Northern mosque a test of tolerance
Thai Islamic leaders raised 2.7 million baht to build Nan province’s first mosque, but locals are opposing the construction and claiming that only a tiny number of Muslims actually live in the area
If things had gone the way Abdulyalil Khankhen had planned, Nan’s first Islamic mosque would have been built at the centre of Buppharam village, a Buddhist community about two kilometres from the provincial airport.
Central point: Wat Buppharam serves as a general meeting place for villagers.
“The location was right. It was an open space in the heart of the community,” said Mr Abdulyalil, who is an Islamic religious leader in the nearby province of Lampang.
Mr Abdulyalil and Muslim leaders from five northern provinces managed to raise funding to secure the plot of land, while a separate group of Muslims from Bangkok donated cash to build the mosque.
However, things didn’t turn out how Mr Abdulyalil had hoped. Earlier this month, locals gathered at Wat Buppharam to ask the Muslim group to relocate their planned mosque outside the village.
Villagers said they had been told nothing about the construction plans and claimed no Muslims actually live in the neighbourhood. The site of the mosque would have been one kilometre from Wat Buppharam which, in addition to being the site of religious services, also serves as a general meeting place for villagers.
“Our ancestors have been living here for 800 years. We have never been Muslim, so why do they have to build a mosque here?” asked Buppharam village chief Jaran San-ngern.
Mr Jaran told Spectrum that an unexpected visit by a group of Muslim clerics had caused concern among local people in the past.
Left:Negotiator: Jaran San-ngern, the village chief of Buppharam, who led discussions over the mosque. Right:Neighbour: Sithisak Chaiyong-wantok at the site earmarked for the mosque in Buppharam village.
MEN IN WHITE
Rarinthorn Phetcharoen, a local reporter, recalled an incident a few years ago when villagers contacted police after seeing 10 strangers in white robes wandering around the village at night.
Later, they discovered the outsiders were in fact Muslim clerics on a pilgrimage via Nan.
“Everyone here knows each other so it is natural they were wary about unexpected visitors,” the reporter said.
Suspicions were aroused a few months ago when villagers noticed a group of Islamic leaders coming to inspect a vacant land plot in the community. Among them was Mr Abdulyalil, who was wearing a long white robe and cap, and has a long beard.
The group caught the attention of the locals.
“When they prayed, they knelt down and spoke a different language,” said Sithisak Chaiyong-wantok, a 52-year-old villager who lives next to the site earmarked for the mosque.
Mr Sithisak was fascinated to see the group performing prayers at the site.
“It was the first time I had seen a Muslim praying in person. It gave me a different feeling to what I had when I saw it on television,” he said.
Stalled: The blueprint of the proposed mosque originally planned for Buppharam village.
READY, NOT ABLE
Mr Abdulyalil is an imam at Al-Falah Mosque in Lampang. He collected about 700,000 baht in donations from Muslims in northern provinces to secure the Buppharam land plot, which covers an area of 284 square wah.
The other group of fundraisers from Bangkok used Muslim channel Yateem TV to attract an additional two million baht to finance the construction of the building. Mr Abdulyalil said the mosque design was complete. They were all set for building to begin.
But last month, when construction workers started to enter the site, villagers realised the plot of land formally owned by their neighbour was to be turned into a mosque.
In addition to the workers, Muslim visitors started coming to the site. They would pray under a temporary tent according to scheduled prayer times.
“Then we knew that a mosque would be built next door,” Mr Sithisak said. Locals resolved to ask Mr Jaran, the village chief, to address their concerns.
Buppharam village is home to 1,236 residents, including about 506 armed services personnel stationed at a nearby military base.
Differing views: Imam Abdulyalil Khankhen, front row, third from right, during a meeting with Buppharam villagers.
Nan prides itself on being a Buddhist town with an ancient history comparable to the Sukhothai era. Phrathat Chae Haeng, a golden pagoda built in 1359, is a classic example of traditional Lanna culture.
In addition to Buddhism, Christian churches have flourished in the area for more than 100 years. There are at least 20 churches in the province, partly because of the presence of Christian hill-tribe people.
However, Nan is one of six provinces in Thailand without a single mosque. According to the Office of Chularajamontri, the governing body for Islam in Thailand, they are Nan, Sukhothai, Amnat Charoen, Bueng Kan, Nakhon Phanom and Yasothorn. Mr Abdulyalil said there are about 40 registered Muslims in Nan.
Chanatip Semyeam, the district chief officer of Phu Phiang district, said the actual number, including non-registered Muslims, is likely to be about 60 people from a total of 400,000 Nan residents.
In the past 10 years, a small number of Muslims have migrated to the province. Some married locals before moving to Nan. Some came from the southern provinces to work on rubber plantations, which are a major source of income in the province.
Mr Abdulyalil argued that Nan needs a mosque since Muslims in the province have nowhere to perform religious activities. To pray on Friday, they must travel to a mosque in Denchai district of Phrae province, 130km away.
The Nan mosque plan had been approved by the Office of Chularajamontri and Buddhism's Supreme Sangha Council, he added.
Mr Abdulyalil and Muslim leaders in the north spent the past year pulling together their funds for the Buppharam village project. “It was the perfect location for the mosque,” he said.
Bangkok businessman Thaweerat Suthat was separately responsible for coordinating fundraising from Muslims in Bangkok and other parts of the country, through Yateem TV.
Asked about to his official job title, he said he was “just a facilitator” for mosque fundraising activities, but gave no other details.
Mr Thaweerat said his group raised donations to construct a mosque in Battambang in Cambodia last year.
A number of Muslims in Nan now gather for Friday prayers at the house of a Muslim man whose wife sells roti in the town centre. The man declined to speak to Spectrum, but said local “Muslims and Buddhists have been living together peacefully”.
His wife said her husband was upset because other media reports have portrayed the issue as the people of Nan being embroiled in a religious conflict, which she said was not true.
Decision time: Buppharam villagers vote on whether to have the mosque in their village.
NO ISLAMOPHOBIA HERE
The Buppharam villagers say they have no personal issue with the Muslims who planned to construct the mosque. Mr Sithisak said the group are friendly, good people, who talk in the same northern Thai accent as he does: “Imam Abdulyalil speaks in Muang dialect. He is nice and friendly.
“We are not discriminating against them but we don’t want the mosque to be built too close to our community because mosques usually use loudspeakers to call people to prayer. The noise would disturb the neighbourhood,” Mr Sithisak said.
Mr Jaran added: “People are afraid that after the mosque is built, their traditional lifestyle will be changed. They are concerned they might no longer be able to allow their dogs and pigs to run around the area because Muslim people don’t like these animals.”
Some villagers fear the mosque could bring political and religious conflict, like that seen in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated far South. The villagers did not say this publicly, but some privately admitted to concerns.
Mr Jaran said the issue stemmed from a lack of communication. The Muslim group did not consult local people about the mosque plan.
Mr Chanatip Semyeam, from the Phu Phiang district office, said: “We had tried to avoid a situation in which villagers voted on the issue. Unfortunately, it happened.”
Mr Jaran, the village chief, gets around by bicycle. The middle-aged man, who has lived in Nan all his life, was named village headman five years ago because of his active contribution to the community. Locals say one of his major achievements as village chief was the restoration of Wat Buppharam.
Mr Jaran asked Spectrum to meet him at the temple, where cement buckets were stacked as testament to the recently-finished construction work that he was instrumental in.
He said villagers started asking him to speak to the Muslims and get the mosque relocated in early December. But Mr Jaran was busy with Wat Buppharam’s looknimit ritual, a week-long event to celebrate the burial of an auspicious round stone in the grounds of the temple.
When the ritual was over, he called a meeting to discuss the issue on Jan 6. “I was criticised by both. The Muslim group said I was unfair to them. The villagers said I was biased towards the Muslims.”
That evening, more than 80 villagers showed up at the temple. But Mr Jaran said government officials failed to attend, leaving him with the sole responsibility of conducting the meeting.
The Muslim representatives tried to explain the benefits of having a mosque in the province. Mr Abdulyalil said the mosque would promote the local economy and boost the business of halal Islamic food. The Muslim leaders also pointed to a potential surge in tourism after the Asean Economic Community. The mosque would draw more Muslim visitors to the province, they said.
Local people, however, were not convinced. Mr Sithisak said: “We are not good at cooking halal food anyway.”
Villagers insisted a mosque in the area was unnecessary. At one point in the discussion, a source said that a villager asked the Muslim visitors why they wanted to construct a mosque there. One responded that it was Allah’s plan. The villagers were perplexed by the answer.
In spite of efforts to reach a consensus, one of the villagers lost patience, suggesting they could find a conclusion to the issue by a vote. The rest of the room agreed. The vote showed that 75 villagers disapproved of the construction, while only six approved. “Those six old people just ticked the wrong box,” Mr Jaran said.
After Thai Rath online reported on the vote, Mr Jaran said he decided to stop trying to resolve the issue amid pressure from all sides. “The news made it seem like we were discriminatory people. That is not true. We just think the location is too close to our homes,” he said.
Mr Chanatip said his district office superiors asked him to explain the incident, which put Nan in the spotlight over potential religious tensions: “The phone did not stop ringing.”
SEARCHING FOR HOME
According to an Interior Ministry announcement made in 1950, anyone can build a mosque without seeking approval from government authorities or the community if the Central Islamic Council of Thailand or the provincial Islamic council has given it the go ahead.
Mr Chanatip said: “The Muslims have done everything by the book. It was not necessary for them to conduct a public hearing.”
He sees no problem with the construction of a new mosque. “There are many Islamic people here,” he said. “It’s good if they have a place to perform their religious activities, because all religions preach good things to people.”
Following the villagers’ opposition to the mosque in Buppharam, Mr Chanatip stepped in on behalf of the district office to help the Muslims find a new location.
In the past fortnight, Mr Chanatip has travelled to several potential sites for the mosque with Mr Abdulyalil and with Mr Thaweerat. Mr Thaweerat commuted from Bangkok to Nan to make the trips.
The first site they visited was about 10km from Ban Nam Gan village. Both Muslim men declined the site, saying it was too remote, in a rubber plantation area. The second site was about 1km from Phu Phiang district office, outside the residential part of the community but closer to Ban Nam Gan village. Mr Thaweerat was particularly keen on this location.
He said the site is twice as large as the Buppharam plot. The size of the building would remain the same, Mr Thaweerat said, but there could be small modifications to the architectural details.
Mr Abdulyalil, however, rejected this plot. “The new location is in a remote place, far away from the heart of the community. Why treat us like insurgents and put us in a remote area?” he told Spectrum by phone.
The imam said the Muslim group from the north will not be supporting the construction of the mosque because they disapprove of the new site. They will withdraw their 700,000 baht from the scheme.
Asked if the project will continue without financial support from the Muslims in the north, Mr Thaweerat said: “We can raise more funds from Bangkok and other provinces to pay for the land plot. We should not have a problem with funding.”
Mr Thaweerat said his representatives and Mr Abdulyalil’s group had amicably decided not to work together. “They can sponsor another mosque if they want,” he said.
Asked why his group wants to build a mosque in Nan, even though there are only about 60 Muslims in the province, Mr Thaweerat said: “Currently many Muslims don’t reveal the fact that they are Muslim even though there are a number in the province. After the construction of the mosque, more people will come out to show they are Muslim.”
On Thursday, Mr Thaweerat met community leaders in Ban Nam Gan to inform them about the proposal to construct a mosque in the area. Initially, Mr Thaweerat had planned to start laying the foundations immediately and finish construction in five to six months.
Before the meeting, he said he was not expecting opposition from villagers in Ban Nam Gan. “The mosque would be far from their homes. And we already asked permission from the local administrative office,” he said.
But after the meeting, Mr Thaweerat changed his mind. “We have put the project on hold for a while,” he said. “We have to communicate more with the villagers and the central office of the Islamic council.”
Local community leaders are concerned about “things like noise”, he said.
But Mr Thaweerat said his group has not given up on its plans. Construction workers have already started measuring the site. “We will go ahead with the project. There will be another meeting to discuss this on Feb 3. We just can’t tell exactly when building will start.” n