Bigotry on the boil over halal project
A planned industrial estate that could have generated billions in exports has been shelved amid fears Muslims will undermine Chiang Mai's traditional culture.
Muslim businessman Kavinthorn Wongluekiat, 62, was born and bred in Chiang Mai and hopes he can make his home town prosperous for generations to come. As chairman of the Chiang Mai Islamic Committee (CMIC), Mr Kavinthorn is the driver of a plan to build a halal industrial estate on the outskirts of Chiang Mai which he says would generate tens of billion in baht in annual exports.
Muslims have been part of the Chiang Mai community for centuries and he envisaged no problems. Doi Lo, a sleepy, rural district outside the city earmarked for the estate, was identified as an ideal location.
“There are 140 halal business operators with more than 2,000 products in Chiang Mai already,” he told Spectrum, adding he had no vested interest in the halal industry.
“About 80% of the products are processed food for export to other countries. Sixty per cent of the exported products are sent to Europe, 30% are sent to Middle Eastern countries and 10% to Asean countries including Thailand. Just imagine. The income generated by these factories is now 20 billion baht, the halal industrial estate can easily double or even triple that number.”
But Mr Kavinthorn was in for a shock. The proposal was met with anger by locals, Buddhist religious leaders and officials who feared it would bring an influx of Muslims to the area and undermine Chiang Mai’s Lanna traditions.
“We have been living together peacefully for more than 720 years under the rich and strong Lanna heritage,” said a senior monk at Pak Tang Charoen temple who wished to remain anonymous. “The establishment of the halal industrial estate will have a negative effect on the traditional lifestyle, customs and local environment. It’s a big loss for the spiritual and cultural identity of Lanna.”
Somchok Ngamsomchart, a 48-year-old Muslim business owner of Pakistani descent, said there was nothing wrong with having more Muslims in the area.
“We are not drinking alcohol, we are not involved with drugs, gambling or prostitution,” he said. “That would make us peaceful and harmless people.”
In February, the local governor put the project on hold indefinitely, but it has opened wounds of intolerance and ignorance in the community.
Situated 40km southwest of Chiang Mai city, rural life on the flat plains of Doi Lo has been uninterrupted for decades, the only exception being a few longan processing plants.
But unknown to locals, industry was about to arrive in the form of a French ceramics factory earmarked for Ban Pak Tang Samakkee.
Phithakphong Saensuk, a 36-year-old villager from Ban Pak Tang Samakkee, said two years ago, large trucks started to enter their community loaded with landfill for the factory’s base.
“The traffic on our two-lane road started to get crazy, the road was ruined by the weight of the trucks and dust was flying all over the place,” he said.
Residents didn’t know what was going on until company representatives started to show up at their doors, offering gifts such as clothes and caps. Without any public hearings, the company claimed they had approval from local village heads and administrative bodies to build their factory on state land owned by the Treasury Department.
Nearby residents protested, and construction was suspended. If it is eventually built, they argue the factory would have an environmental impact on three villages and more than 1,000 households in the area.
Mr Phithakphong led village representatives to the 33rd Military Circle asking for help since the land belongs to the military. With the project suspended, the dispute between the villagers and the factory is in the administrative court.
But the French company wasn’t the only group eyeing Doi Lo’s potential. In 2014, the Chiang Mai Islamic Committee proposed building the biggest halal industrial estate in the country with ambitions to export internationally.
The project would have manufactured processed foods such as canned fruits and vegetables, dried herbs and spices, rice, tea, coffee, fruit juice, mineral water, dried noodles, peanut butter, honey, milk, dried fruit and fresh vegetables and meat.
With more than 1,000 rai of land in Doi Lo held by the Treasury Department, the backers wanted 700 rai allocated for the industrial estate and the remainder for villagers to build dormitories and stores to service the project.
The CMIC proposal was submitted to the Chiang Mai governor for approval in August 2014. But not long afterwards, the Chiang Mai Provincial Administration Organisation received another proposal from the municipality to build a dump site in the area.
Town planners had allocated 90% of the land as a “green zone” for forest and agriculture while the remaining 10% was designated a “white zone” for housing and businesses. Mr Kavinthorn said that after the halal industrial project was proposed, Doi Lo’s green zone was changed to purple status, allowing small to medium-size factories to be built to boost the local economic situation.
In September 2014, the CMIC received the go-ahead for the project after it was deemed of greater benefit to the community than the dump site.
But in late 2014, Doi Lo villagers started to hang signs protesting against the project, even though the CMIC had yet to reach terms with the Treasury Department over the rental of the land.
The CMIC proposal promised there would be no staff accommodation in the estate and stipulated that 70% of employees must be locals.
But rumours spread in the community that the halal project had a hidden agenda to move more than 5,000 Muslim families from Pattani to Chiang Mai. Protests against the industrial estate started in earnest in January 2015 and continued for a year.
Large vinyl signs in bright red and orange declaring the locals’ opposition to the estate were hung along the main roads into the district and on pedestrian overpasses.
“I don’t want our peaceful Buddhist town turned into a violent war zone like the deep South,” said one villager, Yai. “I have nothing against Muslims, but none of us want any outsiders to come in and change our way of life.”
While the locals claimed their protests had nothing to do with religious differences, local monks chose to make their position clear.
On Jan 26, Chiang Mai’s ecclesiastical provincial governor, Phra Thep Pariyat, called a meeting at Wat Pan On to discuss the halal industrial estate project with 12 government agencies and 25 representatives from local administrative office. The purpose of the meeting was to draft a joint statement to the governor calling for the project to be stopped.
It requested the governor permanently withdraw the project from the Chiang Mai development plan and not allow any organisation or company to establish a halal industrial estate in any area of Chiang Mai. It warned that if anyone attempted to establish a halal industrial estate, they would lead a protest campaign to explain the "negative" impacts to the community.
Other concerns were raised about the environmental damage an industrial estate might cause and the mass migration of Muslims into a majority Buddhist area. The joint statement said differences in culture, practices and beliefs could bring conflict to the area.
Local media reported that the monks who called the meeting refused to sign the document, but offered their support.
Kamolsit Rojthanapiwat, Chiang Mai district chief and president of the local village headmen’s group, is one of those strongly opposed to the industrial estate.
“We have come to an agreement that we won’t let the halal industrial project happen in any area of Chiang Mai,” he told Spectrum. “I don’t see any benefit that will occur to us. The employment of locals won’t be possible since halal businesses won’t hire people who are not Muslim.”
Mr Kamolsit said he had nothing against other religions. “All I want to do is to try to keep our town peaceful with the traditional Lanna way of life we have been living for more than 720 years,” he added.
Kamnan Daeng from Doi Lo district was reluctant to speak about the conflict, saying it had now died down, but expressed concern about potential pollution problems if a mega industrial estate project was built in the area.
“Differences in beliefs might lead to conflict between people,” he said. “There is no guarantee that there will be no conflict or other problems if a halal industrial estate is built in Chiang Mai.”
HISTORY OF DIVERSITY
The first Muslims arrived in Chiang Mai from China’s Yunnan province in the mid 19th century, according to Chiang Mai University research. The Chinese Muslims are known colloquially as Chin Ho, a possible reference to the caravans they travelled in. In the 1850s new Muslim arrivals came from Pakistan and Bangladesh, drawn by the strong trade of goods between Chiang Mai province and Bangkok via river routes.
In the early 1900s the Lanna king granted land to local Muslims to establish communities along the banks of the Ping river.
Later, some Chinese Muslims who fled to Myanmar and joined the Kuomintang to fight the Chinese communists also ended up in Chiang Mai and other northern Thai provinces.
According to civil registration statistics for 2015, there are 50,000 Muslims in Chiang Mai from a population of nearly 1.7 million, with 17 major mosques in the province.
Wittaya Chaichannapoonpol, 61, is a third generation Chin Ho and runs Fuengfah restaurant next to Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar. Fuengfah is famous in the city for selling halal khao soi curry noodles. His grandmother introduced the city to the unique flavours which are a mixture of Chinese, Myanmar and Muslim cultures.
Mr Wittaya said the restaurant started selling khao soi but later expanded operations to include other halal food.
From beef sausages to fried peanuts and egg noodles, Mr Wittaya sells all halal products at his shop where he makes at least 3,000 baht per day.
“Most of my customers who come to eat here are not Muslim. They are non-Muslim foreigners who come to visit Chiang Mai,” he said. “They know that halal means safe and clean food. That’s why they come to eat here.”
Nonetheless, Mr Wittaya is dismayed by the discrimination on display regarding the halal industrial estate in Doi Lo.
“I’m not upset that they oppose the halal industrial project,” he said. “That has nothing to do with me or my business. But I am more upset with the fact that Doi Lo people see Muslims as outsiders and violent people.”
Mr Somchok, who owns Hamza’s Farm which raises goats for meat and dairy products, considers himself a Chiang Mai native. He is at a loss to explain the sudden wave of prejudice against local Muslims.
He said he has always lived harmoniously in the community and helped many people, irrespective of their religion.
“The arrival of Muslim people will not change the Buddhist lifestyle,” he said. “Many Buddhists themselves have changed the peaceful ways of Buddhism and the Lanna lifestyle.
“Look inside the city moat of Chiang Mai, there are 37 temples in the area but there are more than 200 bars among them. So who is changing the traditional ways of the Lanna and Buddhist lifestyle?”
IT’S YOUR LOSS
After months of public opposition to the estate, the new governor of Chiang Mai Pawin Chamniprasart, who took up the post in October, put the project on hold until further notice.
But Mr Kavinthorn is determined it will go ahead and said he would try and put his proposal directly to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. He said the estate could achieve financial returns never seen before in northern Thailand.
“We have fresh agricultural produce from local areas, unlike southern Thailand where most of the produce is seafood,” he explained.
He was coy about the financial supporters of the project, but said the main backers were the CMIC and the Sheikhul Islam Office, the religion’s main governing body in Thailand. Major Thai companies had also shown interest in investing, but Mr Kavinthorn said he did not want to reveal who they are at this stage.
Of the 140 existing halal food business owners in Chiang Mai, 60% wanted to expand their production base and had expressed interest in moving to the halal industrial estate when it was built, he said.
There are 131 halal-certified factories in Chiang Mai registered with the CMIC. They employ 7,772 people, Mr Kavinthorn said, but only 149 of them are Muslim.
The proposed location of the estate in Chiang Mai is also a major plus when it comes to transport routes.
Linked by the R3A highway to Yunnan province, the estate would be able to easily distribute products for Muslims in China. Chiang Mai is also linked by road networks to major transport hubs in Myanmar, including Mandalay, which would ease export to regional markets including Bangladesh and India.
Mr Kavinthorn said halal products don’t have to be produced by Muslim people. The term halal means “approved by God”, which requires that they be made according to strict regulations. Of the 140 halal businesses in Chiang Mai, only seven are owned by Muslims.
Since the project was rejected last month, many interested parties locally and internationally have approached Mr Kavinthorn to build the industrial estate in their own areas.
But Mr Kavinthorn said he will wait to see if the situation changes in Chiang Mai.
“If anything good can benefit the province I was born in, I would like to give it to my city first,” he said.
“The worst-case scenario is if no one in Chiang Mai sees this as an important project I may consider moving the base elsewhere.”
Sense of dismay: Fuengfah restaurant owner Wittaya Chaichannapoonpol says the discrimination shown during the Doi Lo protest was disappointing.
Suffering a setback: CMIC chairman Kavinthorn Wongluekiat was surprised at the backlash.
All the options: Muslim shoppers choose food at Chiang Mai’s Fuengfah halal restaurant.
No bad thing: Ban Ho is one of Chiang Mai’s largest Muslim communities and welcomes visitors to what it calls ‘Halal Street’.
Subject of scuttlebutt: Rumours spread that the planned halal industrial estate was designed to resettle 5,000 families from the South, leading to division in the community.
Nothing to fear from us: While some villagers expressed concern a halal industrial estate would bring divisions, Muslims have been part of the Chiang Mai community for generations.
Part of the community: Somchok Ngamsomchart, centre, a businessman of Pakistani descent, says members of the Muslim community are ‘peaceful and harmless’.