The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, it does not register new religious groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds. The Government places some limits on foreign missionaries.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of approximately 190,000 square miles and its population is approximately 60 million. In a 1997 survey, over 99 percent of the population professed some religious belief or faith. According to government statistics, approximately 94 percent of the population are Buddhist, and 5 percent are Muslim; however, recent estimates by academics and religious groups state that approximately 85 to 90 percent of the population are Therevada Buddhist, and up to 10 percent of the population are Muslim. Estimates also indicate that Christians constitute about 1 to 2 percent of the population. There are small animist, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist, Jewish, and Brahman populations. No official statistics exist as to the numbers of atheists or persons who do not profess a religious faith or belief, but recent surveys indicate that together they make up less than 1 percent of the population.
The dominant religion is Therevada Buddhism. The Buddhist clergy or Sangha consists of two main schools, which are governed by the same ecclesiastical hierarchy. Monks belonging to the older Mahanikaya school far outnumber those of the Dhammayuttika School, an order that grew out of a 19th century reform movement led by King Mongkut (Rama IV).
Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces, which border Malaysia. Minority Muslim populations also live in 74 of the 76 provinces. The majority of Muslims are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population encompasses groups of diverse ethnic and national origin, including descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Government agencies did not use consistent figures to describe the size of the Muslim population during the period covered by this report, but most estimates suggest that Muslims constitute as much as 10 percent of the population. There are approximately 3,200 mosques in 57 provinces, with the largest number (552) in Pattani province. All but a very small number of these mosques are associated with the Sunni branch of Islam. The remainder, estimated by the Religious Affairs Department to be from 1 to 2 percent of the total, are associated with the Shi'a branch.
According to government statistics, Christians constitute approximately 0.7 percent (438,600) of the population. Almost half the Christian population lives in Chiang Mai province. The remainder live in the Bangkok area and in the northeastern provinces. Approximately 25 percent of the Christian population is Roman Catholic. There are also several Protestant denominations. Most Protestant churches belong to one of four umbrella organizations. The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand, was formed in the mid-1930's. The largest is the Evangelical Foundation of Thailand. Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists are recognized by government authorities as separate Protestant denominations and are organized under similar umbrella groups.
There are six tribal groups (chao khao) recognized by the Government, with an estimated population from 500,000 to 600,000 persons, whose members generally are described as animists. Syncretistic practices drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and ethnic Tai spirit worship are common. The Hindu and Sikh communities have an estimated population of about 19,000 persons. Both are associated with small immigrant groups that arrived from South Asia during the twentieth century, although Brahman temples had been established in Bangkok as early as 1784. The majority of Hindus and Sikhs live in Chonburi, Bangkok, and Phuket provinces.
The ethnic Chinese minority (Sino-Thai) has retained some popular religious traditions from China, including adherence to popular Taoist beliefs. Members of the Mien hill tribe follow a form of Taoism.
Mahayana Buddhism is practiced primarily by small groups of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. There are more than 650 Chinese and Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist shrines and temples throughout the country.
Citizens proselytize freely. Monks working as Buddhist missionaries (Dhammaduta) have been active since the end of World War II, particularly in border areas among the country's tribal populations. In April 2001, there were approximately 3,100 Dhammaduta working in the country. In addition the Government sponsored the international travel of another 884 Buddhist monks sent by their temples to disseminate religious information abroad. Christian and Muslim organizations also reported having smaller numbers of citizens working as missionaries in Thailand and abroad.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, it restricts the activities of some groups. The Constitution requires that the monarch be a Buddhist. The state religion is in effect Therevada Buddhism; however, it is not designated as such. When the Constitution was being drafted in 1997, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly rejected a proposal to have Therevada Buddhism named the official religion on the grounds that such an action would create social division and be "offensive" to other religious communities in the country.
The Constitution states that discrimination against a person on the grounds of "a difference in religious belief" shall not be permitted. There was no significant pattern of religious discrimination during the period covered by this report. The Government maintained longstanding policies designed to integrate Muslim communities into society through developmental efforts and expanded educational opportunities, as well as policies designed to increase the number of appointments to local and provincial positions where Muslims traditionally have been underrepresented.
The Government plays an active role in religious affairs. The Religious Affairs Department (RAD), which is located in the Ministry of Education, registers religious organizations. In order to be registered, a religious organization first must be accepted into an officially recognized ecclesiastical group. During the period covered by this report, there were seven such groups, including one for the Buddhist community, one for the Muslim community, one for the Catholic community, and four for Protestant denominations. Government registration confers some benefits, including access to state subsidies, tax-exempt status, and preferential allocation of resident visas for organization officials. In practice unregistered religious organizations operate freely.
Under the provisions of the Religious Organizations Act of 1969, the Department of Religious Affairs recognizes a new religion if a national census shows that it has at least 5,000 adherents, has a uniquely recognizable theology, and is not politically active. However, since 1984 the Government has maintained a policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths. This has restricted the activities of some groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds.
The Constitution requires the Government "to patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." The State subsidizes the activities of the three largest religious communities (Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian). During the period covered by this report, the Government provided approximately the equivalent of $47 million to support religious groups. Included in this amount are funds: To support Buddhist and Muslim institutes of higher education; to fund religious education programs in public and private schools; to provide daily allowances for monks and Muslim clerics who hold administrative and senior ecclesiastical posts; and to subsidize travel and health care for monks and Muslim clerics. This figure also includes an annual budget for the renovation and repair of Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques, the maintenance of historic Buddhist sites, and the daily upkeep of the Central Mosque in Pattani.
During the period covered by this report, the Government also provided $66,000 (3 million baht) to Christian organizations to support social welfare projects. Catholic and Protestant churches can request government support for renovation and repair work but do not receive a regular budget to maintain church buildings nor do they receive government assistance to support their clergy. The Government considers donations made to maintain Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian buildings to be tax-free income; contributions for these purposes are also tax-deductible for private donors.
The Government actively sponsors interfaith dialog in accordance with the Constitution, which requires the State to "promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions." The Government funds regular meetings and public education programs. These programs included the Religious Affairs Department annual interfaith meeting for representatives of all religious groups certified by RAD. The September 2000 meeting in Bangkok drew 400 participants. They also included monthly meetings of the 17-member Subcommittee on Religious Relations, located within the Prime Minister's National Identity Promotion Office (The Subcommittee is composed of one representative from the Buddhist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Sikh communities in addition to civil servants from several government agencies), and a 1-week education program coorganized by the National Identity Promotion Office and the National Council on Social Welfare. The latter event is held each December in celebration of the King's birthday. Representatives from every religious organization recognized by the RAD are invited to attend seminars associated with the event. The program also targets the general public through films and public displays.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Two branches of the Government investigated religious groups alleged to be engaged in cult activities prior to the period covered by this report. In 1998 the National Security Council and the House Standing Committee on Religion, Arts, and Cultural Affairs initiated an investigation into the alleged "cultish practices" of the Hope of Thai People Foundation after complaints were filed at the Religious Affairs Department by parents claiming that their children had isolated themselves from friends and family after joining the church. In January 1999, the House Standing Committee moved to consider a petition filed by a Senator requesting that the foundation's activities be investigated. In response the foundation filed a law suit against the committee chairman for defamation in May 1999. The law suit against the former chairman, now a senator, remained in litigation at the end of the period covered by this report. No further action was taken before the committee disbanded at the end of the parliamentary session.
In February 2001, Thai Falun Gong members voluntarily decided not to proceed with plans organize an international meeting in Bangkok, proposed for April 2001. Their decision was in part a response to unofficial indications from the Government that it did not favor such a conference. There were reports that the government of China had exerted significant economic pressure on the Government in connection with this issue.
The Government does not recognize new religious faiths outside of the seven existing groupings. However, unregistered religious organizations operate freely. The Government has not recognized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
The Government permitted foreign missionary groups to work freely throughout the country, although it also maintained policies that favored proselytizing by its citizens.
The number of foreign missionaries officially registered with the Government is limited to a quota that originally was established by the Religious Affairs Department in 1982. The quota is divided along both religious and denominational lines and is considered sensitive for this reason. The Government does not publish or release its quotas for particular religious denominations. In May 2001, there reportedly were 2,000 foreign missionaries legally registered, including 418 Roman Catholic, 996 Protestant, 150 Mormon, and 6 Muslim missionaries.
While official registration conferred some benefits, such as longer terms for visa stays, it was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity during the period covered by this report. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized or disseminated religious literature without the acknowledgment of the Religious Affairs Department. There were no reports that foreign missionaries were deported or harassed for working without registration, although the activities of Muslim professors and clerics were subjected disproportionately to scrutiny on national security grounds because of continued government concern about the potential resurgence of Muslim separatist activities in the south.
Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary (grades 1 through 6) and secondary (grades 7 through 12) education levels. Students at the primary level are required to take 80 hours of instruction per academic year in religious studies classes. Instruction is limited to Buddhism and Islam. During the period covered by this report, some parts of the country with large Muslim student populations did not have Muslim studies courses. Muslim students in these schools generally were directed to school libraries to participate in Muslim self-study courses.
The Constitution provides for, and citizens generally enjoy, a large measure of freedom of speech. However, laws prohibiting speech likely to insult Buddhism remain in place under the 1997 Constitution. The police, who have legal authority under the Printing and Advertisement Act of 1941 to issue written warnings or orders suspending the publication or distribution of printed materials considered offensive to public morals, confiscated a book in December 1999, written by a Phra Dhammakaya temple follower, that attacked a monk who is one of the chief critics of that temple. In December 1999, the police issued an arrest warrant for the author for defamation of character. As of June 2001, no arrest had been made in the case.
National Identity Cards produced by the Ministry of Interior since April 12, 1999 include an optional designation of the religious affiliation of the holder for the first time. The 1999 change in policy was implemented in response to the demands of parliamentarians who wanted easier identification of persons requiring Muslim burial. Persons who fail or choose not to indicate religious affiliation in their applications can be issued cards without religious information.
Muslim female civil servants are not permitted to wear headscarves when dressed in civil servant uniforms.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The case of a March 1999 attack in Nonthaburi province was closed due to lack of evidence in May 2001.
None of the religious communities led "ecumenical" movements.
Religious groups closely associated with ethnic minorities, such as Muslims, experience some societal economic discrimination.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.