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Tribal Loyalties

Traditionally divided by geography and ethnicity, Thailand's northern and southern Muslims are becoming increasingly tightly knit. Thai security officials are worried about the implications.

By Bertil Lintner/PANGSA, CHIANG RAI and Shawn W. Crispin/TAK BAI, NARATHIWAT

CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES have roamed Thailand's northern highlands for generations, searching for converts among the region's impoverished animist hill tribes. Lately, however, they have met with competition from an unexpected quarter: Muslim teachers preaching the word of Islam.

In Pangsa, a small dusty village in Chiang Rai province, hill-tribe children wander the grounds of a newly built mosque and boarding school. A gleaming minaret towers over the village's bamboo huts, as hill-tribe boys in Muslim skullcaps and girls in headscarves make their way to a nearby school.

The school's imam, Nasir, looks after the 40-or-so recent young converts, mostly members of the Akha hill tribe. The bearded preacher says his mission preaches a tolerant brand of Islam. "Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews, we're all in the same family," he says. "We're a peaceful community."

The appeal of Islam to the Akha is hardly surprising. Living in abject poverty and long the victims of prejudice, the Akha generally only migrated to Thailand within the past 50 years or so, mainly from Burma and Yunnan in China. As a result, the Thai government often refuses them citizenship. Barred from entering towns and cities, the hill tribes are confined to rural areas, where they survive by farming on the steep hillsides, and face accusations of involvement in the drug trade. Any of the children who are not Thai citizens, which is the majority, can't attend state-run schools.

This vulnerable position leaves the hill tribes open to outside forces with money and organizational skills. "They are tired of being looked down on by Thai people in general, who feel superior," says Andrew Forbes, an independent Islamic scholar based in Chiang Mai. As a result, Islamic missionaries are gaining ground.

These converts, and more established Islamic communities in the north, have traditionally been divided by geography and ethnicity from Muslims in the south, where Thai security forces have been fighting a shadowy Islamic insurgency. (On October 25, 78 Muslim detainees died in custody following clashes with police in Narathiwat province that left six people dead.) Now that's changing. The two communities are becoming increasingly tightly knit, and are sharing the same concern. For instance, allegations by southern Muslims that security forces are using heavy-handed tactics are being echoed in the north. Rightly or wrongly, that convergence has Thai security officials worried.

To see those links in action, you need to travel 1,500 kilometres south of Chiang Rai province to Imam Nasir's home province of Narathiwat, where the scenery cuts a sharp contrast to the lush mountains of the north. Here, in Tak Bai town, goats nibble at sparse vegetation sprouting from the sandy, trash-strewn grounds of the Darul Muallaf madrassa, or Islamic school. It's here that young hill-tribe converts come to further their studies. Students attend religious classes at the Nuruddin school down the road, where they are taught the fundamentalist Wahabi brand of Islam. Currently, Darul Muallaf provides food, shelter and religious lessons to 33 mostly Akha hill-tribe children.

Left Behind

Every visitor to Chiang Mai's night bazaar has seen them: Women in colourful costumes and headgear decorated with old coins who beg and peddle trinkets. These are the Akha, the poorest and least educated of northern Thailand's seven main hill tribes.

According to the Tribal Research Institute in Chiang Mai, there are about 50,000 Akha in Thailand, mostly in the hills of Chiang Rai. For the past half century, Baptist missionaries have worked to help school young Akha, but poverty remains rife: Many Akha women work in Thailand's sex industry.

Muslim missionaries came much later. It was only in 1980 that Mohammad Ali Tanggoon, a Burmese convert from Christianity, initiated an Islamic educational programme for the Akha. In the early 1980s, he helped send 40 boys and girls to an Islamic school in the southern Thai province of Phatthalung. The Thai authorities stopped the exchange programme when the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Islamic Development Bank showed interest in supporting the project.

"The kids were sent home, and I had to go into hiding for a while," says Tanggoon. His mission took place well before the reputed rise of Al Qaeda-linked militant Islam in Southeast Asia. But even then, the Thai authorities suspected that the Akha children were being sent south to support separatist guerrillas.

The latest Muslim mission targeting the Akha, centred at Pangsa in Chiang Rai province, has so far been tolerated. The question is, for how much longer. Police have recently interrogated teachers in the village, asking questions about the mosque's connection with its sister school in the south. But, as Tanggoon contends, the Akha would make poor terrorists. "They're not a violent people," he says. "And they are scared of society around them."

Over 90 hill-tribe children have passed through the Darul Muallaf madrassa since it was founded, along with its northern counterpart in Pangsa, by an ethnic Malay, Nusee Yakoh, in 1999. His two sisters, Yusanee and Rongreeda Yakoh, say the school's sole aim is "to teach underprivileged children the Islamic way of life." Pointing to a group of veiled hill-tribe girls standing behind her, Yusanee Yakoh, says, "These children do not have opportunities so we take care of them." Adds Arlor Suemou, 15, one of Darul Muallaf's Akha students, "The school shows us a better way of life."

The mission's future was violently cast into doubt on June 24 this year, when Nusee was shot and killed by unidentified assailants. Tak Bai police say they are investigating the case, but have so far failed to arrest any suspects.

Soon after Nusee's death, Thai security officials, who have often blamed Islamic schools for spreading separatist ideologies, pressed to shut down Darul Muallaf and ship the hill-tribe students back to the north. Thai and Western intelligence officials had claimed that Darul Muallaf received funding from fundamentalist groups in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Yakoh sisters deny such claims, and say most of their money comes from modest donations by local Muslim villagers and small charities in Malaysia: "If we had Saudi or oil money, we wouldn't have to live like this," says Yusanee, pointing to the madrassa's squalid surroundings.

Neighbouring communities that contribute money to Darul Muallaf baulked, and the disagreement flared into a conflict between security forces and local Muslims. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra intervened, and placed the school under the care of a Muslim politician, Pongpich Patanakullert. She claims that the school's 33 students all have vocational rather than ideological aspirations. "For Muslims, it's very important to take good care of new converts," says Pongpich. "We all want these children to learn the middle way of Islam. They want to study, they want jobs, they want to believe in God. Where's the harm in that?"

It is unclear exactly how many Akha have converted to Islam in recent years--Islamic scholars like Forbes and Muslim groups in Chiang Mai estimate hundreds rather than thousands. In the 1990s, an entire Hmong village 70 kilometres north of Chiang Mai converted to Islam. Near Pangsa, a smaller mosque has been built for a group of Hmong hill tribes to go to worship.

Those developments haven't gone unnoticed by Thailand's security forces. Struggling to contain a spiralling sectarian conflict in the majority Muslim southern provinces, the security forces have recently started to turn up the heat against northern Thai Muslims they fear could be sympathetic to the southern rebellion.

Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's largest city, has the biggest Muslim population in the country after the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. According to estimates by the U.S. consulate general in Chiang Mai, 14% of the province's 1 million people are Muslims. Most are ethnic Chinese, whose ancestors arrived in Thailand from Yunnan province more than 100 years ago. Others are of Subcontinental descent, either Tamil Muslims who have migrated north from Malaysia, or northern Indians who have come through Burma and often refer to themselves as "Pakistanis."

With violence swirling in the south, northern Thai policemen and alleged undercover agents have started to enter mosques in Chiang Mai, ostensibly to look for illegal immigrants. Members of the local Muslim community claim the inspections are heavy-handed and religiously insensitive.

That perceived harassment is starting to stir northern Muslim resentments. "In the past, we never showed any interest in the southern problem," says Nitaya Wangpaiboon, a prominent Chinese Muslim lawyer in Chiang Mai. "We practise our own version of Islam, which is heavily influenced by Chinese culture. The southerners are very different. But now, because of the actions by the police, we do."

Nitaya has recently travelled to take up cases of alleged human-rights abuses against local Muslims in the south. As the southern conflict swirls, at least 40 southern Muslim children have taken refuge from the violence in the Ban Haw mosque in Chiang Mai's night bazaar, the biggest Chinese mosque outside China. The link-up between aggrieved northern and southern Muslims, which the Thai authorities have sought to prevent, is fast becoming a reality due to the way in which the security problem has been handled.

So far, there's scant evidence of Islamic radicalization among northern Thai Muslims. In late 2001, a group of Thai Muslims held a protest outside the U.S. consulate general coinciding with the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. In late 2003, a young ethnic-Chinese Muslim tossed a Molotov cocktail at the gates of the consulate.

"Many Muslims here are angry," says Nitaya the lawyer. "They feel powerless and resent the way they are being treated by the authorities." Left to fester, that anger risks bringing the problems of Thailand's Muslim south to the still peaceful mountains of the north.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, November 04, 2004

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