As the religion finds it harder to compete in today’s world, its becoming more hardline and seeks greater state power.
The Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) has finally confirmed that it will not recognise Buddhism as Thailand’s official religion. The decision brought relief to many and anger to others.
The rejection proved that, no matter how radical and conservative the CDC has been, it is still neutral in the relationship between the state and religion (as its predecessors were in 1997, 2007, and 2014). The committee realises the possible danger of alienation and sectarian disunity, and, once again, withstood pressure from Buddhist fundamentalists and to escape further controversy.
However, with each new drafting of the constitution, the call for Buddhism as Thailand’s official religion has grown louder, and the CDC’s chances of escape are getting slimmer.
The movement has played the nationalism card, citing the historical and cultural contribution of Buddhism to ‘Thainess’. It’s an effective tactic. Debates about Buddhism as a national religion have very quickly turned sensational and emotional. Even when the CDC countered this demand by referring to the King’s speech discouraging the idea, extremists were able to find another where Bhumipol admitted that Buddhism was Thailand’s official religion.
After learning that the CDC have rejected their demand, several Buddhists are campaigning to vote against the draft in the coming referendum. This is bad news for the junta as it jeopardises the government’s dwindling support.
For many Thais, the recognition of Buddhism as Thailand’s official religion would be a crucial element of making a good constitution. Buddhist morals would help the country out of the ongoing political turmoil, which they have simplified into a crisis caused by a lack of ethical politicians. With official status, the state would be obliged to promote Buddhism. Monks and followers agree that Buddhism must receive better safeguards, subsidies, and prominence in Thailand’s public life.
But historically Buddhism has been well protected in Thailand’s constitutions, and references to the religion and its ideals abound in such documents, notwithstanding its unofficial status. Since 1997, Thai constitutions have always mentioned the state’s duty to protect and promote Buddhism and other religions.
The King must also profess Buddhism. In 2007, when debating between the terms nitirat and nititharm for the rule of law, the latter was chosen for it more closely resembled Dhamma in Buddhism. The failed draft of 2014 explicitly emphasised the importance of selecting ethical persons for public positions and harsh punishment for the absence of good morals.
Although the 2014 CDC did not specifically mention Buddhist ethics, it was widely understood to embody them. At ground level, the state always allocates the largest slice of spending to Buddhism compared to other religions. Buddhism is practiced and taught in public schools across the country. Buddhist values provide justification for the state’s public positions on alcohol, abortion, and censorship. During political demonstrations, monks led the Dhamma troop and broke several laws without liability. Indeed, Thailand is a de facto Buddhist state.
But a large proportion of Thais are not satisfied; they believe that there will never be enough protection for Buddhism unless it becomes Thailand’s official state religion. Among many possible causes is the fear of losing its leading status among the country’s younger generations.
Because Thailand’s Buddhism has never been modernised and rationalised, it cannot provide solutions appropriate for contemporary Thailand. Interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching is deemed absolute, and yet by dismissing challenges to its doctrine, Buddhist philosophy has become outdated. Criticism is also growing about the Sangha’s weakness, evident in abbots’ wealth and their misbehaviour. Buddhism has failed to appeal to the younger and more critical generations of Thailand.
In addition to internal problems, Buddhists perceive threats from outside as well. The insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South has seen monks slain by Muslim fighters. Thailand’s accommodation of Islam, possibly in response to the Southern unrest, is seen by Buddhist extremists as dangerous tolerance.
The growing popularity of Christianity among the population is another possible danger. These tensions have led to erratic behaviour from the Sangha, including the prohibition of a Muslim girl from wearing a hijab at her Buddhist school, a call for creating a “Buddhist Bank” to compete with the government-backed Islamic Bank, a suggestion to burn a mosque in retaliation for a the killing of a monk, and a demand to confiscate books and advertisements funded by a Christian charity.
Thai Buddhism’s weakness and its ambition for power are symptoms of years of state entanglement. Buddhism has become so spoiled that it is too weak to compete in a more diverse world. It has turned to state power as the final solution. Although this hardline plan might turn moderates away, it still draws support from many.
Unfortunately, Buddhist politics is leading Thailand down a dangerous path.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a Thai constitutional law scholar.