Buddhist rally alarms Thai Prime Minister

Bangkok Post, April 26, 2007

Suspicious of ulterior motive in charter call

Bangkok, Thailand -- Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont yesterday suggested that there could be an ulterior motive behind a mass rally to press for Buddhism to be recognised as the state religion in the new constitution. He said things could not be taken at face value when asked to comment on an observation that the demonstration had a hidden agenda.

<< Nine elephants walk in line up the Phra Pinklao bridge as they make their way to parliament to a rally, attended mostly by monks, demanding that Buddhism be recognised as the state religion in the new constitution. — APICHART JINAKUL

The prime minister said the issue should be resolved through dialogue, adding that what appears on the outside is usually tied to backstage manoeuvring.

The rally outside parliament, which drew around 20,000 monks and lay people, raised tension and concerns about a violent confrontation. The rally will continue today when the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) is to present the first draft of the new charter to the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) for recommendations.

Gen Surayud urged the Buddhist activists to campaign under the rule of law.

A highly-placed police source also voiced scepticism about the demonstration. It was deemed to be calculated and well-planned amid reports that Wat Dhammakaya was behind the rally, said the source.

''We're investigating further whether politicians of the previous government are involved or not,'' the source said.

The claim outraged the Buddhist activists, who vowed to campaign for the rejection of the new charter if it fails to enshrine Buddhism as the official religion.

Gen Thongchai Kuasakul, chairman of the Buddhism Promotion Foundation, said the movement had nothing to do with any interest groups or the old political power clique.

''Every single baht which we are spending only came from the private pockets of our Buddhist followers. We have never received financial support from any particular group or person,'' said Gen Thongchai. He challenged the prime minister to substantiate his claim, otherwise it would mislead the public into believing that the rally was politically motivated.

Maj-Gen Thongkhao Puangrodphan, deputy secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, said the prime minister's claim was ''really not constructive'' and would create disunity in society. ''The gathering of Buddhists and monks to support Buddhism as the state religion is done in good faith. They have no any hidden agenda as suspected,'' Maj-Gen Thongkhao said.

He said the rally participants would spearhead a nationwide campaign against the new charter if it omits any mention of Buddhism as the state religion.

''We have a plan to send our representatives to convince Buddhists nationwide not to accept this new charter,'' he said. Monks are not allowed by law to vote in elections of a political nature, including the referendum on the new charter.

Phra Sanitwongs Wuthiwangso, deputy director of the Organisation Communication Office of Wat Dhammakaya, yesterday denied any involvement in the rally. He said if the temple's followers took part in it, they did it on their own and had the right to do so.

About 200 police were dispatched to provide security at the rally venue. Another 200 from the Border Patrol Police were deployed to facilitate traffic as hundreds of monks ignored the First Army's call to stay put and marched from Buddha Monthon in Nakhon Pathom to parliament. It was expected that the crowd would grow to 200,000 people today if their demand was not attended to.

CDC chairman Prasong Soonsiri yesterday shrugged off the mass rally and called for as many suggestions to be made as possible. ''We only hope that they [suggestions] are for the good of society, not for particular groups,'' he said.

CDA president Noranit Setthabutr said he was not under pressure to include or exclude a state religion in the charter