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Cablegate: Ramadan in Bangkok: Muslim Identity, Global Interest

VZCZCXRO2541
RR RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHBK #5459/01 2910202
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 180202Z OCT 07
FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0229
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 4273

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BANGKOK 005459

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR R, EAP/PD, EAP/MLS

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PHUM KPAO TH
SUBJECT: Ramadan in Bangkok: Muslim Identity, Global Interest

BANGKOK 00005459 001.2 OF 002


Summary
-------

1. (SBU) Embassy's Public Affairs Section (PA) sponsored five Iftar
(break-fast) events over three weekends, providing food and
presentations in Thai on Muslim Life in America at three
universities, in a poor Bangkok community, and at the Ambassador's
residence. In Buddhist-dominated Bangkok, Thai Muslims -- both
ethnic-Malay students from the deep South studying in Bangkok high
schools and universities to escape the violence, and their local
ethnic-Thai Muslim peers -- strengthened their social and religious
ties during these Ramadan break-fasts, while also learning more
about America. Post's interactions revealed interest in Muslims in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, as well as perceptions, especially
among the non-elite, that Americans are against Muslims. At every
venue, participants were surprised and touched by the Embassy's
Ramadan outreach and asked staff to return next year. End summary.

Southern High School Students in Bangkok
----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) At Islamawitiyalai high school, PA hosted an Iftar meal for
boarding students unable to return to their homes for Ramadan. PAO
explained to 400 surprised high school boys from southern and deep
southern provinces why an American official had come, noting the
American government and people's increased recognition of Islam and
our interest in strengthening relations with Muslims worldwide. The
students listened attentively as PAO, who spoke after a Thai Muslim
speaker on religious ethics, talked about Muslim life in America and
then showed IIP's illustrative slide show on the topic, narrated by
Thai PA staff.

"No American Teachers Since 9-11"
---------------------------------

3. (SBU) Students laughed and joked with one another over the
break-fast, which they ate communally in groups of four and five,
seated on the floor in traditional style. An administrator said the
RTG provided some, but not enough scholarships for these typically
poor students. He noted that they studied in Thai, which was
difficult for some of the deep South Malayu speakers, and also
received Islamic and Arabic instruction six hours per week and
English for four hours per week. PA staff detected little practical
ability in English. Several boys told PAO that they missed their
families but were happy to be in Bangkok where it was safe. When
PAO asked about foreign teachers at the school, a Thai teacher
replied they had a number of Arab and Muslim colleagues but "no
American teachers since the World Trade Center [was destroyed] in
2001." (Note: This remark reflected the perception, alluded to by
others as well, that the United States stopped assistance to Muslim
communities after September 11, 2001. End note).

Bangkok Muslims: Critical of South, U.S. Hates Them
--------------------------------------------- ------

4. (SBU) PA then brought Iftar meals to the Mitraphaap Community in
Oun Nuj, Bangkok. The people in this very poor community, all
ethnic Thai, had recently lost their school and several homes in a
major electrical fire. Teachers, parents, and young children sat on
the floor in a bare, unfurnished room. After the PAO's presentation
and IIP slide show, participants bombarded accompanying PA staff and
Entry Level Officers (ELOs) with questions like "why does George
Bush hate Muslims and think they are all terrorists?" One man,
stressing that Islam was a peaceful religion, opined that deep South
ethnic-Malay Muslims were not "real Muslims" because they engaged in
violence. Several teachers spoke about the importance of the Quran
and Islamic values and one teacher explained that most families in
the community had many children, often six to eight, because
"Muslims believe birth control is not allowed." Our hosts and all
who attended were amazed and appreciative that the Embassy had
reached out to them.

Remembering Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians
-----------------------------------------

5. (SBU) PA next hosted a break-fast at Sri Phatum University for a
coalition of Muslim university students run by local Bangkok student
leaders. This coalition had been started 11 years earlier, but the
influx of ethnic-Malay deep South students had increased its size
significantly. A student opened the evening with an impressive
Quranic recitation in Arabic, followed by three religious teachers
preaching the importance of the Ramadan fast for personal health, to
understand suffering, and to build character and community. One
said, "it may seem tough for us, but imagine how much tougher it is
to fast in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Palestine," given the turmoil in
those places. About 300 students sat at tables, with girls on one
side of the room and boys on the other. Only the Americans and
ranking religious teachers sat together at a mixed table.


BANGKOK 00005459 002 OF 002


Southerners Stick Together; U.S. Muslims "Suffering"
--------------------------------------------- -------

6. (SBU) Many of the girls wore colorful, traditional Malay Muslim
outfits with matching hijab (head covering). Their majors ranged
from political science and history to computer science and
accounting. When asked, all those from the deep South said they
wanted to return home upon graduation and one Pattani native said
most girls from the deep South stuck together more than mixing with
local Bangkok students. Several had graduated from Narathiwat's
prestigious Atarkiah Islamiya school and said their parents paid
their expenses and tuition. As we were leaving, one of the event
organizers thanked PAO profusely for sharing information about
Muslim-Americans in the United States and "showing us that they were
doing well and not suffering" as they had thought.

Judging Iraq War Coverage
-------------------------

7. (SBU) At Siam University, about 200 students from various Muslim
university clubs attended the Embassy Iftar, which included a sermon
warning students not to drink alcohol. Many were from the deep
South and had received financial support from the Ministry of
Education to study in Bangkok. A professor who served as advisor to
Siam's Thai Muslim Students Club said there are about 25,000
ethnic-Thai Muslim university students in Bangkok. The student
president of the club expressed his concern with the "sincerity" of
the American press and his sense that they were not reporting
accurately or fully on events in Iraq. "When American soldiers rape
local women, they should cover this; likewise, when U.S. soldiers
attack in Iraq, the press should explain why."

Rubbing Elbows with Bangkok's Muslim Elite
------------------------------------------

8. (SBU) The Ambassador welcomed Bangkok's elite Muslim community
and some contacts from the deep South for our second annual Iftar at
the Residence. Guests included politicians, businessmen,
journalists and others, spanning the range of professions held by
the Bangkok Muslim community. In contrast to our Iftar outreach to
students and the poor Oun Nuj community, this elite group was much
more familiar with the United States and discussed a range of Thai
political and social issues. One Bangkok born-and-raised Islamic
studies professor, when asked about his favorite part of Thailand,
said "the South, since that's where my Muslim brothers and sisters
live." (Note: Since 2004, a number of Bangkok elite Muslims have
taken on the deep South as a cause, sometimes seeing themselves as a
potential bridge between their Buddhist neighbors and ethic-Malay
co-religionists. However, this role is not generally accepted by
the ethnic Malays. End note). Another Bangkok born, ethnic-Thai
school administrator, who converted to Islam while attending
university and now lives in the South, reminisced about mutual
friends and former classmates with her Bangkok Muslim counterparts.


Comment:
--------

9. (SBU) Ramadan provided an opportunity for ethnic-Thai Muslims in
Bangkok to come together - socially, spiritually, and religiously.
With the increased violence in the deep South since 2004, more and
more ethnic-Malay Muslim students are meeting and interacting with
their ethnic-Thai Muslim counterparts at high schools and
universities. Although these students share Thai nationality and
Muslim religion, they remain culturally -- and often socially --
distinct. Nonetheless, the increased presence of ethnic- Malay
Muslims, as well as constant press coverage of southern violence,
has raised the awareness of Bangkok Muslims on the deep South.

10. (SBU) Although it is not clear how representative these Iftar
participants are of Muslims throughout Bangkok - both ethnic-Thai
and ethnic-Malay -- our outreach provided an opportunity to interact
with a sampling of students, educators, ordinary folk, and the
elite. The non-elite Muslims we met, in particular, expressed
interest in the international affairs of Muslims worldwide,
especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. They also believed
that the United States is against Muslims and that Americans see
them as terrorists - not unlike other Muslim communities worldwide
with access to global media. With these Iftars, we reached out to
Muslims personally and on their own terms and turf, speaking in Thai
and explaining American cultural and religious diversity - with a
focus on Muslim Americans - to present a different, and unexpected,
image of the United States. End comment.

BOYCE

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