Since the 2004 escalation of violence in the Deep South, approximately 6,700 Buddhists and Muslims have been killed, and another 12,000 injured with slightly more Muslims than Buddhists among the killed and injured. There were reports authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including pretrial detention and searches without warrant. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment. Human rights organizations reported the government continued to arrest suspected Malay Muslim militants, some of them juveniles, and in some cases held them for a month or more under emergency decree and martial law provisions. Human rights groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians while also protesting the reported torture and warrantless searches authorities carried out against members of the Muslim community.
In September Amnesty International released a report saying the military tortured or ill-treated at least 24 Malay Muslim suspected insurgents in the Deep South between 2013 and 2015, including incidents of waterboarding, suffocation with plastic bags, strangulation, and beatings. The government rejected the findings of the report and subsequently warned Amnesty International in advance of the report’s public rollout that its local staff and representatives could be arrested and prosecuted for visa violations; Amnesty International subsequently cancelled its public launch of the report in Bangkok.
After August bombings and arson attacks in tourist areas outside the traditional conflict zone in the Deep South, the NCPO increased investigation and arrests of suspected insurgents. The four victims killed and most of the 36 injured in the attacks were Thais. Two suspects were arrested and undergoing trial in a military court as of year’s end. A reported October bomb plot near Bangkok resulted in the arrest of at least 44 Malay Muslim students and youth, almost all of whom were released shortly afterwards. Human rights organizations said these arrests were arbitrary and illegal.
Authorities conducted large-scale raids to track down immigrants overstaying their visas. Among them, reportedly thousands of Pakistani Christian refugees, some of whom were registered by the United Nations as asylum seekers, and others who were undocumented, faced detention in crowded detention centers and often waited years for resettlement. Those without asylum-seeking status faced eventual deportation. Because the country is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even UN-designees may be considered to be in the country illegally; as a result, authorities have reportedly routinely arrested, detained, and sometimes deported asylum seekers, many of whom said they face religious persecution in their home countries.
Since the 2014 military coup, authorities have arrested on immigration charges over 29 of the approximately 160 practitioners of Falun Gong who sought asylum in the country from China, raising concerns from human rights organizations. In 2015, a Supreme Administrative Court ruling allowed the Falun Gong to register as an NGO. Activists, however, said they feared the Thai government was assisting with requests to extradite Chinese dissidents to forge closer ties with Beijing. Many of the Falun Gong practitioners who entered Thailand undocumented and await resettlement after attaining refugee status through the UN said they could still be arrested and repatriated. A Thai government spokesperson said the government had increased law enforcement efforts against illegal entrants or those who had overstayed their visas.
In May police issued a warrant for the arrest of Abbot Chaiyaboon Dhammajayo of the Dhammakaya Temple (the largest Buddhist temple in the country), the head of the fastest growing Buddhist movement in the world, for embezzlement and money laundering in connection with what authorities said were fraudulent donations. Authorities, however, had been unable to charge him formally as the abbot did not appear for court summons and his whereabouts remained unknown. His supporters said his failure to appear was due to illness. In December Dhammajayo, whose supporters wanted him named Supreme Patriarch, was demoted from Abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple to an honorary abbot by an official Sangha directive and relieved of his official duties on grounds of his prolonged illness. The investigation into Dhammajayo drew worldwide protests and his followers said the abbot was targeted because the popularity of his temple threatened the country’s political and religious elite. Supporters said the charges and investigation were ill-founded and politically motivated because of reports that the movement had links to a former, deposed prime minister.
Since 1984, the government has not recognized any new religious groups. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities.
The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, only 100 were women. Because a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality legal protection by the government. The issue of female monks and other Buddhist internal governance issues were outside the government’s jurisdiction. Officials have neither formally opposed nor supported female ordination and have allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples, primarily tax exemption, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Some bhikkhunis expressed concern a new provision in the draft constitution passed in August on the government’s duty to protect and promote Theravada Buddhism could further curtail the rights of women to practice freely as monks. Government officials reportedly threatened some bhikkhunis with arrest on charges of impersonating a monk. Under the law, bhikkhunis also receive no special government protection from public attacks as is usually provided to monks.
The first bhikkhuni ordained by going abroad, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, has led a movement advocating for recognizing bhikkhunis and allowing their ordination within the country. Her movement continued to encounter resistance. In December the abbess led a group of 72 bhikkhunis and novices to the Grand Palace in Bangkok to attend royal funeral rites for the late King Bhumibol. When they attempted to enter the palace through the monks’ gate, representatives from the National Buddhism Bureau and a Buddhist university reprimanded them for wearing monks’ robes and directed them to disrobe and enter through the laypersons’ entrance.
The predominantly Muslim Deep South voted against the NCPO’s draft constitution in August. According to civil society experts, the Deep South’s opposing vote was a result of their belief that the new charter’s clause on religion would weaken religious tolerance. Many within the Muslim community said it viewed the specific provision to promote and protect Buddhism as an effort by the NCPO to accommodate the powerful Buddhist lobby that campaigned for government support of Buddhism as the state religion. Muslims and some Buddhists, including bhikkhuni and non-Theravada Buddhists said, however, they were concerned the explicit constitutional protection of Theravada Buddhism signaled government support for a monolithic interpretation of Buddhist doctrine and practice, which would fail to protect other Buddhist denominations and non-Buddhist groups.
The NCPO’s special order of August 22 required authorities (including the Sangha Supreme Council, National Buddhism Bureau, the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, the National Security Council, and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center) to present measures to the cabinet by the end of the year promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation among people of different religious faiths as a way to reassure the public that religious freedoms would be secure under the new constitution. According to officials at the National Buddhism Bureau, the joint committee had completed its draft of measures, which was pending cabinet and NCPO approval at year’s end.
The only Islamic government-certified full university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students. Approximately 3,600 students and 400 academic personnel were affiliated with the school as of the end of the year.
According to human rights organizations, Muslim professors and clerics, particularly in the southernmost provinces, faced additional scrutiny because of continuing government concern about Malay Muslim separatist activities.
In July the Bangkok Civil Court ordered the closure of an Islamic school in Narathiwat Province in the Deep South for what authorities said was support of the Malay-Muslim separatist movement. This was the second shutdown of an Islamic school in the region since 2015; the Office of Education Administration estimated that 10 Islamic schools were shut down during the year. Following a September bomb attack in Tak Bai District, Narathiwat Province reportedly carried out by insurgents, local authorities increased security at 111 schools in the Deep South, setting up security checkpoints along main roads to check for weapons, and deploying police and military to the schools. There were other incidents, including shootings, bombings, and arson, in the province following the September attack. Police in Pattani Province continue to escort teachers to schools for their safety.
There were 80 royal projects underway for the Muslim community as of the end of the year, some of which were to be executed or completed by the NCPO. Among those initiated by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej were the first translation of the Quran into Thai and the construction of Muslim centers funded by royal subsidies. Despite the king’s constitutional role as the defender of the Buddhist faith, the monarch has also traditionally played a significant role as a promoter of religious tolerance, according to representatives of the Muslim community.
The government allocated approximately 399 million baht ($11.2 million) for the fiscal year (October 1-September 30) to the RAD as an agency under the Ministry of Culture. About 367 million baht ($10.3 million) of that went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development. The budget included grants of approximately 20 million baht ($560,000) to subsidize Islamic affairs; 18 million baht ($503,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups; and over 2 million baht ($56,000) to subsidize Christian, Brahmin, Hindu, and Sikh affairs. Religious groups submitted budget requests and received approval by the RAD based on population size reported in the national census. The RAD fiscal year budget also included allocations for religious lectures, Buddhist Sunday school, Islamic study centers, religious activities for persons with disabilities, and interfaith events. The government also provided funds to promote and facilitate Muslim participation in the Hajj.
The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 5.3 billion baht ($148 million). The majority of that budget, 3.5 billion baht ($98 million), went to the preservation, promotion, and development of religious art and culture. 1.6 billion ($45 million) was allocated to projects for education management. 262 million baht ($7.3 million) was allocated to Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.
The government continued to recognize 39 elected Provincial Islamic Committees nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the southernmost provinces reported acting as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnic and religious conflicts.
Religious groups proselytized without reported interference. Thai Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, there were 5,161 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries must pass training and educational programs at Mahi Makut Buddhist University and Mahi Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. No foreign monks are permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.
Muslim and Christian missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies. Islamic organizations had small numbers of citizens working as missionaries in the country. Christian organizations across all denominations had larger numbers of missionaries, both foreigners and nationals, operating in the country. Sikhs and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries.
There were 11 registered foreign missionary groups that operated in the country during the year: six Christian denominations, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups. There were 1,560 registered foreign Christian missionary organizations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which is not an officially recognized Christian group, has obtained a special quota for 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Many unregistered missionaries, however, lived and worked in the country without government interference. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported that being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization.