Avoiding a religious row

Avoiding a religious row

It is unclear why authorities in the South have pushed a project for a new Buddhist park in Pattani province. Indeed, as of yesterday at least, provincial officials had provided no specifics. The central government seems confused but it is crystal clear that local people have grave doubts, and have spoken about them clearly.

The government should call a timeout on this plan for full discussion. As Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday, such a project can never be allowed to cause conflict. A row over the park would just create the unwelcome image that the majority Buddhists of Thailand are willing to ride roughshod over the minority Muslims.

There seems no pressing reason to allow events to progress to that inevitable state. That is the almost certain result if the park is rushed into existence.

The plans for the Buddha Monthon Pattani are vague, so unclear that officials said they will change the name from Buddha Monthon to Jedi Ruam Jai -- a less-grand title.

One fact is clear. The three top officials involved in Pattani are actively pushing for the Buddhist-themed park. Provincial governor Weerapong Kaewsuwan and the province's senior monk Phra Siri Jariyalangkarn attended a recent organisational meeting that was chaired by Phanu Uthairat. The latter is the secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC).

While provincial governors come under the Interior Ministry, it is Mr Phanu who links the Buddha Monthon project to the central government. He was reappointed to his former and current position in 2014 as part of a purge of officials thought to be friendly to fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He is a familiar and generally popular government representative in the deep South, a reputation likely to be dented by the park project.

Plans and a single artist's representation of the Buddha Monthon envisage a 100-rai park, dominated at the centre by a huge Buddha image. The very size of the project attracted obvious questions, predictable opposition and likely resentment. The population of Pattani and its neighbouring provinces is more than 80% Muslim.

There have never been big problems with building temples and supporting monks, but a 100-rai Buddhist project is a different proposition. To many, building such a park without even consulting local people does not just insult community and religious sensitivities, but runs roughshod over them.

One of the major sensitivities at the moment is the southern insurgency. Separatists claim to be fighting against what they call "Siamese oppression". They define this in terms of direct control of the deep South by officials in Bangkok. It is arguably the only slogan the violent separatist movement uses that occasionally resonates with local resentment of distant rule.

It is hardly a surprise that the local majority sees a problem. The same thing happened in reverse and on a smaller scale last year in a northern village in Nan province where Muslims wanted to build a mosque.

That project was put on hold while those people concerned, the majority Buddhists and Muslims, could talk it over.

Throwing up a major Buddhist project without consulting Pattani people would be an error. Prime Minister Prayut has shown the proper concern, and his statement is welcome.

The Pattani governor and the SBPAC must take a time-out to reconsider the options.

Changing the project's name is not enough, however. No earth has yet been turned, no donations gathered. There is plenty of time for discussion.

Depending on how talks go among local communities, they might have to rethink plans for the park. Rational steps must be taken to avoid an outright religious row.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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