Thai law drafters meditate over state religion

by ONNUCHA HUTASINGH, Bangkok Post, Feb 10, 2007

Discussion raised with every new charter

Bangkok, Thailand -- The question of whether Buddhism should officially be declared the national religion has prompted fierce debate as the country once again finds itself facing the dilemma that occurs whenever a new constitution is drawn up.

Whenever the process of drafting a constitution is underway, the battle lines are drawn between advocates of such a declaration and opponents who say it would be divisive. Those who are advocating Buddhism be placed as the national religion under the constitution this time around maintain that they bear no ulterior motive of discriminating against other religions.

They argue that such a stipulation in the new constitution is necessary to ensure the state does more to promote and protect Buddhism with sincerity.

Constitution Drafting Committee spokesman Thongthong Chantharangsu said previous constitutions had never defined Buddhism as the national religion, although the significance of Buddhism, as well as other religions, had been mentioned in other sections of past charters.

He said it would be advisable to follow the same principles regarding Buddhism and other religions as in the past.

Phra Rajpanyamethi, vice-dean of Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University, said history and tradition are clear proof that Buddhism and the Thai nation are closely connected and cannot be considered separately.

The monk said the proposed definition is intended for the state to recognise the importance of Buddhism and to support the religion, which in turn would help boost moral standards and improve society, security and politics.

''We have no intention whatsoever to alienate other religions. Buddhism never teaches religious persecution,'' the monk said.

However, Phra Paisan Visalo, the abbot of Wat Pasukato in Chaiyaphum, disagreed with the proposed definition.

If it was to be enshrined in the new charter, such a definition could become a mockery, given the country's worsening political, social and moral situations, he said.

''The duty of supporting Buddhism does not rest with the state. Do not pin hopes on the authorities. It is the duty of all Buddhists to take care of Buddhism,'' he said.

Tavivat Puntarigvivat, a lecturer at Mahidol University's Humanities Department, said the new constitution should only stipulate the King as a Buddhist and upholder of religions. And the King should have full authority to appoint a supreme patriarch.

He said the state and religion should be separate, and that politics and bureaucracy should be kept out of religious affairs.

Dr Tavivat called for the National Buddhism Bureau, the Religious Affairs Department, the Ecclesiastical Act, and the Islamic Act to be abrogated, to allow the public to take over and look after religious affairs for themselves.