Here by the grace of Allah

Here by the grace of Allah

Generations of Muslim migrants have helped shape the culture of Chiang Mai

United for a good cause: Christian, Muslim and Buddhist leaders in Chiang Mai at the opening ceremony of a conference for social workers for HIV patients. (PHOTO: Thai Interfaith Foundation for Social Development)
United for a good cause: Christian, Muslim and Buddhist leaders in Chiang Mai at the opening ceremony of a conference for social workers for HIV patients. (PHOTO: Thai Interfaith Foundation for Social Development)

The black-and-white photograph he holds has the solemn face of a man he's never met. But the man is attracted to him the most.

The man in the picture has a tanned complexion. Straight face. Half portrait. He wears an official's white uniform. Sash across his shoulder. Decorations on his chest.

His name is Phaya Ratch Phadungkit Srichandorn. He was a senior official serving the last ruler of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai -- a vassal state of the Siamese Rattanakosin Kingdom before it was annexed by the centralisation policies of King Rama V in 1899.

He is the son of an Indian-Muslim tax collector for the British Raj who migrated from Kolkata to the Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the 1860s.

Phaya Ratch Phadungkit Srichandorn married a woman whose origins were in Myanmar. Three generations later came the man who holds a fading photograph in front of us.

"I've traced my great-grandfather from the oral history of my family. He is part of me," says Chirachai Srichandorn, 58, the founder of a charity organisation.

We're at his one-storey brick house at the heart of Chiang Mai town. He points at one picture on the wall, taken after the year 1916. "My father is in there."

Three rows of men -- whose faces show different ethnic features from Chinese to Indian -- pose in front of a wood-constructed Islamic school which was once in the compound of Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw, the oldest Chinese-Muslim mosque adjacent to the touristic Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

Near the picture, there's a scroll printed with a Chinese proverb in a glass frame. Part of it reads "a little tolerance calms storms in the mind".

Chirachai offers us Chinese tea. He is the descendant of Indian Muslims. His study record has the name of a Catholic school. Over a century of assimilation has produced Muslims of Chiang Mai like him.

"Only the [foreign] faces of our ancestors remain in us. Through at least four generations, Muslims in the North are part of the local culture, we don't feel like a minority," he says.

But his generation is facing a major challenge.

The 9/11 attacks in 2001. Thailand's prolonged insurgency in the deep South that erupted in 2004. Global threats from Islamic State. The bomb blast in Hua Hin that killed one person and injured over 20 in August 2016 and the car bomb at Pattani Big C store which authorities have linked to Muslim separatists.

Growing concerns over terrorism have created waves of fear for Thailand's Muslim population including those in the North despite the majority of Muslims having no connections to people in the places where the violence occurred.

The past 15 years have caused disruptions for the century-plus peaceful existence of Muslims in Chiang Mai.

Just a month ago, a Muslim woman was fired from a local school east of Chiang Mai.

There were protests against a proposal to build a Halal industrial estate early last year. The majority of protesters was local Buddhist organisations, communities and monks who claimed that the estate would stir conflict due to the different way of life of Buddhists and Muslims, with the latter flooding into Chiang Mai.

"Unreal images are clearer than the truth even though the evidence proves that our society has progressed with plural cultures," says Suchart Setthamalinee, a lecturer at the Department of Peace Studies, Payap University.

Suddenly becoming "the other", some local Muslims are searching their roots and tracing family trees to find out if they belong to Chiang Mai, and they do.


Old photographs and oral history demonstrate that Muslims have lived in area of today's Chiang Mai since at least the last half of the 19th century. They are of diverse origins, hailing from China, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Muslim communities dot the downtown area, especially on Chang Klan Road, where Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is located, and Chang Phueak Road. Chiang Mai currently boasts 17 mosques. Muslims are also found in Fang and Mae Ai districts north of Chiang Mai city.

There are no official figures for the Muslim population in Chiang Mai. Some estimate it at around 30,000. The largest group of them originated from Yunnan in southwest China.

Many people picture overall Muslims in Thailand as those in the deep South influenced by Malay culture -- speaking Yawee language, famous for traditional fare such as chicken biryani rice and teh tarik.

Muslims in Chiang Mai speak the Lanna dialect. Their traditional cuisine is northern style -- including Sai-ua or northern Thai sausages and Khao Soi or noodles in curry soup-- cooked according to Halal guidelines.

A study titled "Transformation of Identity of Yunnan Muslims in northern Thailand" by Suchart, a descendant of Yunnan Muslims, highlights over a century of Muslim assimilation into the local population via intermarriage, economic and public works contribution.

Yunnan Muslims first appeared in Siam in the mid-1800 as merchants who brought horse caravans across the borders of Siam, Laos and Myanmar.

An account by James McCarthy, a British explorer in the late 19th century, refers to his encounters with merchant caravans from Yunnan at local markets in the northern boundary. One caravan could have over 180 horses with around 50 Muslim and non-Muslim merchants.

In 1916, the first Chinese Muslim community was established in Chiang Mai by a man named Zheng Chong Ling, a distant relative of the Hui Chinese mariner Admiral Zheng He famed for leading voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia and East Africa in the 15th century.

Zheng Chong Ling married local woman. He led the establishment of Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw in the centre of Chiang Mai town, and gathered 225 rai of land in 1944 to donate for part of Chiang Mai airport. He also supported pack horses for authorities' messengers.

Another group of Yunnan Muslims migrated to northern Thailand after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People's Republic of China which saw mass purges and the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward.

The 93rd Division of the Kuomintang also took refuge along the Thai-Myanmar border after the Nationalists were driven from China by the Chinese Communist Party. Many of them later gained Thai citizenship as a reward for fighting against communists for the Thai state.

Later the nationalism policy of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram impacted on the identity of Muslims in Chiang Mai by forcing them to assimilate. The global trend of Islamic restoration also influenced them to redefine their Muslim identity.

The assimilation of Muslims into the local population while retaining their identity has occurred through this historical development, according to Suchart's study.

It is associated with economic development and yearning for a better quality. Many Muslim parents in Chiang Mai send their children to Buddhist or Christian schools, and study their religion at the mosque after official hours.

Throughout history, the details of which have yet to be revealed, Muslims have contributed much to Chiang Mai.

"It's important to know [about their contributions.] Prompted by outside factors, false news has intensified hatred and fear towards all Muslims here," says Suchart.

"You can't generalise about the whole population. Only when you can see the truth, can you break the myth."

It's the myth that draws on what he referred to as "unreal images that are clearer than the truth" -- assuming a homogeneous society in which diversity no exists.


"Wherever you're from, we can sit and have a meal at the same table."

Phattharaphong Ilacharn invites us to have lunch in the compound of Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw. It's just after midday prayers. A local Muslim family provides meals to all visitors with a humble intention to share merit.

As we join a table with other Muslims, Phattharaphong points above the mosque's entrance. There, a red sign shines with three lines of golden text.

The first line is in Arabic and quotes the Koran -- "the mosques belong to Allah; do not invoke the name of anyone except Allah".

The middle line is in Thai and reads "Islamic Mosque of Chiang Mai". The last line is in Chinese and reads "a place for worship of Allah's kindness". 1961 is clarified on the sign as the year the mosque was built by Yunnan Muslims.

The sign is clear evidence of cross-cultural nature of Muslims in Chiang Mai, indicating that the mosque welcomes people regardless of their origins. It's like the concept of sharing a meal at the same table. At the back of the mosque is an old Buddhist temple.

Phattharaphong's grandfather, Shamsal Hoque, migrated from Bangladesh to Mae Sariang district in Mae Hong Son where a British timber firm, Borneo Company Limited, operated under a concession from the ruler of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the late 19th century.

The business attracted many workers. Shamsal accompanied his four siblings and later had a son, Phattharaphong's father, in Chiang Mai.

"Previous generations thought they were part of Chiang Mai so they were not concerned about family history. They were not seen as 'the other'," says Phattharaphong, an independent social worker. "We, as a recent generation, have to search deep into our own history because we're encountering conflicts that single us out."

Since the outbreak of violence in the deep South in 2004, state officials sometimes observe events of local Muslims. When incidents occur, such as a bomb blast or attack, the attitude of people towards Muslims could change overnight.

Phattharaphong and his friends have started to track down the family trees of local Muslim families. They've collected old photographs and introduced historical timelines to show their origins.

The records are kept at a library near Attaqwa Mosque, one of the seven Chinese mosques in Chiang Mai province, on the east side of the Ping River.

The mosque was built in 1970 by Yunnan Muslims. In the area around the mosque, shophouses were constructed and rented out to Muslims and non-Muslims. Income from the rent goes towards maintaining the mosque and running a free religious school in the community.

This was the strategy of the previous generations to preserve the life of the mosque and community.

Other mosques in town were forced to sell their land and resettle elsewhere as a result of the hike in land prices caused by rapid tourism growth.

Along with changes in community aspects to more urbanisation, Phattharaphong found that the concept of building mosques has been transformed too.

Like Attaqwa Mosque, old mosques were built to serve the establishment of Muslim communities.

But some new mosques were built quickly to answer individuals' intention to make merit.

The sudden appearance of mosques in Thai communities has caused panic which is sometimes expressed in vehement opposition as in the case of the local Buddhist community in Nan which protested against a plan for new mosque in 2015.

"Maybe we don't know each other well enough so we always think that we are not the same," says Phattharaphong.

On another day, he showed me pictures of a feast at Attaqwa Mosque. It was full with people. A senior monk in a bright orange robe sat among the multiracial descendants of Muslims.

It's one of unrecognised colour photographs that display the continuity of assimilation and normality of mixed races, just like those recorded in black and white photographs a century ago.

Such images are awaiting to be noticed.

Multilingual welcome: A sign in Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw written in Arabic, Thai and Chinese reflects the cross-cultural nature of Muslims in Chiang Mai. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

Famous ancestors: Kavinthorn Wongluekiat, the grandson of Zheng Chong Ling who led the establishment of the first Yunnan Muslim community in Chiang Mai in 1961. Zheng Chong Ling is a distant relative of Hui Chinese mariner Admiral Zheng He, famed for leading huge expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia and East Africa in the 15th century.

Assimilated: Chirachai Srichandorn in the living room of his house in the heart of Chiang Mai. He is a descendant of Indian Muslims who migrated to the Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the 19th century. PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

Community spirit: Muslim students gather at Attaqwa Mosque, Chiang Mai, for a day of cleaning. PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

Cleanliness: Students clean up Attaqwa, one of seven Chinese mosques in Chiang Mai province.

Happy memories: Muslim women look at an old photograph of family members who passed away. The photo was exhibited at Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw near Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

Brotherly embrace: Buddhist monk Phra Kru Pipitsutatorn greets Somkid Latthisak, a representative of the Islamic Committee of Chiang Mai, during a banquet in Chiang Mai held to mark the end of Ramadan. Photo: Nikone Bainana

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