Buddhist Nationalists Flex Muscles in Thailand

Several months after a military coup, and with continuing communal violence involving the country’s Muslims in the south of the country, Thailand is pondering calls to make Buddhism the official religion of the country. ThaisNews reports (link added):

The Secretary-General of the Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand, Phra Tepvisutthikawee, wants the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) to state Buddhism as the national religion in the new charter.

The Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand joined the Network of Buddhist Organizations in front of the Parliament on Apr 8, calling for the CDC to declare Buddhism as the national religion in the constitutional draft.

According to al-Jazeera, Tepvisutthikawee claims to have “more than a million signatures of support”:

“If we all believe the constitution is the highest law in the country, what appears in the law should be the highest too,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We put the matter of the country and the king in the law, so we must put the matter of religion too.”

The Buddhism Protection Center has been undertaking such protests for a while. This 2002 report records a previous dispute:

About 3,000 monks, novices, nuns and lay followers from Buddhist organisations staged a rally in front of Parliament yesterday to demand the establishment of a ministry for Buddhism.

Dolsawat Chatmethi, a representative of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand and Council of Buddhist Organisations of Thailand, said the protestors would rally for three days If their call was still ignored, they might prolong the demonstration.

The government has refused to set up a Buddhism ministry on grounds that it would be seen as discrimination against other religions.

The BPCT also clashed with the now-deposed Prime Minister Thaksin in 2004, over a golf course on temple-owned property:

The government yesterday indicated it would exclude temple property from its controversial land management bill. However, Buddhist communities, who have opposed the bill, are planning to push ahead with a major street protest against the legislation.

…Critics said the bill would give the government increased powers in relation to the use of temple land, opening the way for possible abuse. Buddhist monks, academics and religious scholars have been up in arms about the bill largely as a result of the Alpine Golf Club scandal. The luxurious golf course and club house, owned by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s business empire, was built on a piece of land donated to a temple thanks to dubious regulatory changes introduced by the Interior Ministry. Key leaders of groups opposed to the bill plan to rally thousands in protest outside Parliament today. The protest was expected to go ahead despite the government’s apparent retreat. “We are still not convinced by assurances given by officials, including the prime minister himself,” said Phra Rajakavi, secretary-general of the Thailand Buddhism Protection Centre…

Not everyone, however, is impressed by the latest demands, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (which, by the way, has excellent radio coverage of religion) has some background (links added):

[BO] HILL: Sulak Sivaraksa is a Thai intellectual and social commentator based in Bangkok. He is against the move to indoctrinate Buddhism in the Thai constitution, because he fears it will encourage discrimination like it has elsewhere.

SIVARAKSA: As you can see, in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala claim to be Buddhist – they regard the Tamils, Christian, Hindu as the enemy which is very dangerous. In our country we have about five million Muslims in the South that feel they are deprived of many basic rights already. If we made Buddhism national religion, so we end up they are nothing, they are nobody -we have a crisis in the South already. Why should we add salt to the wound?

HILL: The majority of Buddhists practice Theravada Buddhism, imported from Sri Lanka and India over 700 years ago. In a recent editorial in Bangkok newspaper, The Nation, special adviser to the World Conference of Religions for Peace, Mettanando Bhikkhu, expressed concern about the archaic form of hierarchy and education in Thailand’s Buddhist clergy. He says Thai monks study a form of Buddha’s teachings that endorse the status quo, making social progress difficult. Sulak Sivaraksa agrees that the clergy’s call for a place in the constitution would be a backwards step, and goes against the core of their own religion.

Mettanando Bhikkhu believes that Thaksin’s use of Buddhism was a factor in the coup. Writing last September, he blasted a particular temple that offered Thaksin unqualified support in return for legal assistance and access to television:

I believe that the Thai Rak Thai Party and Phra Dhammakaya Temple make a perfect couple. The only difference between them is that one is a political party and the other a Buddhist monastery…According to the law of karma as promoted by the temple, Thaksin Shinawatra was hailed as the ideal lay Buddhist, who had been blessed by the merit of his past lives and was endowed with a great many virtues.

…General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that last week’s coup was triggered by the deep divisions in Thai society. There is little doubt that the unholy alliance between Phra Dhammakaya Temple and Thai Rak Thai has contributed in no small part to this polarisation.

In November, he complained about rival Buddhist groups vying for power:

Most lay Buddhists in Thailand are now confused and feel a sense of hopelessness over the ongoing conflict. The better educated are more concerned that such infighting is eroding the faith of the public. According to the teaching of the Buddha, monks should not covet political power, and feudal hierarchy has no place in Buddhist monasticism.

…There is a huge defect in the Ecclesiastical Law, which is written to impose a feudalistic structure of administration on top of the Sangha and which deprives all nuns and lay Buddhists of the right to get involved. Sadly, Thailand is the only Buddhist country where the study of the Tipitaka, or the canonical literature of Buddhism, is not included in any of the nine levels of monastic education. Buddhism has survived and flourished for over 2,000 years in many countries without support from governments. What Thailand needs is not another amendment of the law but a radical reform to revive the longforgotten spirit of the teaching of the Lord Buddha.

I blogged on the unfortunate consequences of one Thai monk’s ignorance of Buddhist doctrine here.

(Hat tips: World War 4 Report; American Buddhist Net)

Name variations: Phrathep Visuthikavee; Phra Thepvisutthakavi

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