Buddhists "treated like 3rd class" in Thai south

By Nopporn Wong-Anan, Reuters, November 23, 2004

YALA, Thailand -- Buddhists in Thailand's Muslim-majority south say they are being treated like "third class citizens" as the government struggles to end ten months of ethnic and religious unrest which has claimed nearly 500 lives.

Fear has descended on the three southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border, and Thai Buddhists, who make up just 20 percent of the mainly Malay-speaking region's 1.8 million population, believe their plight is being ignored.

Many of them are second or third generation Chinese Thais who form the backbone of the local economy -- entrepreneurs running everything from grocery shops to construction firms, furniture factories and hotels.

But the almost daily bombs and shootings, which are being blamed on a resurgent Muslim separatist movement, are taking their toll on business, and support from the government in Bangkok, 1,100 km (700 miles) away, is not forthcoming, they say.

"Muslim spiritual leaders say Muslims in the south have been treated like second class citizens, but I think Buddhists here have been treated like third class citizens," one furniture factory owner told Reuters.

He did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals.

"The government sponsors 80 Muslims from the south to go to Mecca, but it doesn't give similar sponsorships to monks to study Buddhism in India," said the 60-year-old, who grew up in the southern province of Yala.

The region has a history of armed opposition to the mainly Buddhist administration in Bangkok, but never has he seen violence like the last ten months, the man added.


Sawas Sumalyasak, the spiritual leader of Thailand's six million Muslims, said last week that most Thais look on Muslims as second-class citizens, an attitude which stirs resentment in the deep south, where many see themselves as Malay, not Thai.

But Buddhists say they too get a raw deal from corrupt and arrogant local officials, and have suffered violence and crime at the hands of bandits and gangs for decades.

"Twenty years ago people were afraid of being kidnapped or threatened for protection money if bandits thought they were rich," said another businessman whose family is in the road-building business in Yala.

"Once you paid the ransom, you were safe for a while. But now you don't know who these people are and everyone from the poor to the rich have been living in fear."

Shops in Yala, which this year won a United Nations award as a "city of peace", now pull down their shutters as early as 6 p.m., and schools finish an hour early to allow students to get home before sunset.

"Other cities are joining the government's energy saving campaign, but in Yala and two other southern provinces we have to use extra street lights to help the public feel more secure," said Yala Mayor Pongsak Yingchoncharoen.

"My cell phone always rings when street lights go off due to power problems. People just feel insecure now," said Pongsak, whose staff revealed he usually wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt to public functions.

Believing that the police and army cannot protect them, many Buddhists are arming themselves, or selling up and heading elsewhere.

The tourist industry, which is heavily reliant on Muslim Malaysians in search of alcohol, sand and sex, has been particularly hard hit, leaving the region's pristine beaches and unspoilt mountain parks virtually empty.

Repeated requests from businessmen for state help from have gone unanswered, as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concentrates his efforts on a nationwide peace initiative involving the folding of millions of paper birds.

Thousands of people are folding paper birds and the air force plans to "bomb" the south with a hoped for 63 million symbols of goodwill on December 5 to mark the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"Sending paper birds is a good abstract gesture, but please also give us some concrete help," said one construction contractor.