YALA — Representatives from the police force and the national Islamic authority on Tuesday said they endorsed a crackdown and forced marriage arrangement on unmarried couples displaying affection in public in the southernmost province of Yala.
The crackdown is being enforced in Yala’s Yaha district under strict interpretation of the sharia law, which also threatens to punish any unchaperoned teens who interact with each other in public, raising concerns of potential civil rights violations and sectarianism.
But Police Maj. Gen. Tinakorn Rungmat, commander of Yala provincial police, said Tuesday that the rules do not amount to breaching the constitutional clause on rights and liberties, since they are local laws made by and for the local Muslim community.
“This is a social measure put in place to put teens in a certain boundary,” Tinakorn said. “For example, if you go to the borders of the country where there are some tribes, then you have to follow their manners of what to do and what not to do.”
Maj. Gen. Tinakorn said that the rule is mutually agreed-upon by four parties in Yaha district: the military, the police, local administrators, and religious leaders. Under the agreement, police would patrol the streets and bring in young couples who were seen alone together to the local mosque for religious sermons that berate their actions.
In “serious case” that involve sexual acts, the couples would be made to marry by the clerics. Police said no marriage has been arranged so far since the rule was first implemented in December 2019 – a claim questioned by a prominent human rights activist.
“It’s not like we are forcing them into marriages. It’s not what the media is imagining,” Tinakorn of Yala police force said. “The teens in the area are uncontrollable and dissipated in many ways, such as gathering for illegal purposes, taking drugs, and doing other undesirable things.”
The Sheikhul Islam Office, the national governing body of Thai Muslims, insisted that the law helps to combat “prostitution” in the community.
“In Indonesia they also have prostitution,” Sheikhul Islam Office’s deputy secretary Saki Pitakkumpol said. “It’s everyone’s job to take care of this, the family, the community, and so on. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand. We can’t blame the authorities for not doing their job. It’s the imam’s job, among others, to deal with this problem.”
“Living a life away from faith and religion is a phenomenon happening worldwide,” Saki continued. “Not only the Sheikul Islam Office, but other sectors also have to teach people about morals and pre-marital teachings.”
Which Law is Higher?
But Angkhana Neelapaijit, an activist who monitors human rights situation in the southern region, disputed the assertion by the police and local imams that there have been no forced marriages under the rule so far.
The campaigner said she has actually received multiple complaints about marital arrangements against their wills.
“Many kids have called in. A girl tried to kill herself in order to get out of a marriage to an older man,” she said by phone Tuesday. “Some people come knocking and kidnap teens to coerce them into marriage. Others escape to Bangkok.”
Angkhana first raised public attention to the harsh enforcement of sharia law in Yaha on Saturday. The former National Human Rights Commissioner said she’s especially disturbed by reports of children as young as 14 escorted by the police to the clerics for their disciplinary actions.
“Police cannot take the children anywhere. Imams are not their employees,” she said by phone on Tuesday. “Cases involving children need a social security worker or a trusted guardian present. How is it possible to bring a 13 or 14 year old to a religious leader in an all-male committee, without citing any criminal charge?”
The Child Protection Act bans police from apprehending children and transporting them to another place unrelated to the law enforcement.
“This rule assumes that children have evil intentions,” Angkhana went on. “If they are having sex in public, then police can stop them. But if two people are just together in a coffee shop, that’s not allowed?”
Under a 1946 legislation, Thailand officially recognizes the use of sharia for Muslim residents in the four border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla, but implementation of sharia law is limited to settling family and inheritance disputes in court. The law does not allow forcing marriages and punishing individuals for alleged immoral acts, Angkhana said.
End of Interfaith Dating?
Yaha is located in northern Yala, part of a region that has a deep cultural root in Islamic heritage. Yala and its neighboring provinces once belonged to Patani, an independent sultanate that was annexed by Bangkok in the early 20th century.
In the present days, the region is home to about 3.7 million Muslims, or about 30 percent of the southern population.
A violent secessionist campaign born out of religious and ethnic enmity has gripped the Deep South since 2004. And a local Buddhist monk fears the harsh sharia law being enforced in Yaha may further drive the wedge between the two peoples.
“We are concerned since we don’t know how these rules will play out, especially if they catch a Buddhist and a Muslim together,” Phra Sirijariyalangkan said by phone.
“From their perspective, this is preventing young people from doing bad things, which is good,” the monk said. “But if this rule is used with people of other religions, it will create conflict and hatred between different faiths.”
Phra Sirijariyalangkan, who also chairs a religious group called Phuttamonton Pattani Foundation, recalled the case of a Buddhist man who was “caught” dating a Muslim woman. The discovery led to people from her village mobbing his house to demand that he converts and marries the woman.
“It’s quite scary,” the monk said. “After converting to Islam, they cannot do many Buddhist rituals or events at home for their family anymore.”
The central government and provincial administrative officials have yet to make any comments on the application of sharia law in Yaha district.
Angkhana, the rights activist, said she’s been harassed on social media since she raised public attention to the situation in Yaha on Saturday. Some residents even sent her threatening messages and told her not to set foot in the district, she said, adding that many other civil rights organizations are reluctant to speak out.
“All the NGOs are quiet,” she said. “No one wants to touch this religious issue.”