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Thai Muslims seek legal fight against Buddhist extremism

Hate speech, computer crime lawsuits aim to slow social media campaigns

Abby Seiff, Bangkok

Abby Seiff, Bangkok

Published: June 01, 2016 09:17 AM GMT
Thai Muslims seek legal fight against Buddhist extremism

This picture taken on March 19, shows Buddhist monks arriving at a mosque before a meeting for interreligious exchange and understanding in order to reduce conflict in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat. A Thai Muslim group has filed a hate speech lawsuit to combat online scaremongering by a Buddhist group. (Photo by AFP)

A group of Thai Muslims has filed a court complaint against administrators of a Buddhist Facebook page, in the latest case of hate-speech lawsuits related to an online scare mongering.  

Local media reported that an activist group called Muslims Love Peace filed suit after a social media post was circulated by the Facebook group, Wake Up Buddhists, claiming Muslims had wormed their way into the Ministry of Education and "forced Buddhist students to learn about Islam in their schools," according to news agency Khaosod.

Religious attacks on social media have ramped up in recent months, with Facebook pages and online forum threads dedicated to anti-Muslim propaganda rapidly proliferating. 

Sayan Sukchan, a Muslim attorney, has encouraged Thai Muslims to resist getting into social media fights and instead combat divisive rhetoric through legal avenues. He filed a hate speech lawsuit in February and has urged his fellow Muslims to follow his lead.

"My role is to have a dialogue," he told ucanews.com in an interview. "Even if the court doesn't want to touch the case, it shows people what he's doing is illegal. It sends a message to people who follow the extremists that it’s wrong."

One of the people who Sukchan has attempted to dialogue with is the target in his hate speech suit: Phra Apichart, a preacher at Bangkok’s Wat Benchamabophit. The Thai monk sparked controversy last year when he urged his Facebook followers to burn one mosque for every Buddhist monk killed in the ongoing violence in the Deep South, where a 12-year insurgency has seen nearly 6,500 people killed (including two dozen monks). While many in Thailand have condemned such rhetoric, thousands of his social media followers have applauded him and suggested an eagerness to carry out such acts. 

And while Apichart’s plans are extreme, he is hardly the only Buddhist leader to express such viewpoints. Ponchai Pinyapong who heads the World Association of Buddhist Leaders, told ucanews.com that one of the primary threats facing Buddhism in Thailand was an "invasion" by other religions.

"Majority is Islam," he clarified in a second email.

Sukchan has been leading an educational crusade of sorts in the hopes of countering such narratives.

"I tried to communicate with him [Phra Apichart] online and on Facebook, I tried to send him a message … I went to the temple and met the abbot. He said he didn’t agree with the sentiment but it was a personal matter. The monks there were very friendly," said Sukchan.

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"I'm campaigning for people not to respond ... If you respond, it fans flames."

Sukchan also has tried speaking with Committee to Promote Buddhism as a State Religion Chairman Banjob Bannaruji, who in his failed push to see the religion enshrined in Thailand’s proposed new constitution has publicly aired a number of propagandist misconceptions — such as the claim that taxpayers' money is being used to fund mosques.

"Banjob is saying this from misunderstanding … you have to look at the intention."

Pramote Samadi, a community leader and director of the White Channel, a Thai Muslim broadcaster, has been carrying out a number of peace events with Buddhist monks to counter the online vitriol.

"If you look at the historical aspect, there are always extremists … it's a normal reaction, even in the Islamic world. You lose identity, you feel safe, you feel threatened, this is always the case," he said. "We just try and show we can live in peace."

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