Wat Prathat Doi Kham – Temple of the Golden Mountain in Chiang Mai
Of the nearly 69 million people living in Thailand, the U. S. Department of State notes that the predominant religion practiced by about 94% of those 69 million people is Theravada Buddhism. 5% of Thai people are Muslim and the remaining 1% practice a wide range of other religions and atheism.
According to the Buddhist Society, Theravada Buddhism is the Southern School of Buddhism that is rooted in the scriptures of the Pali Canon. There are many different divisions of Buddhism practiced across Asia but Theravada is the type of Buddhism typically practiced in Thailand as well as in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. Compared to Mahayana Buddhism, which is seen in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, Theravada is thought to be more like the original form of Buddhism started in India. It is a more strict adherence to the teachings and rules of Buddha about monastic activities. Nearly every village and town in Thailand have a monastery. What the focus of the monastery is, however, varies based on the town.
Buddhism has a goal of reaching self-enlightenment through meditation and the development of morality and wisdom. The Buddha, Siddharath Gautama, is looked to as a teacher but not worshiped like a god. There are no personal gods in this religion, as all of the focus is on the individual reaching the state of nirvana, the state in which there is no longer greed, hatred, and delusion and their pattern of being reborn to suffer worldly pains is broken. Those who reach this level are considered “enlightened”.
Islam is the only other major religion to see a significant following in Thailand. Despite a very diverse population, most Muslims residing in Thailand are Sunni. Although for the most part the two main religious groups, Muslim and Buddhist, have gotten along fairly well, there have been expanding tensions between the Thai government and Muslims in Southern Thailand. Attempts by Muslim separatists to form the Islamic Patani Darussalam have resulted in violence. Roughly 18% of Thailand’s Muslim population resides in the southern provinces of Songkhla, Satun, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, a region that was once a part of the Islamic Sultanate of Patani, a Malay-Islamic Kingdom that existed from 1516-1902. The fall of the Sultanate and subsequent annexation by the Kingdom of Siam saw a long period of exclusion, oppression, and scapegoating of Malay-Muslims in the 20th century, and an assimilation campaign that sparked heated nationalist sympathy. While official stance from the Thai government has become more accomodating in recent years, decades of repression and nationalism have culminated in the separatist insurgency of 2004 that has spurred armed violence in the south of Thailand for over a decade. Both ethnic and religious tensions play a major factor in the ongoing conflict, necessitating a more inclusive and diverse narrative in the spheres of politics, religion, and history.
Amaro, A. (n.d.). The Buddhist Society: Theravada Buddhism. Retrieved from https://www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/theravada-buddhism
BBC. (2009, November 17). Religions – Buddhism: Buddhism at a glance. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/ataglance/glance.shtml
Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.biographyonline.net/spiritual/buddhism/theravada-mahayana.html
- S. Department of State. (2005). Thailand. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2005/51531.htm
Hunter, M. (2015) The Islamization of Thailand. Asian Correspondent. <https://asiancorrespondent.com/2015/07/the-islamization-of-thailand/#C8ZXEMko82HxVbPw.97>