state and the depletion of natural resources create opportunities for violent confrontations in which Buddhists dashed with Muslims. The dominant paradigm of inter-religious hostility needs to be informed by narratives from the grassroots.

This paper is a response to a dominant representation of the cultural landscape of southern Thailand caught in a static dichotomization of Thai-Buddhist and Malay-Muslim ethnicities that overlooks the crucial diversity in which Buddhist-Muslim relations are manifested differently depending on entirely different historical trajectories recorded in the memory of the people.

While Malay-cultured Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been incorporated by military conquest, the landscapes of Thai-speaking Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkla, Trang, Patthalung, and Satun have been under Thai-Buddhist influence and were characterized by overlapping religious cosmologies (Kobkua 1988; Che Man 1990; Cheah Boon Kheng 1988).

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