Constitution debate 'Buddhism defines Thailand'

The Nation, April 23, 2007

Groups insist faith must be recognised as the national religion in new charter

Bangkok, Thailand -- Buddhist groups are increasing pressure to have the faith recognised as the national religion in the new constitution. They have threatened to reject the charter if it is not. Movement leader General Thongchai Kuersakul talks to Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Below are excerpts.

Why is there a need to have a national religion?

There are many reasons. First, a constitution is the supreme law, and yet the first of the three pillars of the nation, which is Buddhism, is not recognised.

Second, since we are living in a democratic system and Buddhists constitute 94 per cent of the population - or almost 60 million people - [the drafters] must listen to their demands. It was the Constitution Drafting Assembly that tried to promote people's participation in the drafting process and argued it's a people's constitution. Why would they do that if they won't give us a chance?

Third, at a recent world Buddhist conference attended by 43 nations, Thailand was chosen to be the centre of Buddhism of all sects.

Fourth, Buddhism has been rooted in Thailand for 2,200 years and, although there are people of other faiths, they are regarded as minorities. The King has always been defender of the Buddhist faith, but the Thai political system changed in 1932. There has been a need to include Buddhism in the constitution since then.

Another thing is that Thais have a unique identity of being forgiving and accommodating, and Buddhism moulds this unique identity.

What differences will there be if Buddhism is recognised as the national religion?

Actually, none.

People who oppose the move say Buddhism is already the de-facto national religion but our society is now based on law, so we can't avoid [including it in the charter].

Currently, only one organic law has been passed in support of Buddhism in Thailand, and that is the Royal Act on the Sangha. An important point is that there has been an attempt by a [Thai] Muslim scholar to oppose school textbooks describing Buddhism as the national religion.

The point is that the argument was made by citing the lack of such an indication in the charter. The feud has lingered to the present.

Many Buddhists worry that if you succeed it will lead to greater friction with Thais of other faiths, especially Thai-Malay Muslims in the deep South.

They just imagine things. Those professing other faiths never think about it because they coexist with us peacefully.

We have submitted letters to members of the drafting assembly who are Muslim and Christian and all went well. They said the charter should state other religions are recognised and respected by the state. And we have no problem with that.

The media often cite the issue but the truth of the matter is that the conflict in the deep South is about separatist ideology, not religion.

They not only kill Buddhists but Muslims. It's a pathetic argument and when and if they succeed [in freeing Patani], they will declare it an Islamic land.

You claim to have all Buddhists behind you. How many supporters do you really have?

I think I can't answer the question, but it must at least be in the millions. Say if we talked to 1,000 supporters and each convinced 10 more, it would be 100,000. Newspapers like Matichon may oppose it but even its own poll says 99 per cent support our move, and other polls gave us some 60 per cent to 70 per cent support.

But are you not acting against the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment?

In principle we recognise the non-attachment principle. The historical Buddha stated he was no god but the task of caring for the religion is on the shoulders of both monks and lay people. Buddhist monks have a duty to protect Buddhism.

Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Prasong Soonsiri accused your group of being supported by political groups which oppose the junta.

Prasong is 80 years old. I think his mind is messed up. Ours is an innocent force. We insist we do not wish any group of politicians to join us, but many who are Buddhists want to join. His accusation is most evil.

Why, then, do you think Prasong and other charter-drafters are against your demands?

My personal feeling is that there must be a hidden agenda. The 35 drafters must have agreed not to discuss the matter.

I can't explain why, but they know it deep in their hearts. Whatever they think or act, it's undemocratic. They are dictators. They are the ones causing problems and wanting society to be divided with all sorts of demonstrations. You must ask Prasong, for I can't answer for him.