Minority religions at home in Thailand
WHEN THAI MEN AND WOMEN ARE UNHAPPY, they go to temple. When they fear the unknown, they go to temple. At New Year's, and on important religious days, most of Thailand goes to temples and monasteries, offering food and donations to Buddhist monks.
Theravada Buddhism, the oldest strand of that ancient belief system, is the national religion in Thailand and preferred by most of the country's 64 million people. Thailand is also home to small Christian communities, Muslim communities and animists.
Aie, a 22-year-old Thai woman, said she prays for a good job, physical safety, and a good life when she visits temples and monasteries to offer food or donations to the monks.
“Sometimes when I have problems in my workplace or have trouble with my boyfriend, I pray to Buddha to help me,” said Aie, a student at Rajabhat University Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
“I feel better and happier after I go to temple and offer food and donations to the monks,” she added.
Most Buddhists donate food or money to the monks on the site of the monasteries on Buddhist holidays. Some, however, offer food to monks on the street as the monks make their way through town in the early morning.
In ancient times, monks also tattooed warriors and gave them gifts. The soldiers kept the gifts to protect themselves during war.
Sirinee, a Buddhist who converted to Christianity, said that she thinks there is no religious conflict in Thailand. Christians, Buddhists and Muslims may pray freely and engage in religious activities, in her view.
Even though there has been violence in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani, in southern Thailand carried out by Muslim believers against Thai Buddhists, the clashes are not only about religion, Sirinee believes.
Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6 percent, occupying the southernmost provinces, including Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Parts of Songkhla Chumphon also have Muslim majorities consisting of both ethnic Thai and Malay. Christian communities are estimated at just 0.7% of the population.
Despite facing discrimination and ill treatment in Thailand due to their race, poverty or illegal status, migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia are generally free to express their religion in the kingdom.
Andy Hall, migrant expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok said that there are 900,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand and about 2 million Burmese migrant workers, mostly Buddhist, who also freely enjoy their religion events in Thailand.
“Most of them [Burmese and Cambodian migrants] are Buddhist and they go to monasteries in Thailand when it comes to important religious days,” said Hall.
Theravada Buddhism, widely practiced in southeast Asia, is also the official religion of Cambodia, and is practiced by more than 95 percent of the population, spread across an estimated 4,392 monastery temples throughout the country.
Religion in Cambodia, including Buddhism, was suppressed by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s but has since experienced a revival.
Originally from Burma, Rev. Ah Saw, a pastor at Grace Church Mae Rim in northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai said that he enjoyed religious freedom in Thailand, more so than in Burma.