Yala Central Mosque in southern Thailand. (Photo: Tourism Authority of Thailand)
Islamists in the southern Thai province of Yala have reportedly joined forces with local police to enforce strict Sharia rules in what rights activists see as a worrying development.
The prime targets of Islamists include young unmarried couples who show any forms of affection in public, such as holding hands, and violators of the Muslim moral code of Sharia face the prospect of religiously prescribed punishments.
Those found guilty in the predominantly Muslim province could also face criminal prosecution on grounds that they have violated laws against obscenities committed in public.
Unmarried men and women could potentially be detained simply for speaking to each other in private without anyone else present.
“We are not preventing people from communicating or talking. But if they are talking, then there should be a third party,” Sutimat Mahamad, the imam of the Yaha Central Mosque, told Thai news media.
“If there is a third party, we will not get involved at all. But if they are talking one on one, the police will arrest them.”
One couple were detained for talking in public and taken to the mosque where they were scolded for their allegedly “immoral” conduct.
“They were talking on a balcony, just whispering between the two of them. We told them not to do it again,” Sutimat said.
Such draconian enforcement of Sharia law is virtually unheard of in Thailand where most Muslims, who number around 3 million in a predominantly Buddhist nation of 70 million, practice socially moderate streams of their religion.
However, in the three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces, which include Yala, there has been a resurgence of a more conservative form of Islam in recent years.
The three provinces, which border Malaysia, have also seen a long-running and often violent Islamist separatist campaign, which has taken several thousand lives in tit-for-tat attacks between insurgents and government forces.
There are growing fears that a hardening of religious attitudes against normative social practices between the sexes in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southernmost provinces could lead to routine rights violations, which could especially affect young women.
“I think life is becoming harder for women in my hometown, especially if they want to do what their heart desires,” a 27-year-old woman from the Muslim-majority province of Narathiwat who works in Bangkok, told UCA News.
“I’m proud to be a Muslim, but I don’t want to live there [Narathiwat],” she added. “I would have to get married and probably I would have to stay home. I wouldn’t be able to work.”
However, religious authorities in Yala say that by enforcing Sharia they are seeking to help young men and women by keeping them away from harm such as wanton drug use and violent conduct.
“Our objective is to teach youths to act within religious traditions and rules, far away from drugs, and decrease their risk from being led by those with bad intentions,” said Anucha Waedayi, a member of the Yala Central Mosque’s committee.
Some Muslim rights advocates warn, however, that rigid conservative practices, including forced marriages, can be harmful to women, often for life.
“Forced marriage to restore the honor of the family or community, or to deal with the sexual needs of the youths, is a worrisome situation since it puts the woman or child in a lifetime of pain,” said Angkhana Neelapaijit, a prominent rights activist who is a Muslim from southern Thailand.