Thailand: Religion needs no special status

Bangkok Post, Feb 16, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Although abrogated by the coup-makers after the Sept 19 putsch, the 1997 Constitution retains its stature as one of the best the country has had. Its Section 5 states: ''The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sex or religion, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution.''

In no place did it declare Buddhism as the national religion. It was a wise and prudent course the charter set - and one we should follow. As the crucial process of drafting the new constitution proceeds, a group of monks and lay Buddhists have come out and urged the drafters to designate Buddhism the national religion. In proposing the official status, the advocates argue that they have no intention of alienating other religions.
However, considering that Buddhism is worshipped by a majority of Thais - up to 94% of the population is Theravada Buddhist, about 5% is Muslim while Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Taoist, animist and atheist populations make up the remaining 1% - they maintain that the definition would prompt the state to recognise the importance of Buddhism, to protect and support it more.

They maintain that this would help Buddhism to flourish, and therefore serve to boost people's moral standards and the health of society as a whole. In the real world, where a minority religion in one place can be a majority in another, where inter-faith tolerance and dialogue are the only salvation against deadly religion-based conflicts that have flared up worldwide, such an argument is highly contentious.

First, how can Thai nationals who are Muslims or Catholics feel at one with a law that officially identifies with another religion? Buddhists in this country already prevail over other faiths by their sheer numbers. Adding the ''national religion'' status to it would be so grandiose, so imposing as to leave no room for practitioners of different religions to breathe, and would not be conducive to peaceful co-existence or meaningful inter-faith dialogue.

Second, that a religion which is practised by an overwhelming majority of the 64 million population should be seeking help and shoring up from the government is absurd. It is true that Buddhism has been weakened by misconduct among monks, commercialism and politics within the Sangha Council, but these problems would not go away with a new definition. If the supporters of a national religion truly wish to see Buddhism thrive here or elsewhere, they must cooperate in ridding it of all the corroding practices and make the religion relevant to the lives of the people in our modern society. Above all, it would be a boon to them to heed the words of the late reformist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: ''Learn from other religions.'' The socially-engaged monk Phra Paisan Visalo, abbot of Wat Pasukato in Chaiyaphum, was right when he pointed out that without reforming itself, the ''national'' status would become nothing but a mockery for Buddhism.

The Thai government is a secular one, thus it would be right to uphold the tenet known in the West as the separation of church and state - to what degree, is certainly up to debate. Considering religious and cultural sensitivities, we may not want to interpret the ''practise your religion in private'' policy in the manner of France, which caused an uproar when it banned girls from wearing headscarves or other religious symbols in public schools in 2004.

Although discarded, the 1997 People's Constitution has set an enlightened path for us. Take its Section 38: ''A person shall enjoy full liberty to profess a religion, a religious sect or creed, and observe religious precepts or exercise a form of worship in accordance with his or her belief, provided that it is not contrary to his or her civic duties, public order or good morals.

''In exercising the liberty referred to in paragraph one, a person is protected from any act of the State which is derogatory to his or her rights or detrimental to his or her due benefits on the grounds of professing a religion, a religious sect or creed or observing religious precepts or exercising a form of worship in accordance with his or her different belief from that of others.'' This is the path we must follow.