Thailand: Monks and Politicians Cross Swords

Originally published July 27, 2004, IPS/GIN, Published on the Buddhist Channel, Nov 8, 2006

BANGKOK, Thailand -- When senior monks gathered recently to select a leader for Thailand's supreme Buddhist body, the presence of a 200-strong force of armed police commandos helped to highlight another crack on the face of Thai Buddhism. The protection for the monks was not to ward off possible attacks from assailants who have been targeting symbols of Buddhism and the state in southern Thailand since early January.

Rather, the commandos took up positions at the sprawling Buddha Monthol Centre of Religious Studies -- west of Bangkok -- to quell a possible outburst of violence from a group of Buddhist monks and their followers opposed to the selection.

And the debates that have grown out of that meeting - which drew some 5,000 supporters and detractors of the Buddhist body - reveal a worrying sign among some here that such tension could create an irrevocable schism within Thai Buddhism.

Thailand's Buddhists are currently divided into two strands within the Theravada school, the 'Maha Nikaya' and the 'Dhammayut,' which come under the Sangha Supreme Council, the nine-member body of senior clerics that is under fire.

Besides Thailand, Asian countries like Cambodia, Burma and Sri Lanka are adherents of the Theravada school of Buddhism, while the other major school, 'Mahayana,' prevails among Buddhists in Japan.

"Thai Buddhists must keep a close watch on (the group disagreeing with the Sangha) to see whether they will dare to create divisiveness among the lay followers and monks," Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist in Sunday's 'Bangkok Post' newspaper, told IPS.

Prior to that, 'The Nation' daily newspaper warned in an editorial that "there is much more at stake than the petty quarrel between two factions of Buddhist monks and their lay followers."

Chris Baker, a Cambridge-educated scholar who has authored books on Thai politics and society pointed out the consequences of the disagreement.

"This disagreement is very damaging to the Sangha. It will create confusion among the Thai public," Baker told IPS.

According to Sanitsuda, who has written extensively on Buddhism, the challenge mounted against the Sangha has left the public feeling uncomfortable, because "of the comfort many have towards a social order" that many do not want disrupted.

"The Thai media are reflecting this by the way they are criticising Luangta Maha Bua," she explained in an interview.

Luangta Maha Bua, a highly revered monk, and his followers are challenging the appointment of an acting leader of the Sangha after doctors had announced that incumbent head Somdet Phra Yanasamvara Suvaddhana Mahathera was too ill to continue in his role.

And lay Buddhists who are throwing their weight behind the protest group that appears determined to continue with their campaign.

Over the weekend, they announced plans of handing a petition, with the 150,000 signatures they have gathered, to the Senate to impeach Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Kruengarm for endorsing the decision of the Sangha.

Such a divisive religious atmosphere within Thailand, where close to 95 percent of the country's 63 million people are Buddhists, has been made worse by other events in July that have drawn attention to the disputes plaguing Buddhism.

They include a Buddhist monk's right to free expression, the political and social role of monks in Thai society and Thai Buddhism's attitude to women.

The protagonists here include (now desposed) Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a member of the Thai Senate who has condemned the tradition of Buddhist temples denying women access to the sanctums that keep relics of the Buddha.

The prime minister has emerged as a key figure in the disagreements over the political role Buddhist monks have in Thai society. It happened after he berated four monks for condemning government policies during sermons delivered over the state-run Radio Thailand.

But Thaksin's critics have responded harshly to the premier's outburst.

"The prime minister is not aware of the Thai culture, and the tradition we have of Buddhist priests commenting on social and political issues," Sulak Sivaraksa, a renowned Buddhist scholar, told IPS.

What is more, Sulak and other critics are outraged that Thaksin has condemned the saffron-clad monks after having used the priesthood excessively during the past three years to promote government programmes.

"He doesn't say anything when they praise him. That is also politics," said Sulak.

But the outrage that Thaksin triggered has been exceeded by the angry responses sections of Buddhists in northern Thailand have directed to Senator's Rabiabrat's attempt to get rid of the signs that deny women the same rights as men within the temple.

"Many northerners accuse her of looking down on their traditions and are now in the process of collecting 50,000 signatures to launch impeachment proceedings against her," the 'Bangkok Post' reported on Monday.

Even sections of the country's mainstream media have been hostile to Rabiabrat's quest at reform.

Such responses and a death threat against Rabiabrat have even startled some Thai academics, as a seminar at Bangkok's Thammasat University revealed on Monday.

"What we are seeing in all this are deeper cracks in Thai Buddhism than before," one of the participating academics told IPS.