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In Conversation with Nidhi Eoseewong’s “Islamophobia in the Upper North”

I was relieved to read Ajan Nidhi Eoseewong’s article in Prachatai English this past Tuesday, March 1st, about the rise of Islamophobia amongst Buddhist groups in northern Thailand. Ajan Nidhi’s article addresses the recent opposition to the construction of a halal industrial park in Chiang Mai on the part of a consortium of influential Buddhist groups. Sadly, this is only the most recent example of Buddhist objection to Muslim religious expression in the north. The issue of anti-Muslim sentiment in northern Thailand has been at the forefront of my mind these last few months while finishing my dissertation research in Chiang Rai. While I first encountered Buddhist-produced anti-Muslim literature a number of years ago at Wat Rachathiwat, an important royal temple in Bangkok, I have witnessed a noticeable rise in Islamophobia amongst monks and lay-people alike over the past year. 

Ajan Nidhi is interested in what is fueling Islamophobia in northern Thailand and wants to focus on rise of religious bigotry amongst Thai Buddhists. He suggests that Thai Buddhism is in decline, and that official Buddhist institutions do not offer teachings that are relevant to the modern world. Buddhism in the north, he argues is weak, and makes room for scapegoating a generic ‘other’ by the spiritually underserved Buddhist population. The relatively low population of Muslims in the north, Ajan Nidhi says, positions them to serve as these scapegoats. He bemoans the fact that there are barely enough monks to keep temples occupied, and that village-style Buddhism has faded from urban centers such as Chiang Mai.   
 
What Ajan Nidhi suggests as being the bases for rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the north are, ironically, exactly the same reasons given by anti-Muslim Buddhists themselves to defend their own positions. Buddhism, they argue, is in crisis, and therefore must be protected against the perceived threat of Islamic encroachment. This encroachment is perceived to be both cultural and geographic and plays heavily in fear-mongering tactics that warn against the loss of Buddhist lands and Lan Na customs to Muslim intruders. 
 
The ‘Buddhism in crisis’ rhetoric found in anti-Muslim literature is similar to that used by those groups who seek to make Buddhism the constitutionally recognized national religion of Thailand. While there are people involved in this campaign who are entirely open and concerned with preserving religious freedoms throughout the country, there are certain monks and individuals who consider installing Buddhism as the state religion a crucial step to protecting it from the perceived threat of Islam. There are a number of Facebook pages and Line chat groups that send out daily alerts citing conflicts in the deep south—mostly memes featuring gruesome photos of injured monks, soldiers, and other disturbing imagery that call simultaneously for the suppression of Islam in Thailand and the installation of Buddhism as the national religion. 
 
With utmost respect for Ajan Nidhi, and praise for his insightful article, I suggest that the stream of anti-Muslim sentiment that has emerged in northern Thailand is not indicative of a religion in crisis, but instead is a symptom of Buddhism’s robustness. While certain styles of Buddhism in northern Thailand have weakened (Ajan Nidhi points out the lineage of Ajan Mun), there are many temples in the north that are thriving. The Chiang Rai examples of Wat Huai Pa Kang and Wat Saeng Kaew Photiyan, and the temples of Phra Ajan Phop Chok and Khruba Ariyachat, respectively, are sprawling campuses that boast throngs of domestic and international followers. This is big-money Buddhism, whose hallmark is temple complexes featuring examples of Buddhist mega-construction, such as the world’s largest statue of Jao Mae Kwan Im, and massive gilded statues of Khruba Srivichai. These giant projects are built and funded by both local and global donors. The popularity of these northern temples and their head abbots extends from Kengtung to Bangkok to Taiwan. 
 
While these newer expressions of Buddhist mega-construction are decidedly different from the village-centric Buddhism that Ajan Nidhi has identified as waning over the past fifty years, they serve the religious needs of a growing middle-class. They point to a Buddhism that is internationally connected and one that functions to negotiate the contours of global capitalism.
We can not, however, conclude that this type of globally oriented Buddhism directly leads to Islamophobia. We can, however, situate the rise of Islamophobia in northern Thailand as being equally a product of globalization. Buddhism in northern Thailand is a global religious entity, and the unfortunate rise in anti-Muslim activity found therein is an expression of the global wave of Islamophobia that has steadily increased since 2001.
 
Buddhist thought in South and Southeast Asia has always been globally informed, specifically amongst the monastic literati. What we are seeing now is an unfortunate development amongst the globally connected, Buddhist educated elite who travel throughout Asia and the west and interact with a variety of religious and political thought. The domestic conflict of the chaos in the Deep South, and the recent Erawan Shrine bombing, prime this population to be open to anti-Muslim sentiment. Sadly, as educated, liberally-minded monks look to the global atmosphere for answers to their own domestic unrest, they encounter rampant Islamophobia, instead of religious tolerance. 
 
The most obvious regional example of anti-Islamic thought and action that northern Thai monks have access to is that which has been perpetrated in Burma under the leadership of Theravada Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. The deplorable treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state were carried out under President Thein Sein and heavily supported by Ashin Wirathu. Ashin Wirathu was featured on the June 20, 2013 cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him “The face of Buddhist terror.” He has likened Muslims to mad dogs, and continues to work spread Buddhist nationalism and religious intolerance in Burma. 
 
I have interviewed high-ranking Thai monks who traveled to meet with Ashin Wirathu in 2015 in order to discuss the situation in Thailand. While none of these monks condoned Wirathu’s radical, fundamentalist stance, the intensity of Burmese Buddhist Islamophobia does not stop at the border. There is a heavy exchange between Burmese and northern Thai monks and novices, and it is hard to know what conversations happen behind closed kuti doors.    
 
Furthermore, I have spoken with other monks who, having traveled and studied in India, express sympathy for the Hindu Nationalist movement, and make a point of citing Hindu-Muslim conflicts within India as precedents for restricting the spread of Islam within Thailand. Many of them bolster their claims by citing anti-Muslim historiography propagated by Hindu Nationalists. 
It would be interesting to investigate the Buddhist History Curriculum taught at Maha Chulalongkorn and Maha Mongkut Monastic universities, respectively, and analyze them for how they teach the historical interaction between Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. 
 
I have also encountered highly educated monks who reference the work of western, right-wing writers in their arguments against Islam in general. During an interview, one particularly high-ranking monk handed me a copy of an excerpt of Peter Hammond’s Slavery, Terrorism, and Islam—an Islamophobic diatribe that casts Islam as force bent on world domination at any cost.. A .pdf of the document is available here.
 
The excerpt of Hammond’s piece that was given to me as a justification for Buddhist opposition to Muslim expansion is truly offensive. It states that all Muslim men are “instructed to marry four women” whom they are obligated to beat for insubordination. Beyond simplistic distortions of Islamic teachings, the document lays out an idiotic system for how the “Islamization” of nations unfolds. Unfortunately, the system of “Islamization” found within this document, which my informant proudly pointed out was written by a PhD, may be partially guiding the interventionist tactics of anti-Muslim Buddhist groups in the north.    
 
The document states that when Muslims reach 5% of a country’s population, they will “will push for the introduction of halal (clean Islamic standards) food; thereby securing food preparation jobs for Muslims.” Thailand, the document states, has a current Muslim population of 4.6%, which positions it on the precipice of Hammond’s system of stages.  
 
This paranoia concerning the push for halal standards is the very basis for the anti-Muslim action that Ajan Nidhi has written about. Furthermore, the statement put out jointly by twelve Buddhist organizations protesting the industrial site, specifically claims that that the project would cause an influx of Muslim people to the area, and that “[t]he prohibition of non-Muslims doing Halal work means that the project will not create employment opportunities for locals.” Ajan Nidhi does a masterful job of disproving these claims in his article. I would like to add that the specifics of Hammond’s paranoid theory of “Islamization,” the presence of this document in the hands of hands of a highly influential monk, and the recent action against the opening of a halal industrial park in Chiang Mai suggest that the anti-Islam faction within Thai Buddhism is using Hammond’s slanted theories as guidelines for how to think about Islam, and to mobilize their followers. 
 
Since the issue at hand is about food, I must point out that northerners should remember that their own signature dish—khao soi—was brought to the region by Muslim Jin Haw traders. The best bowls of the spiced curry soup are still found at Muslim restaurants throughout the north (I personally recommend Ran Pa Wa [ร้นป้าหวา] found directly across from the municipal charnel grounds at Den Ha on Ratyotha Rd, Amphoe Muang, Chiang Rai.)
 
One monk who has been brave enough to proactively create interfaith dialogue, and directly work to bring Buddhists and Muslims together is Phra Maha Withichai Wachiramethi, respectfully known as Than Wa. Than Wa is one of Thailand’s most well-known monks—he appears on television regularly, and runs one of the country’s most prolific publishing houses of Buddhist literature. Instead of running a temple, he has established the Rai Chern Thawan, an international meditation center in Chiang Rai as his home-base. While a highly criticized figure within Thailand, Than Wa consciously models himself and his International Meditation center after that of Thich Naht Han and his Plum Village. Moreover, Than Wa cites The Dali Lama as one of his most influential teachers. While often criticized for his presence in the media, Than Wa strives to push social engagement and defend social justice from a Buddhist standpoint. When asked why he has established a meditation center instead of a temple, he answers, time and again, that if he were to establish a temple that was registered with the National Office of Buddhism, people of different faiths would not visit—it would only be for the Buddhist population. Instead, he is dedicated to creating an open space that invites people of all denominations and creeds to practice mediation, learn from each other, and come together. This isn’t merely lip service. He has held numerous programs for Islamic groups, and as Islamophobia has increased in the recent year, he has fortified his interfaith programing, and even displays photos of himself embracing identifiably Muslim individuals around his Meditation Center. Than Wa’s position is conveyed in his poem “Brotherhood of the World,” which I encountered in the most recent issue of Nok Air’s inflight magazine, of all places.
 
 
Brotherhood of the World
By: Phra Maha Withichai Wachiramethi
 
Forget about being Buddhist.
Humanity takes precedence.
Peel off your Buddhist tradition
and wake up to humankind.
Forget about being Christian.
Lay down your muddled mind.
Your roots were established ere this theatre of life.
Be content to follow your fellow humans.
Forget about being Muslim.
Close your eyes for a short while.
You come from the same source
From which flourished our large family tree.
We are all related.
We are all kin.
We are all Twinkling stars.
We are all Cosmic eyes.
We are a community in the wheel of time.
We are universal love.
We are spiritually united
We are a stream of the same water.
 
As we can see from the poem, Than Wa thinks globally in order to combat what is truly a global problem. Than Wa is concerned with the rise in anti-Islam sentiment within Thailand because he understands it to be a problem that points to not simply a deterioration of Buddhist values, but indeed a decline in values that he argues are universal to all faiths, namely compassion, justice, and unity. Unfortunately, his is a minority position amongst many of the northern monks I have encountered. How can we ensure that the voices pleading for tolerance, understanding, and peace are not drowned out by the overwhelming din of Islamophobia?
 
I respectfully commend Ajan Nidhi in having the bravery and fortitude to bring this issue to the fore, and hope that he takes my notes as merely trying to move the conversation forward. I am honored to join together with Ajan Nidhi to raise my voice against the increasing anti-Muslim sentiments that are a sad reality of the Buddhist landscape in Thailand today. 
 
 
Anthony Lovenheim Irwin is a 2015-2016 Scholar of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies and a PhD Candidate in Languages and Cultures of Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison