By Shyamal Sinha
Thai Buddhists visit the temple they will normally make an offering. This act is known as wai phra; wai being the traditional greeting with palms pressed together and raised towards the face and phra being the word for a Buddha image, monk or priest.
The usual offering made consists of a candle, some flowers (often a lotus), a small square of gold leaf and three incense sticks. The three incense sticks represent the Buddha, his teachings and the monastic order.
Amid recent news reports that the authorities in Thailand have detained an outspoken Buddhist monk for posting videos online that harshly denounce Islam and call for mosques in Thailand to be burned down,* another Buddhist monk, Phra Thepsilwisudh, is providing a more positive and constructive example of Buddhist compassion as an advocate for interfaith harmony in Thailand’s troubled southern provinces.
On 5 November, Phra Thepsilwisudh, the abbot of Prachum Cholthara Temple and the chief monk of Thailand’s Narathiwat Province, led local residents in a fundraising event to create a charitable endowment (known under Islamic law as a waqf) at Nurul Islam Mosque. The initiative is aimed at fostering religious harmony among the different communities living in the area.
The fundraiser was attended by Buddhist monks and local Islamic leaders, as well as lay Buddhists and Muslims. Phra Thepsilwisudh said he hoped the event would help promote harmony in Narathiwat’s multi-cultural society. Although the total proceeds from the event have yet to be announced, officials noted that part of the funds raised would be used to complete the construction of some unfinished mosques in the province.
According to the Bangkok Post newspaper, Phra Thepsilwisudh is well known for his efforts to serve as an intermediary between the two religious communities in the region, where he has been actively promoting Buddhist-Muslim relations and settling disputes between the authorities and residents of different faiths. In January this year, Phra Thepsilwisudh celebrated his birthday at Nurul Islam Mosque in an effort to improve Buddhist-Muslim sentiment.
Local residents hope that events such as the fundraiser will help to bridge community divisions in southern Thailand, where acts of extremism by Buddhists and Muslims have become a pervasive issue fueling years of interreligious violence that has killed some 6,500 people since 2004.
Ekkarin Tuansiri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University in neighboring Pattani Province, has been researching the rise of Islamophobia in Thailand. He observed that social media has played a significant role in fanning the flames of unrest, by helping to spread the perception that Islam promotes violence and is a threat to the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand.
Thai Buddhist scholar Surapot Taweesak, agrees that Islamophobia is on the rise, but is wary of the increase in extremism he sees in both Buddhist and Muslim communities. “[This growing Islamophobia] is not a good sign,” said Supaot. “When it comes to hatred, it could be exacerbated.” (Khaosod English)
Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country, with 93.2 per cent of the population of 69 million identifying as Theravada Buddhists, according to data for 2010 from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. The country’s three southernmost provinces, however, are predominantly Muslim and have been the stage for an ongoing conflict between Buddhists and Muslims that has its origins in a separatist insurgency that began in 1948. Since 2001, the conflict has become increasingly violent and complex.