Local Muslims say plan for goddess statue masks ‘Chinese takeover’

News articles about Muslim opposition to a statue of Guan Yin goddess in the South have been making rounds on the internet, drawing mockery and allegations about Muslim intolerance, especially from netizens who didn’t read past the headlines.

However, a report by Prachatai English finds that local activists and clerics are not protesting the plan out of religious hatred, but out of concerns that the statue would pave the way for a controversial industrial estate and open the door to Chinese investor influence in the region.

Muslims gather in Songkhla on 4 August 2022 to protest a plan by TPI Polene Power to build a large Guan Yin statue in the province, citing concerns over irregularities.
(Image: Sombat Madyama / เพจจะนะเมืองน่าอยู่)

When news broke that more than 5,000 Muslims gathered in Songkhla province earlier this month to oppose a plan to build a massive statue of a Buddhist goddess, many on the internet took it as yet another indication of Islamic intolerance of other faiths. 

“The only religion which has problems. Other religions always coexist with each other,” one of the top rated comments on Khaosod news agency’s Facebook page declared. Other comments, which received thousands of “Likes,” expressed a similar sentiment.

“The most selfish cult in the world,” one person wrote. “Their tails are starting to show. Are mosques the only thing they can build?,” asked another. 

But local community leaders say their cause has been mis-portrayed in the media and misunderstood by an even larger audience. Rather than objecting to the worship of Guan Yin, Muslim residents fear the project is a disguised attempt to renew development of the unpopular Chana industrial estate, which was earlier halted by the government. 

According to one of the clerics who participated in an 4 August protest, the statue project is surrounded by multiple irregularities and unanswered questions that convinced local Muslims something was amiss.  Among other things, he noted rushed procedures to approve the construction and the project owner’s ties to overseas Chinese investors. 

“We oppose it because we don’t know if there is a hidden agenda,” Abdusshakur Bin Shafi-e Dina, a cleric, or ustaz who has been coordinating the campaign, told Prachatai English. “We suspect [the project] isn’t really being driven by faith but is actually exploiting faith as a coverup to build legitimacy.” 

He added that, “This isn’t only about the Chana industrial zone. It’s about transitional Chinese money which is trying  to take over the entire country. Many projects and businesses are being funded this way, both legal and illegal ones … many businesses in the southern region have already been bought by Chinese investors.”

At the centre of the controversy is a proposal by TPI Polene Public Company Limited to erect a 136-meter statue of the  Chinese goddess Guan Yin on a seaside mountain in Thepa district, an area known for its large Muslim community. 

The firm, one of largest sellers of construction material in Thailand, has supplied and won bids from around the country for dozens of large scale projects, including motorways, elevated rail links, and the high speed railway connecting Suvarnabhumi Airport with U-Tapao Airport in Chonburi. It also runs power operations through its subsidiary TPI Polene Power, or TPIPP. 

The proposed statue will be built next to a resort on Sakom Beach. Satellite images provided by Google show that a large area on the hill has already been cleared of trees, presumably in preparation for the construction.

TPIPP said that the statue of Guan Yin, who is widely revered as a goddess of mercy by Thai-Chinese Buddhists, would bring in streams of tourists and worshipers from many countries including China, bringing enormous financial benefit to the local communities. 

“The construction of Goddess Guan Yin will create a landmark boosting tourism in the southern region. It will attract tourists from all over the world and bring development to the southern border provinces,” TPIPP executive Pakkapol Leopairut told MGR Online

“We’re killing two birds with one stone.” 

He added that Guan Yin is worshipped in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and many other places, and that the statue would not only attract tourists from around the world but  serve to display the region’s multicultural identity.

The MGR article, which featured TPIPP-supplied concept images of the gigantic statue, openly questioned the motives of protesters who demonstrated against the project on 4 August.

“Some argue that even though Muslims comprise 65 percent of the population in Sakom subdistrict … many Buddhists, the remaining 35%, live there too … and opposing  a private sector project to construct the Guan Yin statue may potentially infringe on their rights to follow a different religion,” the article said.

An object of worship without worshippers? 

At the 4 August protest in front of Darul Abideen Mosque, activists and imams took turns speaking out against the project. 

One of them, an official from the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, voiced his suspicion that the plan to build the statue was being pushed ahead even though the worship of Guan Yin isn’t widespread in the local communities – where most residents follow the Islamic faith. 

“When Muslims build a mosque, there should be a Muslim community there first, because a mosque is like the heart of the community. If a mosque is built without a community to support it, it would be like a heart without a body,” Wisut bin Lateh said. “Under the same principle, if our brethren from another religion want to build their object of faith, a community that worships that object should already exist.

“Building it in an area where people don’t worship it and oppose it instead shows that the builders aren’t truly paying respect to the goddess and might have some hidden agenda,” he continued. 

Abdusshakur, the cleric who spearheaded the effort to oppose the project, said that alarm was first raised in June when the sub-district administration approved TPIPP plans to raise the skyscraper statue without first consulting the local community. 

That same month, Abdusshakur said, local authorities attempted to amend height restrictions in area zoning laws  so that the  statue could be built. Local residents who contacted the city planning department for an explanation earlier this month were surprised to learn that the project was approved before a zoning amendment had been made..

“How could the sub-district administration approve construction when the law does not support it?” the ustaz asked. 

Local residents also contacted the Sheikh-ul-Islam Office, a national body that oversees Islamic affairs, for help in mediation. The Sheikh-ul-Islam Office responded with advice from a renowned Muslim academic, who expressed concern that the TPIPP project would risk fomenting religious tension in the region. 

“It's a plan to build an object of worship that's disproportionately large when considering the size of the actual population [that follows the faith],” Chaiwat Satha-Anand wrote in a commentary seen by Prachatai English. 

“Doing so may lead to prolonged conflict between the majority of residents, who do not worship the statue, and the minority, who do.”

He added, “And since the site is designed as a tourist destination, it will only intensify this division … most of tourists will be Buddhists from other areas, both domestic and overseas, which will impact the current religious balance in the local community, potentially planting seeds for mutual discontent.”

Chaiwat proposed several solutions. Instead of copying large-scale Guan Yin statues that exist in other places, the academic suggested that  TPIPP consider building a museum dedicated to Guan Yin, or a hospital, or a health centre, or some other philanthropic venue to honor the goddess. Abdusshakur proposed that  the statue be scaled down in size. 

So far, TPIPP has yet to agree to any of these suggestions.

Fearing a Trojan Horse

A banner at the 4 August protest reads “In front: the goddess. In back: industrial estate?”
(Image: Sombat Madyama / เพจจะนะเมืองน่าอยู่)

What alarmed activists and locals the most appears to be TPIPP’s links to a number of controversial projects in the region. 

The company is responsible for plans to develop a coal-fired power plant and a large-scale port in Thepa district. Both ran into opposition. The power plant was suspended by the central government in 2017 due to environmental concerns, while the port was opposed by local residents who believe it served as a front to transport coal for the firm’s energy operations. 

Thepa district, where the goddess statue is slated to be built, also borders the area where TPI Polene is looking to construct the Chana Industrial Estate. The proposal proved to be deeply unpopular among environmental activists and some residents. After a series of protests in Bangkok, the government suspended the plan in 2021, pending further studies about its ecological impacts.

Some local residents suspect that TPI’s latest bid to construct the Guan Yin statue is part of a broader effort to push ahead with the Chana industrial complex. 

“In front: the goddess. In back: industrial estate?” read one banner hung at the 4 August protest, summarising the sentiment. 

“Some people suspect that TPI probably wants to restore the confidence of their Chinese investors,” Abdusshakur said. “Their Chana project is right next to Thepa. They have to wait for the assessment studies, which could take up to 2 years … so TPI probably wants to find some way to assure the investors in the meanwhile that the project will still happen.” 

There are also concerns that the statue project will open a sluice gate for a flood of new Chinese businesses into Thepa district. The TPI Group is known for its close ties to Chinese entrepreneurs; the company touted the Chana industrial estate as a new magnet for investment from China, while pushing for the construction of a deep sea port that would boost cargo exports to China.   

“The way we see it, this is not about religion,” cleric and activist Husni bin Haji Konoh said at the 4 August protest. “This is about security, whether it's food security, economic security, or livelihood security that is being encroached upon by the capitalists.”

Husni said many businesses in the south are already being operated and controlled by Chinese investors through their Thai proxies, raising the risk that the region will be turned into their “colony.” 

“We are not rejecting capitalism,” he told a reporter. “But if we face an economic invasion or colonisation, then the people in our community will have to rise up and defend themselves, because  their livelihoods are at stake.” 

Abdusshakur maintains that Thai Muslims and Buddhists of Chinese descent have always coexisted peacefully in Thepa district, but he also rejects the assertion that the statue and promised tourist boom would be a good thing for the local communities, citing fear of illicit Chinese influence. 

“They like to claim that the people will benefit, but let me ask you, do you remember the zero dollars tours?” the cleric asked. “Did Thai people ever benefit from those?” 

Feeding Islamophobia  

The concept art for the Guan Yin statue (Image: TPIPP)

Major news agencies covering the 4 August protest noted the insistence by local clerics and advocates that their grievances were about financial irregularities, not religion. 

But many readers still failed to read past the headlines, which described the incident as a Muslim protest against the Guan Yin statue.

The backlash was swift. Social media was awash with posts ridiculing Muslims in the Thepa district for their supposed intolerance, sometimes using screenshots that did not include the full text of news reports. 

Articles about the protest also circulated on Facebook groups set up by hardline Buddhist organisations dedicated to opposing the construction of new mosques in some regions of Thailand. 

“This is Thailand. Muslims are just a minority of the people living here, yet they have  grown arrogant and make demands that infringe on the rights of Thais,” said one comment on a Facebook homepage belonging to the  “North and Northeast Against Mosques” group.

If Muslims can oppose a Buddhist statue in Songkhla, others reasoned, Buddhists also have the right to block plans for mosques in other places.  

Abdusshakur said he and the protest organisers saw the blowback coming but were powerless to stop it. 

“We know that it [the protest] would be twisted as an excuse to attack us whenever we want to build a new mosque. It ended up feeding Islamophobia,” the cleric said. “In truth, we are not opposing anyone’s beliefs. But we have no way to communicate this  to people who read the news.”  

He concluded, “The capitalists behind the project … must be laughing and applauding each other, because they’ve already succeeded in using religion to sow division between our peoples.”

Advertisements

Since 2007, Prachatai English has been covering underreported issues in Thailand, especially about democratization and human rights, despite the risk and pressure from the law and the authorities. However, with only 2 full-time reporters and increasing annual operating costs, keeping our work going is a challenge. Your support will ensure we stay a professional media source and be able to expand our team to meet the challenges and deliver timely and in-depth reporting.

• Simple steps to support Prachatai English

1. Bank transfer to account “โครงการหนังสือพิมพ์อินเทอร์เน็ต ประชาไท” or “Prachatai Online Newspaper” 091-0-21689-4, Krungthai Bank

2. Or, Transfer money via Paypal, to e-mail address: service@prachatai.com, please leave a comment on the transaction as “For Prachatai English”