CHIANGRAI TIMES – An ongoing protest against the construction of a mosque in the midst of a Buddhist community looks set to succeed in aborting the project. Attempts to settle the dispute between local Buddhists and Muslims in Ban Pong Namron of tambon Mae Jedi Mai in Wiang Pa Pao district have had little impact amid accusations that officials are wilting under pressure from the area’s Buddhist majority.
Local Buddhists turned out in a mass protest against the mosque project on April 24 at the district office.
Since then Chiang Rai Governor Thanin Supasaen has ordered officials from the Public Works and Town and Country Planning office to inspect the project, raising allegations that local authorities have decided to seek “flaws” as an excuse to scrap the project instead of attempting to resolve the conflict.
“From land acquisition to the mosque design and asking for a construction permit, we’ve followed every legal step,” said Kamon Thomyawit, senior adviser to the coordinating committee for non-governmental organisations for the southern border provinces.
“But because people protest against it, state agencies are trying to persuade us to stop building,” he claimed.
The construction of the mosque was initiated by Muslims who raised the funds to build a religious venue in Wiang Pa Pao district.
The site is expected to serve many of the 200,000 Muslims who pass through the area while travelling between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
There are about 20 Muslims in Ban Pong Namron, but protesters are worried about the 200,000 who are expected to travel along the route every year. Many Muslims from the South have invested in rubber plantations in the upper North, particularly Chiang Rai, they said.
The project’s supporters have so far listened to protesters but, Mr Kamon said, “Their reasons are not sound”.
He said the group cites worries over divisions in the local community and a threat to security if the mosque is built.
“So where do we find social justice?” He believes the problem exists because “the other side is greater in numbers”.
Many villagers in the neighbourhood are worried by the violence in the Muslim-dominated provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat in the far South, and wonder about how an influx of Muslims might affect their lives, said protest leader Bunnak Chomtham, chairman of the Noi-Nan Wiang Pa Pao group.
The protesters distributed leaflets opposing the project to residents in Wiang Pa Pao district and asked Buddhists to support their movement.
Ban Pong Namron villager Khemaphat Saengmani insisted the villagers do not oppose other religions, including Islam.
He only wants the construction site to be relocated because it is adjacent to a Buddhist temple.
The role of authorities in dealing with the issue has come under criticism so far. They are suspected of bowing to the pressure of the Buddhist protesters.
Protesters have vowed to expel all provincial officials who are found to support the mosque’s construction.
District chief Choetchai Phibunwutthikun attempted but failed to help the two sides settle differences, and referred the problem to the Chiang Rai governor.
However, Chiang Rai Islamic Committee chairman Rachan Ruchiphan is still optimistic about the issue.
He believes the quarrel between the local Buddhists and Muslims can be solved through sensible dialogue.
Buddhists and Muslims in the North have been living together so far without any signs of religious conflict, he noted.
Authorities need to look into the problem more thoroughly in order to find any “hidden causes” that have led to fierce protests, Mr Rachan added