PATTANI, Thailand – A shared passion for football is uniting Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand, amid hopes of bringing an end to a decades-long conflict in the restive south.
"We are not divided, whether Muslim, Buddhist or Christian," Samae Samak, a young Muslim, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Sunday, May 20.
“We are all friends.”
Capitalizing on the country’s obsession with football, second only to Thai boxing, a football game was organized between Buddhists and Muslims.
Dividing Buddhists and Muslims into two teams, the game was held between Pattani FC football club and Narathiwat FC team at the Rainbow stadium in Pattani, in Thailand's troubled south.
Pattani is in the heart of an area riven by a raging insurgency that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2004 in near-daily bomb or gun attacks against both Buddhists and Muslims.
Despite the violence off the pitch, what matters for Pattani's players was to score goals.
"In Pattani, no matter how far away people live or if there have been incidents, they come to watch football matches," said Pitsarok Rujakat, a Buddhist player, originally from the north of the country.
Thailand has a Muslim population of about 9.5 million, many of whom live in rural areas.
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of discrimination under the heavy-handed practices by the military.
They have also called for Malay to become an official language and to replace the Buddhist-centric school curriculum with one less hostile to Muslim sensitivities.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost eight years ago.
DivideThe game idea came after the government failed to find a path out of the chaos.
"The main problem is martial law and the massive army presence," said Huda Longdewaa, president of the Southern Association of Women for Peace.
The prime minister "talked about sending more troops, but this can't solve anything."
Previous Thai governments have tried "hearts and minds" campaigns to tackle the unrest, but nothing has worked.
The International Crisis Group had urged the military-installed government to start preparing the Buddhist majority to accept a negotiated autonomy for the Muslim-majority south.
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.
Several campaigns have been launched to seek a solution to the south conflict.
A month ago, Thai army soldiers started to visit a mosque in the village of Bangma in Pattani every week to discuss about the conflict with its imams and learn the basics of Islam and local language.
"They do not know much" about Islam, said the Imam Kono Samae."They come to study local traditions and are trying to understand them."
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