Chinese Muslim Identities in Northern Thailand


A review of The Transformation of Chinese Muslim Identities in Northern Thailand, by Suchart Setthamalinee.

Suchart Setthamalinee charts a fresh, critical approach to understanding how Chinese Muslim identity in northern Thailand has evolved and transformed over the past century through three distinct periods: pre-1940, when Chinese Muslims identified primarily with the work that they did as local merchants; the period 1940-90, when many Chinese Muslims managed to become part of the emergent Thai-Muslim middle class due to positive economic opportunities; and post-1991, when the group diverged into three transnationally affiliated groups (namely, Hanafi Muslims oriented towards China, Tabligh Jamaat Muslims oriented towards India, and Salafi-Wahabi Muslims oriented towards Saudi Arabia).

Primarily, the author seeks to respond to an earlier generation of scholarship exemplified by Suthep Soonthornpasuch’s 1977 dissertation that also focused on Chinese Muslim identity in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Suchart rightly laments the fact that so little scholarship on Islam in Thailand has been done on populations in the north of the country, with the vast majority of such studies focusing on the ethnic Malay Muslim south — a region with a very different identity, historical trajectory, and cultural milieu. [Note: see Suthep Soonthornpasuch, “Islamic Identity in Chiengmai City: A Historical and Structural Comparison of Two Communities.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1977.] The author then frames his work with three questions: 1) How has Chinese Muslim identity changed over time and due to what conditions? 2) How has the supposed homogeneity of the Chinese Muslim identity diverged into new groups separated by particular boundaries? 3) How have global forces shaped Chinese Muslim identities, not least via new media technologies?

The dissertation is separated into four core chapters and a conclusion. Chapter 2 outlines the theoretical framework. The author points primarily to Stuart Hall, the post-Gramscian cultural theorist who argues that people are cultural producers and consumers simultaneously and that the relationships they forge with each other through this process produces ethnic identity and the commonly held, though constantly contested cultural boundaries that define it. The author then uses this as a baseline for critiquing earlier theories of primordialism and constructivism, while offering various recent theories on globalization as crucial for understanding the identities of Chinese Muslims in northern Thailand.

In Chapter 3, Suchart outlines the methodology and data collection of the study. The primary means for acquiring knowledge that the author employs is ethnographic research, driven by innovative methodological theories. First of all, the author adopts a multi-sight approach to take into account the “complexity of Chinese Muslim identities influenced by both the national and the transnational level (p. 47).” While spending a number of months of 2007 in northern Thailand, the author integrated himself into the day-to-day and annual practices of the Muslim community, including prayers, fasting, the two Eids, scholarly lectures, various religious festivals, and other events. The author has also conducted semi-structured interviews with eighteen individuals with both first- and second-generation Chinese Muslims. Thirdly, he organized two focus-group discussions with twenty-four total participants who met for two-hour sessions to discuss openly issues of their identity. In addition, Suchart also conducted interviews with ulama and other religious leaders involved in mosques and education in the region. Next, the author conducted a survey of 227 Chinese Muslims, asking for information on their relationships with relatives still in China, as well as their own religious and ethnic identity vis-à-vis other Muslims and non-Muslims. And finally, the author investigates the influence of computers and the internet and their effect upon identities by exploring the most visited websites and discussing their impact with individuals from the Chinese Muslim community.

In Chapter 4, Suchart briefly outlines the historical and social background of the Chinese Muslim communities in China (Hui), Burma (Panthay), and Thailand (Haw) and how the varied socio-political settings have shaped each of the divergent migrant communities. The author then interweaves secondary historical writing, oral traditions, and demographic data to illustrate the origins and differing conditions of the various groups. From these comparative examples, the author then shifts to a discussion of Chinese Muslims within broader Thai-Muslim society including Muslim Siamese, Cham, West Asian, South Asian, Indonesian, and Malay peoples.

In Chapter 5, the author presents us with the heart of his work. The chapter itself comprises nearly half of the overall work and is divided into a number of sections where the author discusses his ethnographic findings on a number of levels outlined above. First, he establishes a chronology and periodization for understanding the most transformational influences upon identity of the community, structuring it primarily along Thai political lines, in the case of the post-1939 shift towards assimilationist policies, and along economic lines in reference to the growth of the middle class in the same period. Then, he outlines key elements of Muslim identity along religious, educational, and ethical lines and how these related to the community and broader non-Muslim Thai society operating under the pressures of the official assimilation policy. Having already indulged the reader in the diversity of the community in the middle period (1940-90), the author then turns to very recent or contemporary transitions brought on by globalizing forces such as new technology and the internet. The author adeptly notes that the post-1990 period is still one marked by generational differences—that younger members of the community and second generation migrants have greater access to new media and that they are far more likely to be counted among Tabligh Jamaat and Salafi-Wahabi groups. After discussing each group at length, Suchart returns to the intricate problem of identifying an ethnicity within a community so fraught with internal division, contested cultural discourse, and conflict. Nevertheless, he argues that in the face of perceived external threats or pressures, the community has developed some measure of unity, if ever a disputed one.

Suchart’s work is an important contribution to what one hopes is the emergence of a body of scholarship on Chinese Muslims in Thailand that will no doubt inform our discussions of broader historiographical trends in Southeast Asia and beyond. He has provided us with a focused study of a region and people that have often remained invisible in scholarly debates. But more than just filling a gap in existing knowledge, Suchart has drawn important connections between local, national, and global forces in shaping a diverse and contested ethnic group—one that will continue to change and evolve. In many ways, the author illustrates something of a broader phenomenon—the movement of ideas, ideologies, beliefs, and cultural practices that have become so mobile in recent decades. Once published, this work has the potential to contribute to these broader discussions as the author can further draw out both the unique local dynamics as well as their contributions back to these globalized identities—going beyond Chinese Muslims as consumers of global trends, but also as producers in the global cultural marketplace.

Francis R. Bradley
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute

Primary Sources

This work is primarily based upon ethnographic research conducted in northern Thailand, broken into five different categories:

– Personal participation in numerous community events including ritual prayer, fasting during Ramadan, the two Eids, scholarly lectures, and other religious or cultural events.
– Semi-structured interviews of eighteen individuals from first- and second-generation Chinese Muslims living in the region.
– Two focus group discussions of twelve individuals in each session, designed to open a dialogue on issues of identity within the community.
– Interviews with ulama and other religious and educational leaders.
– Survey of 227 Chinese Muslims on their views of family, origins, and other issues related to identity.
– An assessment of access to computers and internet within the community, the religiously-affiliated websites most commonly visited, and the impact of new media upon the construction of identities within the community.

Dissertation Information

University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. 2010. 151 pp. Primary Advisor: Sun-Ki Chai.


Image: “Baan Haw Mosque, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand” by Iceway12, Wikimedia Commons.