Chiang Mai Buddhist hardliners say no to Halal food industrial estate

Buddhist hardliners and monks in the northern province of Chiang Mai have voiced opposition to a plan to establish a Halal food industrial zone, claiming that it will destroy the cultural heritage of the province.

A Facebook page called Pokpong Sangkha Monthon (Protect the Buddhist County) on Tuesday, 16 February 2016, posted a letter signed by 12 organisations based in Chiang Mai.  

The letter titled ‘Cooperation among 12 Organisations to Oppose the Establishment of a Halal Food Industrial Zone in Chiang Mai’ was signed by 12 organisations including the Centre to Protect Buddhism of Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Sangkha Council, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (Chiang Mai Campus), and Chiang Mai Buddhist Youth Organisation.

It was submitted to the Governor of Chiang Mai, urging the authorities to halt a plan to establish a Halal food industrial zone in the province. Earlier this month the province hosted an international Halal food fair to promote agricultural products and tourism in the region.

The letter states that the establishment of the Halal food industrial zone will destroy the local environment and the cultural heritage of Chiang Mai although it did not illustrate this further.

It also stated that the signatory organisations of the letter will ‘never allow’ such an industrial zone to be established and will continue to campaign against the plan until it is dropped.

According to Prachatham News, there are currently 140 Halal food suppliers in Chiang Mai, of which only nine are Muslim.

The revenue generated by the Halal food industry in Chiang Mai is about 7-8 billion baht annually, Prachatham added.

Nidhi Eoseewong, a well-known political scientist residing in Chiang Mai, commented that the claim by the 12 organisations that the establishment of a Halal food industrial zone would cause damage to the environment is baseless.

“Industrial pollution affecting the environment occurs with every industry, but it has nothing to do with Islam, but rather the laws and weak industrial regulatory framework of the Thai state,” wrote Nidhi.

He further commented that the reason why some Buddhists in northern Thailand and in other regions are becoming increasingly Islamophobic is because the version of Buddhism which has been officially promoted in the country could not offer spiritual guidance to people in modern society.

He added that feelings of insecurity among Buddhists are aided by the weakness of official Buddhist institutions plagued by sex scandals and corruption allegations in recent years.  

Last year, Aphichat Promjan, chief lecturer monk at Benjamabophit Temple, a Bangkok temple under royal patronage, made headlines after he proposed that the government should burn a mosque for each Buddhist monk killed in the restive Deep South of Thailand.

The monk wrote on his Facebook page “If a [Buddhist] monk in the three southern border provinces dies from an explosion or being shot at the hands of the ‘Malayu bandits’, a mosque should be burned, starting from the northern part of Thailand southwards.”

Although many people posted comments and Facebook stickers in support of the monk, many also posted comments against him with the hashtag ‘#resist Wirathu model’, comparing Aphichat to Ashin Wirathu, the well-known head of a radical anti-Muslim and nationalistic Buddhist group in Myanmar.

The overwhelming majority of Thai people are Buddhists, but Thailand is a secular state despite the fact that no other religion in Thailand enjoys support from the state in a manner similar to Buddhism.

Although many Buddhist monks and laypersons view favourably the move to enshrine Buddhism as a state religion, many criticise the move for potentially stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, especially as Thailand is still locked in a protracted armed conflict between the state and Muslim insurgent groups in the Deep South border region.