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International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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.  In practice unregistered religious organizations operate freely, and the Government's policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths has not restricted the activities of unregistered religious groups.  The Government officially limits the number of foreign missionaries that may work in the country, although unregistered missionaries are present in large numbers and are allowed to live and work freely.

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 as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I.  Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 198,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 64 million.  In a 2000 survey, more than 99 percent of the population professed some religious belief or faith.  According to the Government's National Statistics Office, approximately 94 percent of the population is Buddhist and 5 percent is Muslim; however, estimates by nongovernmental organizations, academics, and religious groups state that approximately 85 to 90 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, and up to 10 percent of the population is Muslim.  There are small animist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Taoist populations.  No official statistics exist as to the numbers of atheists or persons who do not profess a religious faith or belief, but surveys indicate that together they make up less than 1 percent of the population.

The dominant religion is Theravada 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.  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.  The Religious Affairs Department (RAD) reports that there are 3,425 registered mosques in 61 provinces, with the largest number in Pattani province.  The majority of these mosques are associated with the Sunni branch of Islam.  The remainder, estimated by the RAD to be from 1 to 2 percent of the total, are associated with the Shi'a branch of Islam.

According to government statistics, Christians constitute approximately 0.8 percent (486,800) of the population.  There are several Protestant denominations, and most belong to one of four umbrella organizations.  The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand, was formed in the mid-1930s.  The largest is the Evangelical Foundation of Thailand.  Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists are recognized by 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.  Syncretistic practices drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and ethnic Tai spirit worship are common.  The Sikh Council of Thailand estimates the Sikh community to have a population of approximately 50,000 persons, mostly residing in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Pattaya, and Phuket.  There are currently 17 Sikh temples in the country.  According to government statistics, there are an estimated 2,900 Hindus in the country, although Hindu organizations estimate the population to be closer to 10,000 persons.

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 675 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.  As of May, there were approximately 3,220 Dhammaduta working in the country.  In addition the Government sponsored the international travel of another 982 Buddhist monks sent by their temples to disseminate religious information abroad.  Christian and Muslim organizations also reported having small numbers of citizens working as missionaries in the country and abroad.

Section II.  Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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 in effect is Theravada Buddhism; however, it is not designated as such.

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 southern 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 RAD, which is located in the Ministry of Education, registers religious organizations.  Under the provisions of the Religious Organizations Act, the RAD 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.  A religious organization also must be accepted into an officially recognized ecclesiastical group before the RAD will grant registration.  During the period covered by this report, there were five such groups:  the Buddhist community, the Muslim community, the Brahmin-Hindu community, the Sikh community, and the Catholic community--which includes four Protestant sub-groups.  Government registration confers some benefits, including access to state subsidies, tax-exempt status, and preferential allocation of resident visas for organization officials.  However, since 1984 the Government has maintained a policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths.  In practice unregistered religious organizations operate freely, and the Government's policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths has not restricted the activities of unregistered religious groups.

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).  The Government allocated approximately $45.8 million (1.83 billion baht) during fiscal year 2004 to support religious groups.  Included in this amount were funds to support Buddhist and Muslim institutes of higher education, fund religious education programs in public and private schools, provide daily allowances for monks and Muslim clerics who hold administrative and senior ecclesiastical posts, and subsidize travel and health care for monks and Muslim clerics.  This figure also included 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.

For fiscal year 2004, the Government allocated $1.3 million (50.1 million baht) for Islam and $90,000 (3.6 million baht) to Christian, Brahman-Hindu and Sikh organizations, with the majority, $75,000 (3 million baht), going to Christian organizations to support social welfare projects.  Catholic and Protestant groups 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 also are tax-deductible for private donors.

Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary (grades 1 through 6) and secondary (grades 7 through 12) education levels.  The Ministry of Education has formulated a new course called "Social, Religion, and Culture Studies," which students in each grade study for 1-2 hours each week.  The course contains information about all of the recognized religions in the country--Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Brahmin/Hinduism, and Sikh.  Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of other religions or of their belief may study at the religious schools and can transfer credits to the public school.  Schools, working in conjunction with their local school administrative board, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses.  The Supreme Sangha Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand have created special curriculums for Buddhist and Islamic studies.

There are a variety of Islamic education opportunities for children.  Tadika is an after-school religious course for children in grades 1-6, which is under the supervision of the RAD and generally takes place in a mosque.  There are currently 1,621 registered Islamic Religious and Moral Education centers teaching tadika, with approximately 173,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers.  For secondary school children, the Ministry of Education allows two types of private Islamic studies schools.  One type, which teaches only Islamic religious courses, has more than 300 schools nationwide with approximately 30,000 students and 6,000 teachers.  The Government registers but does not certify these schools, and students from these schools cannot continue to any higher education within the country.  The second type, which teaches Islamic religious courses concurrently with the traditional state education curriculum, has approximately 200 schools nationwide with more than 108,000 students and 4,450 teachers.  The Government recognizes these private schools and graduating students can continue to higher education within the country.  A third type of Islamic education available, mostly in the southern part of the country, is traditional pondok schools.  These are unregistered Islamic religious schools that have no government oversight or funding.  The numbers of pondoks, students, and teachers are unknown; however, some sources believe that there are several hundred pondoks in the south.

The Government actively sponsors interfaith dialogue 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 RAD annual interfaith meeting for representatives and members of all religious groups certified by RAD.  The August 2003 "National Religious Relations Day" event in Bangkok drew approximately 20,000 participants.  The programs 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 jointly organized by the National Identity Promotion Office and the National Council on Social Welfare.  The latter event is held each December to celebrate 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.  Additionally, in February the National Buddhism Bureau arranged a new annual 3-day interfaith meeting in Chiang Mai.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In the past, government officials, at the request of Chinese government officials, reportedly have monitored Falun Gong members.  According to Falun Gong representatives in the country, in October 2003, a 3-day convention was held without incident in Nakhon Ratchasima with approximately 300 Thai and foreign Falun Gong members.  In late March, a Chinese mainland national Falun Gong member was arrested after he entered a Bangkok hotel to distribute Falun Gong documents to hotel guests.  The individual was charged with trespassing, fined approximately $5 (200 baht), and released.  The Falun Gong group in the country has submitted an application to register as an association with the Office of the National Cultural Commission and an application with the Police Department to print and distribute a weekly Falun Gong magazine.  At the end of the period covered by this report, both requests were pending consideration by authorities.  According to local media reports, police arrested three Chinese national Falun Gong followers who were distributing Falun Gong documents in Bangkok during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in October 2003.

The Government does not recognize religious faiths other than the five existing groupings.  However, unregistered religious organizations operate freely.

Although unregistered missionaries are present in large numbers, the number of foreign missionaries registered with the Government is limited to a quota that originally was established by the RAD in 1982.  The quota is divided along both religious and denominational lines.  At the end of 2003, there were 1,800 registered foreign missionaries in the country.  In addition to these formal quotas, far more missionaries, while not registered, are able to live and work in the country without government interference.  While registration conferred some benefits, such as longer terms for visa stays, being unregistered 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 RAD.  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 resurgence of Muslim separatist activities in the south.

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.

National identity cards produced by the Ministry of Interior include an optional designation of the religious affiliation of the holder.  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.  However, in practice most female civil servants are permitted by their superiors to wear headscarves if they wish, particularly in the country's southernmost provinces.  Muslim female civil servants not required to wear uniforms are allowed to wear headscarves.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Violent acts committed by suspected Islamic militants in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala have affected the ability of some Buddhists in this predominantly Muslim region to undertake the full range of their traditional religious practices.  Between January and the end of the period covered by this report, unknown assailants killed three Buddhist monks and attacked several Buddhist temples and one Chinese shrine.  Unknown assailants beheaded a Buddhist civilian rubber tapper and left a note on his body warning that other Buddhists might share his fate.  Consequently, a number of monks have reported that they are fearful and thus no longer able to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms.  They also claim that laypersons sometimes decline to assist them in their daily activities out of fear of being targeted by militants.

Militants continued to assassinate minor government officials in the southern part of the country on almost a daily basis.  Many government officials and law enforcement authorities presumed the slain Buddhist monks and laypersons who had no government affiliation and apparently were targeted solely because of their religious beliefs might have been the victims of separatist militants hoping to increase interfaith tensions.  The level of interfaith tension varied greatly from district to district, and in some locales, even from village to village.  The violence contributed to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the southern provinces.  However, while the level of tension between local Islamic and Buddhist communities was heightened, it did not result in open communal conflict.

In response to the killings, the Government stationed troops to protect the religious practitioners and structures of all faiths in communities where the potential for violence existed and provided armed escort for Buddhist monks, where necessary, for their daily rounds to receive alms.  The Government also offered to pay compensation to the families of 106 Islamic militants slain while attacking security forces on April 28 and allocated funds for the restoration of the Krue Se Mosque, which soldiers damaged during the fighting.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversions, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III.  Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.  Religious groups closely associated with ethnic minorities, such as Muslims, experienced some societal economic discrimination; however, such discrimination appeared to be linked more to ethnicity than to religion.

Section IV.  U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

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