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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion is protected by law, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Constitution requires that the monarch be a Buddhist. The state religion is in effect Therevada Buddhism; however, it is not designated as such. When the Constitution was being drafted in 1997, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly rejected a proposal to have Therevada Buddhism named the official religion on the grounds that it would create social division and be "offensive" to other religious communities in the country.

The Government plays an active role in religious affairs. The Religious Affairs Department (RAD), which is located in the Ministry of Education, registers religious organizations. In order to be registered, a religious organization must first be accepted into an officially recognized ecclesiastical group. During the reporting period, there were seven groups including one for the Buddhist community, one for the Muslim community, one for the Catholic community, and four for Protestant denominations. Government registration confers some benefits, including access to state subsidies, tax exempt status, and preferential allocation of resident visas for organization officials. In practice unregistered religious organizations operate freely. However, there was at least one report that unregistered groups had been subjected to extortion by local officials.

Under the provisions of the Religious Organizations Act of 1969, the Department of Religious Affairs recognizes a new religion if a national census shows that it has at least 5,000 adherents, has a uniquely recognizable theology, and is not politically active. However, since 1984 the Government has maintained a policy of not recognizing any new religious faiths. This has restricted the activities of some groups that have not been accepted into one of the existing religious governing bodies on doctrinal or other grounds.

Two branches of the Government investigated religious groups alleged to be engaged in cult activities during the period covered by this report. In 1998 the National Security Council and the House Standing Committee on Religion, Arts, and Cultural Affairs initiated an investigation into the alleged "cultish practices" of the Hope of Thai People Foundation after complaints were filed at the Religious Affairs Department by parents claiming that their children had isolated themselves from friends and family after joining the church. In January 1999, the House Standing Committee moved to consider a petition filed by a Senator requesting that the foundation's activities be investigated. In response the foundation filed a law suit against the committee chairman for defamation in May. The committee had not reached any conclusions by mid-1999.

The Constitution requires the Government "to patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions." The State subsidizes the activities of the three largest religious communities (Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian). During the reporting period, the Government provided approximately $38.2 million to support Buddhist and Muslim institutes of higher education; to fund religious education programs in public and private schools; to provide daily allowances for monks and Muslim clerics that hold administrative and senior ecclesiastical posts; and to subsidize travel and health care for monks and Muslim clerics. This figure also includes an annual budget for the renovation and repair of Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques, the maintenance of historic Buddhist sites, and the daily upkeep of the Central Mosque in Pattani.

During the period covered by this report, the Government also provided approximately $81,000 to Christian organizations to support social welfare projects. Catholic and Protestant churches can request government support for renovation and repair work, but do not receive a regular budget to maintain church buildings, nor do they receive government assistance to support their clergy. The Government considers donations made to maintain Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian buildings to be tax-free income; contributions for these purposes are also tax-deductible for private donors.

In a 1997 survey, over 99 percent of the population of 60 million professed some religious belief or faith. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of the population is Therevada Buddhist. Recent estimates suggest that up to 10 percent of the population are Muslim. Christians constitute about 1 percent of the population. Among the Christian population, Roman Catholics outnumber Protestants by more than two to one. There are small animist, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist, Jewish, and Brahman populations. No official statistics exist for atheists or individuals who do not profess a religious faith or belief, but recent surveys suggest that they make up less than 1 percent of the population.

The dominant religion is Therevada Buddhism. The Buddhist clergy or Sangha consists of two main schools, which are governed by the same ecclesiastical hierarchy. Monks belonging to the older Mahanikaya school far outnumber those of the Dhammayuttika school, an order that grew out of a 19th century reform movement led by King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces, which border Malaysia. Minority Muslim populations also live in 74 of the 76 provinces. The majority of Muslims are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population encompasses groups of diverse ethnic and national origin, including descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Government agencies did not use consistent figures to describe the size of the Muslim population during the period covered by this report, but most estimates suggest that Muslims constitute as much as 10 percent of the population. There are approximately 2,800 mosques in 57 provinces, with the largest number (552) in Pattani province. All but a very small number of these mosques were associated with the Sunni branch of Islam. The remainder, estimated by the Religious Affairs Department to be from 1 to 2 percent of the total, were associated with the Shi'a branch.

Christians constituted approximately 1 percent of the population (820,570) in 1998. Almost half the Christian population lives in Chiang Mai. The rest are in the Bangkok area and in the northeastern provinces. Between 50 and 60 percent of the Christian population is Roman Catholic. There are also several Protestant denominations. Most Protestant churches belong to one of four umbrella organizations. The oldest of these groupings, the Church of Christ in Thailand, was formed in the mid-1930's. The largest is the Evangelical Foundation of Thailand. Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists are recognized by government authorities as separate Protestant denominations and are organized under similar umbrella groups.

There are six tribal groups (chao khao) recognized by the Government, with an estimated population of 500,000 to 600,000 persons, whose members generally are described as animists. Syncretistic practices drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and ethnic Tai spirit worship are common. The Hindu and Sikh communities have an estimated population of about 19,000 persons. Both are associated with small immigrant groups that arrived from South Asia during the twentieth century, although Brahman temples had been established in Bangkok as early as 1784. The majority of Hindus and Sikhs live in Chonburi, Bangkok, and Phuket provinces.

The ethnic Chinese minority (Sino-Thai) has retained some popular religious traditions from China, including adherence to popular Taoist beliefs. Members of the Mien hill tribe follow a form of Taoism.

Mahayana Buddhism is practiced primarily by small groups of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. There were 8 Chinese temples and 11 Vietnamese temples in 1998.

The Santi Asoke Foundation, an unorthodox Buddhist group expelled by the Therevada Buddhist ecclesiastical hierarchy, continued to operate a monastery and to engage in religious practices.

The Government permitted foreign missionary groups to work freely throughout the country, although it also maintained policies that favored proselytizing by its citizens.

The number of foreign missionaries officially registered with the Government is limited to a quota that originally was established by the Religious Affairs Department in 1982; this quota has not changed since then. The quota is divided along both religious and denominational lines and is considered sensitive for this reason. The Government does not publish or release its quotas for particular religious denominations. In May 1999, there reportedly were from 1,900 to 2,000 foreign missionaries legally registered, including 400 Roman Catholic, 1,076 Protestant, 100 Mormon, and 10 Muslim missionaries.

While official registration conferred some benefits, such as longer terms for visa stays, it was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity during the period covered by this report. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized or disseminated religious literature without the acknowledgment of the Religious Affairs Department. There were no reports that foreign missionaries were deported or harassed for working without registration, although the activities of Muslim professors and clerics were subjected disproportionately to scrutiny on national security grounds because of continued government concern about the potential resurgence of Muslim separatist activities in the south.

Citizens proselytize freely. Monks working as Buddhist missionaries (Dhammaduta) have been active since the end of World War II, particularly in border areas among the country's tribal populations. In May 1999, there were approximately 3,000 Dhammaduta working in the country. In addition the Government sponsored the international travel of another 627 Buddhist monks sent by their temples to disseminate religious information abroad. Christian and Muslim organizations also reported having smaller numbers of citizens working as missionaries in Thailand and abroad.

The Chuan Government actively sponsors interfaith dialog in accordance with the Constitution, which requires the State to "promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions." During the period covered by this report, the Government maintained spending for interfaith discourse activities at the levels prior to the economic crisis despite facing strong budgetary pressures. As of May 1999, the Government had spent approximately $13,500 to fund regular meetings and public education programs. These programs included the RAD annual interfaith meeting for representatives of all religious groups certified by RAD. The September 1998 meeting in Bangkok drew 400 participants. They also included monthly meetings of the 17-member Subcommittee on Religious Relations, located within the Prime Minister's National Identity Promotion Office (The Subcommittee is composed of one representative from the Buddhist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Sikh communities in addition to civil servants from several government agencies), and a 1-week education program coorganized by the National Identity Promotion Office and the National Council on Social Welfare. The latter event is held each December in celebration of the King's birthday. Representatives from every religious organization recognized by the RAD are invited to attend seminars associated with the event. The program also targets the general public through films and public displays.

In addition to these meetings and programs, the National Assembly's House Standing Committee on Religious, Arts and Cultural Affairs worked with five local nongovernmental organizations to organize a 2-day conference in May 1999 to discuss the impact that the country's economic downturn was having on religious values and practices. Conference organizers invited representatives from every religious group recognized by the Religious Affairs Department to attend.

Religious instruction is required in public schools at both the primary (grades 1 through 6) and secondary (grades 7 through 12) education levels. Students at the primary level are required to take 80 hours of instruction per academic year in religious studies classes. Instruction is limited to Buddhism and Islam. During the reporting period, some parts of the country with large Muslim student populations did not have Muslim studies courses. Muslim students in these schools generally were directed to school libraries to participate in Muslim self-study courses. A few government bodies responsible for providing compulsory education, including the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, implemented policies to expand the availability of Muslim education in their schools during the period covered by this report.

The Constitution provides for, and citizens generally enjoy, a large measure of freedom of speech. However, laws prohibiting speech likely to insult Buddhism remain in place under the 1997 Constitution. The police, who have legal authority under the Printing and Advertisement Act of 1941 to issue written warnings or orders suspending the publication or distribution of printed materials considered offensive to public morals, did not use it to restrict the publication or distribution of religious literature during the period covered by this report. Theater owners decided against showing one film from Singapore after police advised them that the film might be found "insulting to Buddhism" under the provisions of the Film Act of 1930. The act requires all theater owners and broadcasters to submit films scheduled for screening to a government film censorship board for review.

National Identity Cards produced by the Ministry of Interior since April 12, 1999 include a designation of the religious affiliation of the holder for the first time. The change in policy was implemented in response to the demands of parliamentarians who wanted easier identification of individuals requiring Muslim burial. Individuals who fail or choose not to indicate religious affiliation in their applications can be issued cards without religious information.

Muslim female civil servants are not permitted to wear head scarves when dressed in civil servant uniform.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

In September 1998, the Supreme Court handed a 2-year probationary sentence to the founder and 41 members of the Santi Asoke Foundation in a criminal law suit originally brought against the group by the Attorney General in 1989. This decision upheld several lower court decisions to impose suspended jail sentences of from 3 to 54 months on charges of impersonating a monk and emulating religious practices reserved for ordained persons.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the major religious communities were generally amicable. However, there were some suspected cases of intradenominational violence and the Government took action in one case in March when a prominent theologian's house in Nonthaburi province was firebombed. Media coverage of the attack fueled speculation that it had been carried out in retaliation for the theologian's outspoken criticism of the well known and controversial Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani. As of mid-1999, police had not identified any suspects, and the case was still under police investigation. Although police continue to suspect intradenominational conflict, it remains unclear whether the bombing was due to religious motives.

None of the religious communities led "ecumenical" movements, but the Government continued to support and fund programs specifically designed to promote greater mutual understanding and tolerance among adherents of different religions (see Section I).

The Constitution states that discrimination against a person on the grounds of "a difference in religious belief" shall not be permitted. There was no significant pattern of religious discrimination during the reporting period. Religious groups closely associated with ethnic minorities, such as Muslims, experience some societal economic discrimination. The Government maintained longstanding policies designed to integrate Muslim communities into society through developmental efforts and expanded educational opportunities, as well as policies designed to increase the number of appointments to local and provincial positions where Muslims traditionally have been underrepresented.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

During the period covered by this report, representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) sought the U.S. Embassy's intervention in the group's longstanding effort to become registered as an independent church. The group also sought embassy support for a request to increase the number of long-term visas issued to its missionaries in Thailand from 100 to 150. The former Ambassador met with cabinet-level officials on three occasions to discuss obstacles blocking the registration of the church in April 1998, October 1998, and January 1999. The current Ambassador has discussed the issue with one cabinet minister. As of June 1999, the Church had not been recognized officially, and the number of long-term visas provided to its missionaries had not changed.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999