Islam in Indonesia Compared with Buddhism in Thailand (2013)


In the mid-nineteenth century, Siam was culturally and politically challenged by the West.  (Choy 1983, p. 67) Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn responded positively and modernised the country. (Choy 1983, p. 68) “During this critical period of transformation, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn were successful in activating the ‘inner dynamism’ of the Buddhist cult for the accomplishment of their goal. Their success owed much to the unique characteristics of Siamese Buddhism as well as the traditional culture of Thailand.” (Choy 1983, p. 68)


Today, Buddhism is the primary and state religion of Thailand. (Hello Siam, 2002) Thai constitutions have stipulated that the king must be a Buddhist, but kings have been invariably titled “Upholder of All Religions”. (Hello Siam, 2002) Through the religious affairs department, the government annually allocated funds to finance religious education and to construct, restore and maintain churches, mosques and monasteries. (Hello Siam, 2002) Some Thai public schools are still located in Buddhist temple compounds. (Barber, 1998)


A Westerner who was ordained as a Buddhist monk believes that television and education are undermining the moral teachings of Buddhism. (Barber, 1998) He says that children are now not interested in investing in future happiness by making merit, they want to invest in gratification. (Barber, 1998) A general decline in religiosity is believed to have had similar effects in the West. In the United States of America, television has also been widely implicated in promoting consumer culture and materialism. (Burroughs, Shrum and Rindfleisch 2002, p. 442)


It is estimated that the number of Buddhist monks in Thailand has fallen by more than half in the last thirty years. (PBS, 2013) A rickshaw driver who spent over a year as a monk does not believe every young man should be a monk (as is customary), because “some care more about shopping”. (PBS, 2013) In the past, boys were sent to become monks at the temple in order to be educated for free. (PBS, 2013) Thailand now offers 12 years of public education for free and consequently far more are attending secular schools. (PBS, 2013)


Monks have been exposed through social media, having been caught driving expensive cars, drinking and engaging in other activities prohibited or at least frowned upon for monks. (PBS, 2013) These scandals have contributed to the diminishing numbers of monks in Thailand. (PBS, 2013) According to Dr. Justin McDaniel, a former Buddhist monk in Thailand:


“It has a big impact in the press. I think it also has a big impact that if somebody was on the fence about being a monk or nun, that this is kind of relatively a legitimate excuse you could give to your mom for not doing it: well, look at the way monks act.” (PBS, 2013)


Dr. McDaniel is skeptical that there really is a crisis and argues that Thai Buddhism itself is not in decline. (PBS, 2013) The size of the Thai population combined with its antiquity in the region should ensure its survival, as the religion enjoys constitutional protection in Thailand and only a devout small percentage of its huge population would be needed to maintain the tradition.


Some Indonesian Islamic organisations have experienced significant changes in their theological makeup: they have moved away from revivalist and fundamentalist Islam to one that supports the compatibility between Islam and religious pluralism, democracy and modern concepts of human rights. (Arifianto 2012, p. 2-3) They have embraced progressive theology that synthesises local beliefs and customs with classical Islamic teachings. (Arifianto 2012, p. 2-3)


Dr. Alexander Arifianto believes this is because of what he calls “moral authority leaders”, people responsible for initiating and encouraging theologically and politically progressive versions of Islam. (Arifianto 2012, p. 4-5)


During their colonial administration of Indonesia, the Dutch in 1905 conducted the first transmigration project (then known as colonisation or kolonisatie) in an effort to reduce the populations of the overcrowded islands of Bali, Java, Madura and Lombok. (Fearnside 1997, p. 553) Java was historically the most important island of the archipelago that contains Indonesia and this was held to be true as late as 1954. (Palmier, 1954)


Over 27000 people were moved between 1905 and 1931. (Fearnside 1997, p. 553) It has been a cause of significant forest loss because the transmigrants were moved to largely forested outer islands, which has had high environmental, financial and social costs. (Fearnside 1997, p. 553) Transmigration was considered costly and ineffective at reducing the population of the island of Java and the project was abandoned in 1928. (Fearnside 1997, p. 554) In 1929, the onset of the Great Depression precipitated plantation owners in the provinces of Lampung and South Sumatra to dismiss thousands of workers. (Fearnside 1997, p. 554) Other industries on the island of Java faced similar problems and had to do the same. (Fearnside 1997, p. 554) To relieve the resulting social pressures, transmigration was resumed on a much larger scale. (Fearnside 1997, p. 554)


The Minister of Transmigration has explicitly linked transmigration to the national ideology. (Farhadian 2005, p. 60) Only Muslims are allowed to transmigrate to West Papua, causing some Christians to falsify their identity cards. (Farhadian 2005, p. 60) Transmigrants are typically landless Muslim Javanese peasants. (Farhadian 2005, p. 60) Christian missionaries evangelised at transmigration camps, causing many conversions from Islam to Christianity. (Farhadian 2005, p. 78-79)


The arrival of Islam in Indonesia only just preceded the establishment of European power in the region. (Palmier, 1954) Indonesian aristocrats did not have sufficient time to change their way of life, causing Indonesia to remain primarily Hindu-Javanese. (Palmier, 1954) The common people followed their overlords and remained faithful to Javanese Hinduism. (Palmier, 1954)


The Portuguese seized central ports strategically and closed them to create a market monopoly. (Kimura, 2001) The Indian Muslim traders then moved onto smaller and lesser-known ports throughout the islands, bringing Islam with them. (Kimura, 2001)


Islam has become a unifying social force against the enemy and a symbol of resistance. (Kimura, 2001) To many of its followers, Islam held political undertones even in its infancy in the region. (Kimura, 2001) The United States’ perceived unfair economic relations and rhetoric of war have aggravated Indonesian Muslims, an increasing number of whom have become more violent in their views. (Kimura, 2001)


Indonesia has a history of social and political instability. (Kimura, 2001) President Suharto’s turn to militant Islam led to chaos: churches were defaced and burnt and literal lynch mobs killed those accused of anti-Islamic tendencies. (Kimura, 2001) Even since Suharto’s fall, these trends have persisted. (Kimura, 2001) Ethnic conflict has intensified in a number of areas, including Irian Jaya, Ambon and Aceh. (Kimura, 2001) Some believe that these militant elements promote destabilisation in order to justify the role of nationalist and military forces. (Kimura, 2001)


Both Suharto and Sukarno subordinated Islam to Javanese culture, which is a source of resentment for many Indonesians. (Kimura, 2001) Even mainstream Islam could be considered politically radical in Indonesia. (Kimura, 2001) Politics in Indonesia has been intertwined with Islam for a long time and there is no sign of that changing. Earlier this year, the Minister of Religious Affairs allegedly supported the forced conversion of Shia Muslims to Sunni Islam in a reconciliation programme the government claimed was meant to end the conflict between the two denominations in Madura, East Java. (Shiite News, 2013) Although Indonesian politics is supposed to be secular, politicians do not shy away from invoking Islamic principals in their rhetoric.


The increase in the number of adherents of mainstream Islam can be attributed to Indonesia’s democratic struggle after a long period of overt political oppression. (Kimura, 2001) The rise of militant Islam is a result of Suharto’s policy shift towards conservative Muslims late in his administration to shore up political power. (Kimura, 2001) Now in place, these forces have taken on a life of their own: despite Suharto’s downfall, their activities have received support explicitly and implicitly from conservative and loyalist factions in the elite. (Kimura, 2001)


Historically, Islam in Indonesia has accommodated other beliefs. (Mydans, 2007) According to an academic at an Islamic university in Indonesia, “of course there is growing conservatism, but not in terms of becoming more radical”. (Mydans, 2007) Militant Islam has found little support among Indonesians and is unlikely to be a strong force in directing the country’s future. (Mydans, 2007)




Arifianto, A., 2012. Faith, Moral Authority, and Politics: The Making of Progressive Islam and Indonesia. [online] Miami, Florida: University of Miami. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 August 2013].

Barber, B., 1998. Merit and magic: Buddhism faces modernity in Thailand, World and I, [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 10 August 2013].

Burroughs, J. E., Shrum, L. J. and Rindfleisch, A., 2002. Does Television Viewing Promote Materialism? Cultivating American Perceptions of the Good Life. Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 29. Abstract only. [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 15 August 2013].

Choy, C.-K., 1983. The role of Buddhism in Thailand’s politics of modernisation. MA. University of Hong Kong. Available at: <> [Accessed 10 August 2013].

Farhadian, C. E., 2005. Christianity, Islam and Nationalism in Indonesia. New York: Routledge.

Fearnside, P. M., 1997. Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its environmental and social impacts, Environmental Management, [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 15 August 2013].

Hello Siam, 2002. Religion in Thailand. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 August 2013].

Kimura, E., 2001. Indonesia and Islam: Before and After 9/11, Peacework Magazine, [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 19 August 2013].

Mydans, S., 2007. Religiosity, Not Radicalism Is New Wave in Indonesia. The New York Times, [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 August 2013].

Palmier, L. H., 1954. Modern Islam in Indonesia: The Muhammadiyah After Independence. Pacific Affairs, 27(3). Abstract only. [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 5 August 2013].

PBS, 2013. Decline of Buddhism in Thailand. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 August 2013].

Shiite News, 2013. Indonesia: Minister ‘backs forced conversion of Shia followers to Sunni Islam’. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 August 2013].