Foreign Policy Blogs

Thailand’s Dirty Little Secret


The deplorable decision by the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to forcibly repatriate around 70 ethnic Rohingya fleeing ethnic violence in neighboring Myanmar this past week should certainly not come as a surprise. Successive governments have routinely prevented asylum seekers from remaining in Thailand from various trouble spots surrounding the country.

This is the question which needs to be confronted: Is this mainly a religious issue (animus against Muslims) or a refugee issue?

Thailand is a heterogeneous and Buddhist country which, ever so gradually, has begun to exhibit a not-so-subtle disdain for foreigners. This is a general statement, of course. I’m not accusing the state of harboring xenophobic tendencies.  But having lived in Thailand previously, I get the sense that now having fully recovered from the 1997 financial crisis, Bangkok is not so reliant on tourism as they were a decade ago.

Or, maybe they’re just sick of all of the recently retired Western men arriving in places like Pattaya with bucket loads of cash and engaging in the type of debauchery that even the most flamboyant Roman Caesar couldn’t possible have envisaged.  But I digress.

In any event, I am going to tie in this most recent disgrace to the broader “Southern problem”, aka the “Muslim problem” that Thailand has. In Pattani province in Southern Thailand, Islamic separatists parade the heads of decapitated Buddhist monks through the jungle towns as a warning to others. All-Buddhist militias have begun springing up and arming themselves over the past five years as well. From Patrick Winn at Global Post:

In the Thai Buddhist mind, almost nothing is so disturbing as harming a monk. That is exactly why insurgents shoot monks at close range, hide bombs on their alms routes and occasionally hack off their heads.

Monks were once the lowest-hanging fruit, unarmed targets attacked to inflict peak damage to Buddhist morale. The army has since decided to guard them at all hours. Troops have transformed Buddhist temples into military camps.

Wacharapong’s temple in Yala city is, for all practical purposes, a fortress with a tall golden spire in the middle. It is defended by G.I.s, their helmeted heads just visible above walls of black sandbags. Barracks trailers crowd the temple grounds.

“We have more than 100 soldiers here,” said the Lak Muang temple’s 62-year-old abbot, Tong. “And we have only seven monks.”

Now, while it might be a leap to say that the deportation of 70 people can be associated with the broader “Muslims problem” in Thailand, it is also a little too dismissive to say that it can’t. There is a serious, and at many times, violent divide in Thailand between Muslims and Buddhist. One does not necessarily see this in Bangkok, but in southern areas, the tension is palpable.

So is this a religious issue? A refugee issue? I happen to believe its both. Would the Thai government change its policy if a perceived benevolent group was seeking asylum? What would the policy decision be if 70 Christians fleeing persecution from some place had requested asylum in Thailand? Remember, Thailand has never signed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

If the government would change their refugee policy based on the group of people coming in, then it is xenophobic. If it wouldn’t, then it is immoral.

Either way, Thailand’s position on this one stinks worse than a plate of pad ped sator which, incidentally, is usually found in the south.




Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.