Image credit: Flickr user Aaron T. Goodman, creative commons

Thailand’s sangha: turning right, coming full circle

Last month, Thailand’s military government introduced an amendment to the Sangha Act B.E. 2505 (1962), which the National Legislative Assembly hastily approved unanimously. The amendment places the power to appoint and remove the twenty members of the Sangha Council, the highest governing body in the Thai Buddhist order, under the king’s power. What are the implications for the Sangha, as well as politics at large?

Developments in the Sangha law often parallel major changes in Thai politics. Prior to 1902, when the law was introduced, only a handful of monasteries in Bangkok and nearby provinces were under the king’s jurisdiction. Most monasteries practiced their own local versions of Buddhism. The 1902 Act consolidated all strains under the centralised body of the Sangha Council, which was led by the Sangha Raja appointed by the king. By licensing ordination to only certified monks and introducing a standardised examination, the Sangha Council successfully controlled Buddhist orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

The 1902 Act marked the period when Siam, under King Chulalongkorn, transformed from a traditional kingdom of highly fluid, personalised borders presided over by several competing monarchs, into a nation-state of demarcated, rigid territory ruled by one sovereign king. A unified official Buddhism helped justify the king’s rule, implement his policy and create a collective identity of Thainess. Modernisation in Thailand did not lead to a separation between the temporal and spiritual realms.

Another period of change came after the 1932 Revolution that ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy. Progressive young monks called for the 1902 Act to be revised because it facilitated the dominance of the royally-backed, elitist Thammayut sect over the more numerous Mahanikai sect. The law that came out in 1946 reorganised the Sangha administration into three bodies—the Sangha Council, Cabinet and Tribunal—exercising legislative, executive and judicial power respectively. The Sangha Raja was relegated to a mere figurehead, similar to the newly installed constitutional monarch.

But this democratic model was short-lived. Senior monks were upset about the 1946 Council where monks, regardless of seniority, were selected and deliberated matters on an equal basis. Conflict was so severe that the Council could not be convened. The law was subsequently abolished by General Sarit Thanarat, who staged a coup in 1957 and revived the idea of monarchy as an ideological weapon against communist insurgency. The 1962 Act reintroduced the centralised Sangha Council under the royally-appointed Sangha Raja.

Surprisingly, 1997 marks the only time the Sangha Act was not revised despite major political change. Political reforms in 1997 aimed at consolidating Thailand’s democratisation by introducing free and fair elections with robust checks by courts and watchdog agencies. In retrospect, the survival of the 1962 Sangha Act might have hinted at the resilience of conservative forces, which would erupt later in 2006.

But the 1990s were also when relations between the state and the Sangha started going downhill. When the Cold War ended, political liberalisation brought the government and the Sangha apart. Military dictatorship was on its way out and elected politicians no longer needed to pay ideological service to legitimise their governments or mobilise policies. A succession crisis within the Sangha began to loom as the health of the Sangha Raja, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, gradually deteriorated. A minor amendment in 1992, which switched the selection process for the Sangha Raja from royal appointment to automatic succession according to seniority, only separated the Sangha from its traditional monarchical patron further.

No one was willing to discuss the Sangha Raja’s frailty until it was too late. His Holiness passed away in 2013 and the rightful candidate, Somdej Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn (Chuang), was strongly objected to by right-winged Buddhists due to his affiliation with the infamous Dhammakaya Temple. It was not until 2017 that King Vajiralongkorn arrested the situation by amending the appointment rule, placing appointment under his authority and quickly appointing the current Sangha Raja— Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong—much to most Buddhists’ appreciation. But the new Sangha Raja has achieved very little in reforming the Sangha, which remains rife with scandals.

So it is that the Sangha has come almost full circle. It was moulded after the absolute monarchy model before undergoing a democratic experiment. But it returned to the traditional model in 1962 and 2017–2018. The latest change coincides with a broader turn right in Thai politics towards nostalgic conservatism, back to the good old days of Thainess. Prayuth and his supporters speak fondly of the days before disunity, before corrupt politicians and even before democracy. The future of liberal democracy in Thailand grows dimmer.

The 2018 amendment is just the latest in a series of developments since the 2014 coup. The 2017 Constitution confirms Buddhism’s dominant status and guarantees special protections and support. The Dhammakaya Temple is under prosecution while the Sangha Council is being subject to a massive purge related to financial scandals, whereby senior abbots as well as civil servants have been arrested. A new political party with a Buddhist-oriented agenda is set to register for the upcoming election.

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Of course, these moves have not been initiated by a single mastermind. But they reflect a rather fanatic fear among Thai Buddhists. Fearing the loss of Buddhism’s dominant status in Thai society, they have realised that the Sangha Council is too incompetent to right all the wrongs. But instead of introducing transparency or more effective governance, they opt for a more traditional choice. They blame Buddhism’s failure on the absence of governmental support and try to re-forge the mutual relationship. These policies can take heavy toll on non-Buddhists as well as moderate Buddhists.

Perhaps they are right, at least partly. In a country where liberal ideas no longer function, an archaic alternative is no worse. The centralisation of power, not its dispersal, is the path Thailand is taking. The new amendment will definitely bring a sense of accountability, something the Sangha has long failed to enforce internally. The Sangha will be as lame as ever but someone finally holds individual monks accountable for their actions. The Sangha is safe, for now.

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