The appointment of a new supreme patriarch is an opportunity to better politics and Buddhism in Thailand, writes Khemthong Tongsakulrungruang.

In what could be described as one of his earliest exercises of power, King Rama X has appointed Phra Somdej Maha Muneewong as Thailand’s newest Sangha Raja. After three years of vacancy, Thai Buddhists and the nation’s order of monks have got their long awaited Supreme Patriarch. But despite much celebration and fanfare, will the new Sangha Raja rescue Thai Buddhism? And what does the whole appointment process say about contemporary Thailand and its broken politics?

The appointment was not without controversy. According to the Sangha Act, a candidate for Sangha Raja should be the most senior member of the Sangha Council. That mandate left Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungkalajarn as the only possible choice. But the government found this option unfavourable.

Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungkalajarn was seen by many Thais as having an affiliation with the controversial Dhammakaya temple. Phra Thammachaiyo, the former abbot of Dhammakaya temple, was ordained by Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungklalajarn, who has also been implicated in a tax evasion investigation, thus making him even less suitable for the job.

Dhammakaya is not without its problems. The temple has been accused of distorting the teaching of Buddha, accumulating an inappropriate amount of wealth, as well as associating with the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. As the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) government is supported by key anti-Thaksin forces, the appointment of Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungkalajarn could have potentially infuriated the military junta’s supporters and jeopardised its survival.

However, the NCPO could not simply dismiss Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungkalajarn for more favourable candidate. The law gave no them other choice. Besides, the Sangha Council confirmed its nomination, and the NCPO did not want to be accused of undermining such a powerful institution. Religious legitimacy has always been an important source of support for every government.

Thus, the process reached stalemate. The NCPO halted the appointment process indefinitely until all matters were resolved. According to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the appointment should end, not create further, disunity in the country.

On the surface, the appointment of a new Sangha Raja was a conflict over Dhammakaya. But on a deeper level the appointment was politicised and became a conflict over Thaksin. Ultimately, the fraught process represented the ideological conflict between those who insisted on following rules, though the result might not be favourable, and those who were result-oriented, ready to disobey the rules for the best result. The conflict over the new Sangha Raja portrayed what Thailand has been facing in recent years.

Shortly after King Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne, the National Legislative Assembly introduced an amendment to the Sangha Act concerning the appointment of Sangha Raja. No longer would candidacy be given automatically to the most senior member of the Sangha Council. Instead the King would directly appoint the Sangha Raja as he pleased. The amendment was hastily passed.

Despite the language of the law, which specifies that the decision rests solely with the King, Prayuth explained to the press that he was the one who had prepared the list of five candidates according to three criteria; seniority, health, and appropriateness. The process was, as many other issues in Thailand, perfectly legal, but highly questionable. The entire arrangement was to deny the rightful candidate his appointment through a dubious legal process.

Yet, the appointment was greeted with much popular delight. Phra Somdej Maha Muneewong was seen as the right choice. Although he was the third most senior member of the council, his health was better than his elder peers. Moreover, he faced no pending criminal investigation, and was neither a supporter nor critic of Dhammakaya. Also, he appeared to be politically neutral. Having been educated abroad, exemplary behaviour, and a good understanding of Dhamma, Phra Somdej Maha Muneewong was approved by both Red and Yellow political factions. Even Dhammakaya was silent, accepting the outcome.

In fact, Dhammakaya might even be facing persecution. Phra Somdej Maha Ratcha Mungkalajarn has lost his candidacy to the supreme position, and the NCPO has been emboldened by public feedback on the new Sangha Raja. The junta is now stepping up its attempt to ‘patronise and purify’ the Sangha by ordering the siege and search of the Dhammakaya temple to arrest Phra Thammachaiyo, who has been wanted for involvement in a high-profile embezzlement case. So far, several attempts by police and the Department of Special Investigation have ended in failure. This is the first time that the NCPO has ordered the army to lead the search and successfully breach the temple’s grounds.

One notable aspect of the appointment is the alliance between the palace and the junta. The junta seemed to deliberately give the King absolute power over the matter. On the one hand, the King had the heavy burden of being held accountable for his choice. A bad Sangha Raja would be his fault, not the aging Sangha Council or an obsolete law.

On the other hand, this strategy was so marvellously planned. The sole exercise of power was only in theory. In reality, Prayuth prepared the list, possibly with advice. But this process was not written in the law. Also, his three-point criteria were not included. This arrangement helped the NCPO to initiate its policy under the immunity of the King. Any criticism of the appointment would be criticism of the King, hence lese majeste.

Can this model be the NCPO’s new political strategy, with the military government and the new King working together to find the middle ground to end conflict? With all the recent talk about reconciliation, some observers suggest that this is possible.

For the time being, the Sangha is complete once more. In the past 10 years, the late Sangha Raja was in frail health so he could not effectively function as the head of the spiritual realm. His absence was seen as leaving the Sangha in chaos. Many Thais hope that, under the patronage of the King and the protection of the conservative-leaning junta, the new Sangha Raja will restore order and prosperity to Thai Buddhism. But the task is an uphill one.

The problems faced by Thai Buddhism are not simply because of the absence of a respectable head. The Sangha Council has been criticised for lagging behind social progress. Temples are being turned into a multi-million dollar industry. Some own large amounts of land around the country. Others engage in forest encroachment and wildlife trafficking. Female monks are suppressed. Famous monks speak out in support of authoritarian rule. The fundamental Buddhist movement advocates against the Muslim minority.

In order to reconnect with the younger, more liberal and more critical, generation, the Sangha Raja needs to address social issues surrounding the commercialisation of Buddhism, gender equality, as well as tolerance and other democratic values. Although good knowledge of Dhamma and exemplary behaviour are a prerequisite for the role, it requires a different set of qualities for a good monk to become a good Sangha Raja in today’s Thailand.

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand.