Thailand’s Muslim Problem: a legacy of historical expansion

The Rohingya people do not have much luck. Persecuted in their native Myanmar, they are equally unwanted across the border in Thailand, where many of their kind flee to escape the Burmese Army and rival ethnic groups. News that Thailand deported some 1,300 Rohingya ‘escapees’ back to Myanmar at the end of last year has just emerged. Whilst hardly surprising, it has been met with criticism from human rights groups.

Many Rohingya are forced to flee ethnic persecution in Myanmar
Many Rohingya are forced to flee ethnic persecution in Myanmar

Thailand is currently suffering severe political turmoil, with opposition-disputed elections failing to bring to an end a destabilising political stalemate. In the south of the country, Muslims of Malay ethnicity continue to agitate for independence or, an issue both the government and military do their best to ignore.

The Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) is perhaps the best-known of the separatist groups, although lines are becoming increasingly blurred between genuine freedom fighters, separatists, militias and terrorists, a problem experienced in Syria to a much greater extent.

With thousands of Rohingya Muslims also living in Western Thailand, the Buddhist majority amongst the population, and the government in Bangkok, are concerned for the religious purity of their state. They can blame the current ‘demographic dilemma’ in part, however, on their nation’s former greatness.

Whilst ethnically-diverse, Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, with a revered Buddhist monarchy. However, it has a concentrated Muslim Malay minority in the south
Whilst ethnically-diverse, Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, with a revered Buddhist monarchy. However, it has a concentrated Muslim Malay minority in the south

The Rattanakosin Kingdom, known to the world as the Kingdom of Siam, lasted from the end of the 18th century until WWII. Under the expansionist and reforming Chakri Dynasty, the kingdom became amongst the most powerful in Southeast Asia. Much is made of Siam’s ability to avoid European colonisation; it is rightfully a source of Thai nationalist pride. Through skillful collusion, force of arms and extensive trading, Siam avoided imperial overlordship.

Not only were the Chakri kings able to consolidate the Rattanakosin Kingdom, they also extended its boundaries. In the late 18th century, the Siamese pushed their influence into present-day Burma, Vietnam and Malaysia, reaching as far as Penang. In the process, they incorporated a plethora of ethnic and religious groups into vassalage, including many Muslims imported for menial labour.

Although British incursions into Malaya and Burma would ultimately modify territorial boundaries in the 19th century, the borders of the Rattanakosin Kingdom have barely been altered to the present day.

Through the expansionist ambitions of their predecessors the Thais have inadvertently been left with a problem they neither want, nor are able to deal with.

The Royal Palace in Bangkok, the ultimate expression of Buddhist superiority
The Royal Palace in Bangkok, the ultimate expression of Buddhist superiority
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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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