Arts, Culture & Media

Bridging the Religious Divide in Thailand

For our Geo Quiz, we want you to name the southern-most part of the Asian mainland.

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The answer is the Malay Peninsula. It's the long finger of land that includes parts of Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

In southern Thailand, conflict has killed more than 4,700 people over the past eight years.

In this region, most people are ethnically Malay Muslims. And Malay militants are fighting to separate from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state.

The militants target Buddhist civilians. Meanwhile, the Thai government is accused of arbitrarily detaining and torturing Muslims.

Andrea Wenzel of WAMU went to the southern Thai province of Pattani to see how people there are dealing with the violence.

At the Srimahapo Buddhist temple in the district of Kokpo in southern Thailand, a saffron-clad monk crouches down with his hand on the tire of a shiny white SUV. He's blessing the car to help prevent accidents.

In this part of the country, people need all the protection they can get.

Anand, a local Buddhist visiting the temple, said that not long ago, the temple was hit by a bomb but nobody was hurt. Anand said the temple has a kind of spiritual protection. But Anand's not taking any chances; he wears Buddhist amulets around his neck – and a revolver on his hip.

A conflict in Thailand's Deep South has killed nearly 5,000 people since 2004. In this part of the country, most people are ethnically Malay Muslims. Malay militants are fighting to separate from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state. The militants target Buddhist civilians, as well as Muslims working with the government. At the same time, Thai authorities are accused of arbitrarily detaining and torturing Muslims.

"I can't see that it's going to get any better. I can only see it's going to get worse and worse," said Prakru Sopitpotikhun, the abbot of the Buddhist temple. He said the minority Buddhist community is under attack and people are leaving.

"A number of them think they don't really have much future here so they move out. They don't feel very safe," the abbot said.

The Buddhists who remain have curtailed their activities. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, everyone has to stop working. The abbot said rubber tappers who don't, risk having their ears cut off by Muslim militants.

At the Ban Samyord mosque, the imam, Yako Minha, preaches about Muslims living together with people of other faiths. He's lived in the area with Buddhists his whole life.

The imam said this area was the birthplace of Malay separatist movements in the 1960s. Back then the fight was against the Thai military, but now, the imam said he doesn't understand why militants kill so many civilians. He compares the current conflict to the regional dish, khao yum, a colorful rice salad served with many types of finely diced vegetables. Only instead of carrots, chili and cucumber, the conflict is a mix of things like history, politics, illegal drugs, and land disputes.

A short drive from the mosque, the imam points out a Muslim cemetery that now sits in a Buddhist village. The imam said he himself has negotiated land disputes over the years. He used to be in local government.

He said the conflict here would be a lot worse if it weren't for personal connections between Buddhist and Muslim leaders like himself. One of his old friends is the abbot, Prakru Sopitpotikhun, who was blessing the SUV earlier in the day. They used to play together when they were kids.

The two men sit around a wooden table at the back of the Srimahapo Buddhist temple, where the imam helps himself to some instant coffee. He calls the abbot by his nickname, "Jang." The imam tells a story about when the abbot first joined the monastery, the Buddhist thought it would be temporary.

"He said I'll leave there within three days," the imam said. "Now it's 30 years. So I asked him when will your three days be over?"

The imam said the first time he teased his friend about it, the abbot responded with a four-letter word. But he's laughing now.

Their friendship is about more than childhood nostalgia. It's also about protection. The Buddhist abbot said he relies on the imam and other local Muslims for intelligence to keep his monks safe.

"People warn us about places we shouldn't go because of the situation," the abbot said. "For older generations, there's still interaction between Buddhists and Muslims who've been living here for long time."

The abbot adds that younger generations also need these kinds of networks to protect them from the violence, but they don't get to interact with one another because of security problems. And it's these same young people who are recruited to take part in the violence.

The abbot and the imam say they want to show teens that the fighting is not about religion, and that political conflicts are better solved through dialogue. They two men plan to bring teens together to learn about each other, and to play sports.

The morning after the imam and the abbot met for a chat, there was a drive-by shooting nearby. A 62-year-old Buddhist truck driver was killed.

No one thinks a few games of soccer will be enough to repair damaged community relations. But the abbot and the imam hope their conversations can at least offer a starting point.

Andrea Wenzel of WAMU reported from Thailand on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project. Noi Thammasathien contributed to the story.

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