In a recent posting about Thaksin Shinawatra’s birthday, there were some marvelous pictures of monks taking part in the festivities. One pair showed some monks removing a curse, with their begging bowls used to signify the removal of the curse. Other pictures showed live monks in conjunction with pictures of Thaksin (Actually, Mr. Thaksin was not just in conjunction, but looking down on the monks beatifically. I’m not sure which was more striking: the cut out of Thaksin standing behind the senior monk, or the pictures of Thaksin overlooking a group of chanting monks, hand raised in the sign-language gesture of “I love you.”). Regarding these monks, one of the comments pithily noted simply, “Rentamonks.” This was not an unreasonable comment, I suppose, but also troubled me. Why can’t monks support Thaksin? What do most monks think about the recent troubles in Thailand? And what does their relative silence say about Buddhism and politics in Southeast Asia more broadly? This is not the place to discuss this comprehensively, but it’s interesting to note there have been no four-letter word essays about this central (?) yet silent (?) figure: the monk (auspiciously, if we Romanize the word from both Thai and Dai-lue (ie from Sipsongpanna), we get phra and dubi, both 4-letter words).

For the most part, monks have been largely absent from the public discussion of the colored shirts. This absence is especially noteworthy because within several months of the coup that started the current phase of Thai politics, there were several significant demonstrations by monks over the status of Buddhism in Thailand, and in particular whether or not Buddhism would become an official religion. To the best of my knowledge, the conversation about the status of Buddhism as the de jure as well as de facto national religion of Thailand was not finished, rather it went private, something to be talked about within monasteries between monks, but not in public, in much the same way that monastic opinions about reds and yellows seems to be taking place.

In June of this year, I was in Bangkok talking with both monks about their views on politics, and also with non-monks (mainly taxi drivers) about monks and politics. The official line, and that espoused by most lay folk that I spoke with is that monks (and in this context, I mean lifers, not the men who have ordained for a month or a rainy season) in Thailand do not have political views. I was told that the Supreme Sangha Council has told monks that they are not allowed to express their views on politics (despite the fact that the constitution guarantees this right for all Thai citizens, lay and monastic), and that they should stay away from political rallies in particular. Those that do go to these rallies (birthday parties, airport closings and so forth) are not exactly committing a sin, but they are in a place inappropriate for monks. They also open themselves up to criticisms of being “copy monks” (or “rentamonks”).

There is then a lot of pressure on monks in Thailand to shut up about the political world, and many that I spoke with are just as happy not to be dragged into the discussion. At the same time, though, there is tension. Many monks would like to be allowed to vote, and at least some would not mind being able to speak more freely about politics. Although the monks that I met at the red shirt rally on June 22 looked uncomfortable, they said they weren’t doing anything wrong, and that they weren’t false monks. They were there, they told me, “because they love democracy.”

Monks have of course long (always?) been involved in politics in Thailand (as well as other places). This used to be framed in terms of monastic legitimation for the king and/or state (think for example of the Sinhala monks saying its okay to kill Tamils in the Mahavamsa, or Phra Kitthivuttho saying it’s okay to kill communists). More recently, there has been a tendency for scholars at least to pay attention to monks as liberal figures, figures who ordain trees or preach against the excesses of modern capitalism. The reality of course is that the Sangha is filled with monks on both sides of the aisle, and always has been, because monks do not cease to be people with connections and ideas when they shave their heads and take on the saffron robes. What I think we need to pay more attention to is when it is okay for phra to edge into the political realm in Thailand and how they do so.

Monks throughout the Buddhist states of Southeast Asia of course have different roles in the civil society of their respective communities. Moreover, I would suggest that what is considered to be appropriate activity for monks changes over time, both in and out of politics. Monks in Sri Lanka can vote, in Thailand they can’t. The Burmese Sangha tradition of political protest which flowered under the British means that they can act in ways that the Thai Sangha cannot or will not. This does not mean, though, that Thai monks aren’t any less political than other monks, or other Thais. Rather their position constrains (most of) them from making certain kinds of statements in public. In other words, I would suggest that there is a monastic idiom of political expression. This idiom is much more muted than lay political expression, and it only rises to public attention in certain contexts. When monks speak outside this idiom, they risk censure.