Tue, Aug 01, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Muslims in Thai north not worried by southern woes


Chiang Mai, the northern jungle city home to one of Thailand's largest Muslim communities, is a long way in both distance and culture from the kingdom's restive south.

But the violence between suspected Islamic separatists and the army that claims lives almost daily some 1,700km away is focusing the minds of those who mingle by the curry stalls and halal restaurants here.

As the authorities show a growing interest in Muslims in this popular tourist city, the close-knit community is concerned that the bloodshed down south will infringe on their peaceful existence.

"Muslims in the north have a happy life, but in the south they have problems and we know nothing of this," says Preedee Nukul, a teacher at the Ban Haw mosque near Chiang Mai's famous Night Bazaar. "The main teaching of the religion is the same thing, but the problems are separate."

Chiang Mai city sits in northeast Thailand at the foot of the country's mountainous region and is home to about 30,000 Muslims.

Their migration to Thailand began centuries ago, when Bengali cattle traders settled in Chiang Mai. In the 19th century, Muslims from China's Yunnan Province arrived following a failed rebellion back home.

Today Chiang Mai is home to Muslims from Pakistan, Malaysia, Myanmar, China and India, all of whom integrated successfully into Buddhist Thailand.

Andrew Forbes, an Islamic scholar, says that the communities traditionally felt detached from the problems in the south.

"I don't think there is much sympathy at all, not until the incident when a lot of people were killed lying down in trucks," he says, referring to the death of 85 Muslims in army custody in 2004.

"The Chinese Muslims have very little interest. Down in the south of Chiang Mai you get more Arabs, and South Asian, and it is possible there might be sympathizers," he adds.

By contrast, the troubled southern provinces of Thailand have historically been a Muslim region. The area along the Malaysian border was an independent sultanate until Thailand annexed it a century ago.

Separatist unrest has simmered ever since. The latest violence erupted in January 2004, and has claimed nearly 1,400 lives.

At the Ban Haw mosque here, where 70 percent of the worshipers are from Yunnan, the imam said people showed scant interest in the conflict.

"Islam is different, politics is different, people relate these things, but they are not the same," Ching Jen says.

But Nitaya Wangpaiboon, a Chinese-Muslim lawyer from Chiang Mai, says people were increasingly worried about tensions between the government and the Muslim community, but were afraid to voice these concerns.

"Sympathy increases more and more, but it is not the style of the Muslim, they will not object against the government," she said.

She also accuses the government of sending spies into "every mosque in Chiang Mai" -- a claim Thailand's National Intelligence Agency denies.

"They want to connect the southern problem with the northern Muslims," Nitaya says. "They want to link it but it is not true."

Waat Srichandoin, imam at the Chang Klan mosque, said people who attended his mosque found the conflict in the south "boring," but said he was concerned that the Thai authorities were attempting to connect the communities.

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