Reaching the Nations

Thailand

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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ThailandGeography

Area: 513,120 square km.  One of the largest Southeast Asian nations, Thailand borders Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Burma.  Most areas are subject to a warm, tropical climate with frequent rain.  A southwest monsoon occurs from May to September whereas a northeast monsoon with drier and cooler weather occurs from November to March.  Southern Thailand always experiences a hot, humid climate.  Northern Thailand is the most mountainous whereas the middle of the country consists of low laying plains suited for agriculture.  The Khorat Plateau is northeastern Thailand’s most dominant feature.  In southern Thailand the Kra Isthmus straddles the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west.  Rivers play an important part of the economy and agriculture, the foremost being the Chao Phraya and Mekong Rivers.  Natural hazards include a falling water table around Bangkok and droughts.  Pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and poaching are environmental issues.  Thailand is divided into 76 administrative provinces.

 

Population: 65,905,410 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: Annual Growth Rate: 0.615% (July 2009)

Fertility Rate: Fertility Rate: 1.65 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 70.77, female 75.55 (2009)

 

Peoples

Thai: 75%

Chinese: 14%

Other: 11%

 

The Thai people are divided into the Central Thai, Northeastern Thai, Northern Thai, and Southern Thai subgroups.  The second largest ethnic group in Thailand is the Chinese who form 14% of the population.  Other people groups make up the remaining 11% of the population and mainly include Malay and Cambodian peoples.  There are also a small number of mountain dwelling tribes in the north such as the Hmong and Karen.  130,000 Burmese lived in refugee camps in 2007.

 

Languages: Thai dialects (74%), Northern Khmer (2%), Min Nan Chinese (1.5%), Malay (1.5%), other (21%).  Thai is the official language.  74 native languages are spoken in Thailand.  Languages with over one million speakers include Thai dialects (Northern Khmer (1.4 million), Min Nan Chinese (1.08 million), and Malay (1.0 million).

Literacy: 92.6% (2001)

 

History

Thailand, known as Siam until 1939, became a unified kingdom in the 1300s and was the only Southeast Asian nation to never come under foreign rule.  A constitutional monarchy was established in 1932.  Thailand allied with Japan in World War II and later with the United States following the war.  The military intermittently ruled until the 1990s but has since reduced its influence on government.  Civil unrest and political instability in the late 2000s threatened the integrity of the nation.  In recent years, thousands have died from violence caused by Malay separatist movements in southern Thailand. 

 

Culture 

In addition to native influences, Thai culture has been influenced by China, India and other Southeast Asian nations.  Buddhism strongly influences daily life.  Greeting others is highly regarded and based on a complex system of respect.  Rice is the most important food staple.  Media use is widespread even in less developed areas.  Alcohol consumption is comparable to industrialized Asian nations and cigarette consumption is similar to surrounding Southeast Asian nations.  Soccer is the most popular sport.  Marriage ceremonies often draw upon Buddhist practices.  Prostitution, human trafficking, and the sex industry are widespread.

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $8,400 (2008) [17.9% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.783

Corruption Index: 3.5

Thailand has a developed economic that has seen rapid growth over the past several decades.  In 2006, less than 10% of the population lived under the poverty line.  Agriculture employs 42% of the workforce and produces 12% of the GDP whereas industry employs 20% of the workforce and produces 44% of the GDP.  Services account for 38% of the workforce and 44% of the GDP.  Thailand experiences one of the lowest unemployment rates worldwide at 1.6% in 2009.  However, underemployment is high.  Primary agriculture products include rice, cassava and rubber.  Tourism, textiles and agricultural processing are the largest industries.  Tin, rubber, natural gas, and tungsten are the most common natural resources.  Primary trade partners include Japan, China, the United States, and Malaysia. 

 

Thailand serves as a center for many illegal activities in Southeast Asia, such as human trafficking, prostitution, illegal drugs distribution, and poaching. 

 

Faiths

Buddhist: 94.6%

Muslim: 4.6%

Christian: 0.7%

Other: 0.1%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic   292,000

Latter-Day Saints   15,874  39

Seventh-Day Adventists   12,821  42

Jehovah’s Witnesses   2,997  81

 

Religion

The population in Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist (94.6%).  Muslims account for the second largest religious group (4.6%) and are concentrated in the south mainly among the Malay.  There are also smaller Muslim groups such as the Cham people from Cambodia.  Some Thais are also Muslims in the south.  Christians make up only 0.7% of the population and numbered 438,600 in 2000.[1] 

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government.  There is no state religion but Buddhism receives greater favoritism and government funding.  Both registered and unregistered religious groups function without opposition from government.  Government limits the number of foreign missionaries but the quota on foreign missionaries has increased in recent years.  Many missionaries for unregistered groups proselyte freely without government interference.  Registered missionaries do have additional benefits, such as obtaining a visa of longer duration.  No laws restrict proselytism.  Religious education is required in schools.  Laws restrict freedom of speech as it is illegal to insult Buddhism.[2] 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 33%

 

Bangkok, Samut Prakan, Nonthaburi, Udon Thani, Chon Buri, Nakhon Ratchasima, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Pakkret, Phra Pradaeng, Si Racha, Lampang, Khon Kaen, Thanyaburi, Surat Thani, Nakhon si Thammarat, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Pathom, Rayong, Khlong Luang, Phitsanulok.

Cities in bold have no LDS congregation.  12 of the 21 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have a congregation.  14% of the national population lives in the 21 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

The first missionaries to serve in Thailand arrived in 1854.  Elder Elam Luddington served by himself for four month during which he was able to baptize the captain of a ship along with his wife.  Informal Church meetings were held periodically in the 1950s and early 1960s until an English branch was organized in 1961.  Elder Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated Thailand for missionary work in November 1966.[3]  Missionary work was restarted in Thailand in 1968 when six missionaries were sent to the country from the Southern Far East Mission which covered Hong Kong, Taiwan and most southeastern Asia.  Thailand was included in the Singapore Mission (then referred to as the Southeast Asia Mission) when it was created the following year.  The first missionaries called to Thailand began to learn the Thai language in the Language Training Mission in Laie, Hawaii.  Thailand was organized into its own mission, the Thailand Bangkok Mission, on August 1st, 1973.  The country’s first meetinghouse was built and dedicated the following year.  The Thai translation of the Book of Mormon was completed in the mid-1970s. 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 15,874 (2008)

By 1976 there were 779 members, increasing to 2,800 by 1988.  Membership steadily grew to 3,600 in 1990 to 5,300 in 1994.  At year-end 1999 there were 10,808 members.  Membership reached 12,338 in 2001, 13,887 in 2004, and 15,108 in 2006.  Membership growth rates steadily fell during the 2000s from a high of 8.2% in 2001 to

a low of 2.3% in 2007.  Growth rates typically ranged from two to five percent.

 

Most members live in and around Bangkok or in the northeast.  In 2007, 875 of Thailand’s 15,000 members lived within the Chiang Mai Thailand District’s boundaries.[4]  Thailand is the country with the second most members with only one stake and the country with the ninth largest membership without a temple. 

 

Congregational Growth

Wards: 7 Branches: 31 Groups: 5

The Thailand District was organized in 1966.[5]  By 1975, there were four districts and nine branches.[6]  Many of the cities outside of Bangkok such as Chiang Mai and Ubon were opened to missionary work in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The Chiang Mai Thailand District was created in 1979.  By 1988 there were 17 branches in Thailand and 2,800 members of the Church.  More districts were created in Khon Kaen in 1989 and Ubon in 1991.  In late 1989, a goal was set to have the first stake created in Thailand in Bangkok within five years.  The number of branches increased from 16 to 23 between 1990 and 1994.

 

In June 1995, the first stake in Thailand was created in Bangkok.  The Bangkok Thailand Stake was created from the Bangkok Thailand District and consisted of the Asoke, Bangkapi, Bangkhen, Bangnaa, and Thonburi Wards and the Bangkok (English), Chonburi, and Lopburi Branches.  Another district was created in Thailand the following month in Udorn.  The Pakkret Thailand District was created in 1999 and is the most recently created.  At year-end 1999 there were five wards and 24 branches.

 

Between 2000 and 2009 the number of congregations increased from 28 to 39, most of which were branches.  Most branches were created in the Bangkok area and in the northeast.  Just across the river from Laos in northeastern Thailand, Nong Khai was reopened to missionary work around 2005.  One of the branches in the Bangkok Thailand Stake became a ward in 2001.  In 2007, the English-speaking branch became a ward.  There were seven wards and six branches in the stake in 2009.  A group meets in southern Thailand in Phuket only for sacrament meetings.

 

Activity and Retention

Active membership likely constitutes 17% to 20% of total membership.  Inactivity problems occur in all areas the Church is established, but appear most severe in Bangkok and the northeast. A large portion of the converts during the years of the most rapid membership growth between 1995 and 2005 were not retained.  The average number of members per congregation increased during this time from 242 to 396 and in 2008 reached 407.  Branches typically have 50 to 100 active members whereas most wards likely have around 100 active members.  The Nong Khai Branch was one of the smaller branches and had around 40 attending meetings on Sundays in early 2010.  President Hinckley spoke to around 2,000 people in 2000.  In 2006, sacrament attendance was approximately 3,000.[7]  964 were enrolled in seminary or institute during the 2007-2008 school year, or 6.1% of total membership.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Thai, Khmer, Chinese

All LDS scripture are available in Thai, Khmer, and Chinese.  A large number of unit, temple, leadership, priesthood, Relief Society, Sunday School, teaching, young women, primary, missionary, audio/visual, family history, and institute manuals are available in Thai and Chinese.  A fewer number of these materials are available in Khmer.  Both Thai and Chinese have 12 issues a year of the Liahona whereas Khmer has six.  Only Gospel Principles Simplified and The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony are translated into Malay. 

 

Meetinghouses

In early 2010, congregations met in 19 meetinghouses owned by the Church and 18 rented buildings.  At this time construction began on what is to be the largest chapel constructed by the Church in Thailand to serve as the headquarters for the Pakkret Thailand District.[8] 

 

Health and Safety

The percentage of those infected with HIV/AIDS is the highest in Asia at 1.4%.  In Thailand, the spread of the disease has been propagated by illicit sexual relations and drug use.  Other methods of infection include contaminated needles and HIV-positive mothers.  Methamphetamine use has rapidly increased despite government opposition. 

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

20 missionaries trained English teachers from 429 Bangkok-area schools how to more effectively teach the English language in 1997.[9]   In 2000, youth from the Bangkok Thailand Stake gathered toys, clothing and other needed items for children in a needy neighborhood.[10]  In 2001, humanitarian service missionaries worked on nearly two dozen projects aimed at reducing malnutrition among children.  The missionaries helped schools become self-sufficient in feeding their students by planting gardens with nutritious foods.[11]  Immediately following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Church donated food, water and body bags to southern Thailand.[12]  Local members in Bangkok assembled aid relief to those affected.[13]  30 missionaries served as translators for stranded tourists following the tsunami.[14]  LDS Charities donated 100 wheelchairs in 2010.[15] 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church faces few legal challenges that restrict its activities in Thailand.  Missionaries from outside the country have served regularly with few restrictions. 

 

Cultural Issues

As missionaries were trained primarily to to teach those with a Christian background, early missionaries found little success as few Thais have a Christian background.  Much of the early success was reported among the small Christian population.  Buddhist families often oppose family members who desire to join the Church.  Unlike many countries where non-Christian faiths predominate, Thailand has overall demonstrated tolerance and cooperation with Christian groups.The rise in drug trafficking and the sex industry challenges the Church’s growth and influence in areas where these activities are prominent. 

 

National Outreach

The Church has operated inside Thailand continuously since the late 1960s yet membership (both numerical and active) is very small compared to national population.  With the exception of the Phuket Group, the Church has no presence in any of the cities or 15 provinces south of Bangkok.  Of the 76 administrative provinces, around 25 have a LDS congregation.  Areas with the highest population density unreached by the Church include southern Thailand, coastal areas between Bangkok and Cambodia, and provinces between Bangkok and Phitsanulok. 

 

Almost all mission outreach occurs in urban areas, which account for a third of the national population, yet slightly more than half of cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have no congregation.  Rural areas and smaller cities and towns are unlikely to be reached by full-time missionaries until additional large cities are assigned missionaries.  Cottage meetings may be instrumental in not only introducing the Church to larger cities without a congregation with only a few members but also to small communities on the outskirts of cities with established congregations. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Problems with member activity have been apparent since the Church's early history in Thailand.  However these issues appear to have worsened during the years of the most rapid membership growth.  Low convert retention likely occurred from missionaries rushing investigators into baptism prior to developing a habit of weekly Church attendance.    

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The Church’s establishment in areas with a large Thai majority has resulted in few ethnic integration problems.  The English and Khmer-speaking congregations were organized to address differing language needs of members.  The Church may experience challenges in southern Thailand with Malay and Thai ethnic tensions, although to date little proselytism has occurred in predominately Muslim Malay regions, as in neighboring Malaysia.

 

Language Issues

The widespread use of the Thai language and high literacy simplifies the Church’s mission outreach.  A wide range of ecclesiastical materials are available for distribution resulting in 75% of the population able to obtain literature or scriptures in their native language.  The Church has also recently begun greater outreach among the Khmer minority as indicated by the organization of a Khmer-speaking branch in Bangkok in the mid-2000s.

 

The hill tribes use languages with few speakers and reside in remote locations.  These communities will continue to be lesser reached or unreached until members join the Church in cities with congregations and take the gospel message to their homes.  Additional language materials in for languages spoken by less than one million speakers appear unlikely for the foreseeable future.

 

Leadership

Thailand is one of two countries in Southeast Asia with a stake.  Furthermore the first stake in Thailand was created when Church membership was approximately 6,000.  Other Southeast Asian nations, like Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia, had more members in 2010 yet did not have stakes organized.  Missionaries reported that the Bangkok Thailand Stake has faced challenges developing local leadership, especially for those who do not also work for the Church.  When the Bangkok Thailand Stake was first organized, both counselors in the stake presidency were Church employees.  In 2001, the stake presidency was reorganized and the stake president of the Bangkok Thailand Stake and his first counselor were both Church employees.[16]  Local Church leaders who have also worked for the Church have performed maintenance, meetinghouse logistics, and translator services.  Limited leadership appears a major problem in Thailand’s five districts which has prevented them from becoming stakes.  Few Thai members also serve missions and so there are few returned missionaries which the Church can draw upon for leadership.

 

Temple

Thailand belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple district.  In late 1989, 99% of Thai members of the Church had not been to the temple.  President Eldredge of the mission encouraged members to attend the temple despite challenges.  The following year a temple trip was organized in the Manila Philippines Temple where over 200 Thai members went through the temple for the first time.[17]  Temple trips occur periodically but many members are unable to attend due to distance, time, and money constraints.  The Church purchased a building in a visible, easily-reached area of Bangkok which some speculate will be the site of a future temple.  However, low member activity will likely deter the construction of a temple for many years.

 

Comparative Growth

No other country in Southeast Asia has as many congregations or members as Thailand, and few nations have had as long as a Church presence in the region.  The nation with the second largest Church membership was Cambodia with around 8,400 members meeting in 22 congregations in 2008.  The only other nation in the region with a stake is Singapore.  The Church has accomplished meaningful progress in Thailand despite the nation having the smallest percentage of Christians in Southeast Asia.  Membership growth rates in Thailand have been lower than most nations in the region, but higher than in Indonesia.  Activity rates are comparable to most Southeast Asian nations with a public Church presence. 

 

Christians in Thailand make up a tiny minority estimated at less than one percent.  Other Christian churches with a strong emphasis on proselytizing have seen slow, limited growth.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church reported 12,219 members in 42 churches in 2008, with little growth in membership and churches for the past decade.  Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed about 2,800 active members in 2008 and experienced little growth. 

 

Future Prospects

The Church in Thailand has moderate prospects for intermediate-term growth.  However, the large increase in nominal membership without commensurate increase in active, participating members and low rates of missionary service pose significant challenges for long-term growth.  The implementation of missionary programs developed in predominately Western Christian areas in non-Christian cultures and a rush to baptize inadequately prepared investigators who have not demonstrated sufficient personal understanding and life implementation of gospel teachings are major causes of high convert attrition in Thailand. Convert retention rates have experienced little improvement since the adoption of the Preach My Gospel program in 2004 as these key challenges remain largely unresolved. More consistent implementation of higher standards for baptism will be necessary if activity is ever to become the norm rather than the exception among Thai converts.  Additional research, adaptations and resources are needed to better convey the relevance and meaning of gospel teachings to the background and understanding of Buddhists and other non-Christians. 

 

The largest chapel built by the Church in Thailand will serve as the stake center for the Pakkret Thailand District once branches in the district become strong enough to become wards.[18]  Some congregations may be taken from the Bangkok Stake to create a second stake in the metropolitan area.  A stake may be created in northeastern Thailand once member activity and leadership are more developed.  Additional cities may open for missionary work, particularly nearby Bangkok, along coastal areas between Bangkok and Cambodia, and provincial capitals without current congregations.  Due to Thailand’s geographic size and large population, a second mission may be organized in coming years to provide greater national outreach and support to other regions of the country. 

 



[1] “Thailand,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, retrieved 15 March 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127289.htm

[2] “Thailand,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, retrieved 15 March 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127289.htm

[3] “Thailand,” Country Profiles, retrieved 13 March 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/thailand

[4] Stahle, Shaun. “Few, but faithful,” LDS Church News, 22 September 2007. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/51061/Few-but-faithful.html

[5] “Thailand,” Country Profiles, retrieved 13 March 2010.  http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/thailand

[6]  “The Church in Thailand,” Friend, Apr 1975, 42

[7]  “Thailand anniversary,” LDS Church News, 11 November 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/49749/Thailand-anniversary.html

[8]   Hardy, Annette.  “Construction begins on largest Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Thailand,” LDS Church News, 2 February 2010.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58684/Construction-begins-on-largest-Latter-day-Saint-meetinghouse-in-Thailand.html

[9] “Missionaries assist English teachers in Bangkok,” LDS Church News, 26 July 1997.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/29004/Missionaries-assist-English-teachers-in-Bangkok.html

[10] “Member youth in Bangkok provide truckload of goods,” LDS Church News, 21 October 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38753/Member-youth-in-Bangkok-provide-truckload-of-goods.html

[11] Peacock, Bryon.  “Humanitarian project helps alleviate hunger,” LDS Church News, 24 February 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39399/Humanitarian-project-helps-alleviate-hunger.html

[12] Swensen, Jason.  “Tsunami disaster: More than 100,000 dead,” LDS Church News, 1 January 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/46682/Tsunami-disaster-More-than-100000-dead.html

[13] Weaver, Sarah Jane.  “Emergency response is appropriate, immediate,” LDS Church News, 15 January 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/46735/Emergency-response-is-appropriate-immediate.html

[14]  Weaver, Sarah Jane.  “Help in devastation,” LDS Church News, 8 January 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/46697/Help-in-devastation.html

[15]  Hardy, Annette and Keith.  “Thailand: Wheelchairs are presented to 100 individuals,” LDS Church News, 10 February 2010.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58774/Thailand-Wheelchairs-are-presented-to-100-individuals.html

[16] “New stake presidents,” LDS Church News, 28 July 2001.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/40250/New-stake-presidencies.html

[17] “Work, sacrifice bring 201 Thais to Manila Temple,” LDS Church News, 11 August 1990.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/20566/Work-sacrifice-bring-201-Thais-to-Manila-Temple.html

[18] Hardy, Annette.  "Construction begins on largest Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Thailand," LDS Church News, 2 February 2010.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58684/Construction-begins-on-largest-Latter-day-Saint-meetinghouse-in-Thailand.html