Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being solely based on religious identity.
According to Deep South Watch, insurgent-related violence during the year resulted in at least 263 deaths – among them 187 Muslims, 64 Buddhists, and 12 unidentified. Deep South Watch also reported 374 persons injured, including 195 Muslims, 178 Buddhists, and one unidentified. In 2016 there were reports of 307 killed and 628 injured; most of those killed were civilians. There were no reports any of those killed or injured were targeted due to their religion. The insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to the Ministry of Education, there were no deaths of students, teachers, or other education personnel during the year, but according to Deep South Watch, insurgents killed two teachers and one student. According to Deep South Watch, no monks or imams were killed during the year, unlike in 2016.
According to news reports, on June 21, insurgents shot and killed an Islamic teacher, Ahwae Tohsatu, as he left prayers with his family. Tohsatu was an adviser to the Internal Security Operations Command and known for his campaign to convince Muslim insurgents to lay down their arms.
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 groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians. The Young Muslim Association of Thailand (YMAT), the Fasai Youth Center, the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University, the Look Rieng Group, the Peaceful Southern Boundary Organization, and the Buddhist Network for Peace issued statements denouncing the shooting attack on a school bus that took place in Rueso District of Narathiwat on March 2.
In September military personnel arrested a Buddhist monk, Apichat Punnajanatho, in the Deep South city of Songkhla with the stated purpose of preventing the monk’s violent, anti-Islamic, hate speech. According to news reports, soldiers flew him to Bangkok's Wat Benchamabophit, where he was disrobed and expelled from the monkhood upon orders from the Supreme Sangha Council. Subsequently he was turned over to police for violating the law on computer crimes and for inciting public disorder, but police did not file any charges, and he was later released. The monk had attracted public attention for his anti-Muslim Facebook and other online posts, and in 2015 he had called for the burning down of mosques in response to Buddhist deaths in the Deep South.
In October the government withdrew criminal defamation and computer crime charges against three Amnesty International activists who worked on a 2016 report that stated the military tortured and mistreated at least 24 insurgents detained in the Deep South between 2013 and 2015. The government denied the claims.
According to human rights groups, a majority of the country’s relatively small urban refugee and asylum seeker population were fleeing religious persecution elsewhere. Many of them, both those registered by the United Nations and others who were not, faced prolonged detention in crowded immigration detention centers, some for years. Since 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 reportedly arrested and detained some UN-designated refugees, some of whom claimed they faced religious persecution in their home countries. Those without asylum-seeking status faced eventual deportation.
Activists expressed fear the government was assisting with requests to extradite Chinese dissidents associated with religious groups banned in China, but there were no reports of any members of the banned religious group in China being forcibly deported to China during the reporting period. Members of a Falun Gong performance group stated the government canceled their January performance at the behest of the Chinese government. In 2015 a Supreme Administrative Court ruling allowed the Falun Gong to register as an NGO. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of Falun Gong members seeking asylum being arrested on immigration charges during the year.
The National Buddhism Office issued an order in September for police to investigate temples where state funds were allegedly misappropriated. The police charged five abbots for abusing state authority and collusion, among other charges, amid a broader investigation of 35 temples and 29 individuals.
In February the NCPO issued an order authorizing police and military personnel to restrict exit from and entry to Dhammakaya temple while authorities searched the temple in an attempt to arrest Abbot Chaiyaboon Dhammajayo for his alleged role in the laundering of millions of dollars as part of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scandal. The government reportedly already sentenced the bank’s former chairman and Dhammakaya temple treasurer to prison and charged another prominent businessman in June. Temple followers and monks protested the raid. The NCPO lifted the entrance/exit restriction order in April. The investigation into Dhammajayo again drew small protests in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia and Dhammajayo’s followers said the abbot was targeted because the popularity of his temple threatened the country’s political and religious elite. Dhammakaya supporters also said the charges and investigation were 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.
A group of female Buddhist monks petitioned the National Human Rights Commission in February to amend the law to recognize officially female monks. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks, however; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, only 280 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials had neither formally opposed nor supported female ordination. Officials 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 exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks (bhikkhus), bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks.
The first Thai bhikkhuni ordained in Sri Lanka, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, continued to lead a movement advocating for recognizing bhikkhunis and allowing their ordination within the country. Her movement continued to encounter resistance. The abbess stated the Religious Affairs Department, the Ministry of Culture, and the Royal Household Bureau twice prevented female monks from entering the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the Late King Bhumibol at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. The abbess filed a case alleging the Secretary of the Committee Screening Buddhist Monks and Novices violated gender equality. After negotiations, the government permitted female monks to enter the palace to pay their respects in February.
The Sangha Supreme Council issued an order in October prohibiting monks from using social media to criticize the kingdom, Buddhism, or the monarchy, or otherwise behaving in a manner inappropriate to their religious status. The order reportedly included steps to make finances more transparent such as telling monks to stop asking for donations.
The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu, a mandatory peace studies course, and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. As of September 30, approximately 4,000 students and 470 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.
According to the Association of Private Islamic Schools of Thailand, no Islamic schools were closed by the government during the year, a change from 2016. According to the association and faculty at a prominent university in the Deep South, scrutiny of Muslim professors and clerics declined substantially; however, the military continued to scrutinize Muslim teachers at private schools.
The government allocated approximately 404 million baht ($12.4 million) for the fiscal year (October 1-September 30) to the RAD as an agency under the Ministry of Culture. Approximately 325 million baht ($10 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development. The budget included grants of approximately 18 million baht ($552,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups; 240,000 baht ($7,400) for the Chularajmontri’s annual per diem; and 2.2 million baht ($67,500) to educate Thai pilgrims traveling for the Hajj on proceedings at the grand mosques and logistics for long-distance air travel. The Hajj Pilgrim Fund was transferred from the RAD to the Ministry of Interior, and the fund’s fiscal year 2018 budget was expected to be 48 million baht ($1.47 million).
The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 5 billion baht ($153.4 million) in government funding. Half of that budget, 2.5 billion baht ($76.7 million), went to empowerment and human capital development projects. 1.6 billion baht ($49.1 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 682 million baht ($20.9 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 255 million baht ($7.8 million) for 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 Deep South continued to report acting as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.
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 6,300 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.
There were 11 registered foreign missionary groups operating in the country during the year: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups. There were 1,357 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. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries in the country. 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, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.
According to online newspaper Prachatai, the NGO Cross Cultural Foundation reported that in July six men who said they were from the Internal Security Operation Command ordered Anchana Heemmina, the Muslim president of Duay Jai, a local human rights advocacy group in the Deep South, to stop posting on Facebook information on human rights violations concerning jailed insurgency suspects.
In December, according to Prachatai, six police officers interrogated four Malay Muslims and illegally collected detailed personal information about the individuals, including fingerprints, in Nakhon Si Thammarat. One of those detained said police arrived in a pickup truck without a license plate and told him they were from the provincial “Special Crimes Suppression Division” and were “searching for Muslim Malays from Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.”
On January 31, the NCPO approved a plan by the Sangha Supreme Council, National Buddhism Bureau, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, National Security Council, and Southern Border Provinces Administration Center to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among peoples of different religious faiths in key areas. Areas covered included education, disseminating religious principles, promoting religion, preventing the subversion of religion, building understanding and cooperation among religious groups, and improving the awareness of and sensitivity to religious norms and traditions. There was no action on the plan during the year.