Thailand: State religion move causes concern

By WILLIAM KLAUSNER, Bangkok Post, May 23, 2007

Monks should forego their adventure into the political arena and return to their religious mentoring role

Bangkok, Thailand -- The movement to declare Buddhism as the state religion of Thailand is rooted in feelings of insecurity on the part of those involved. This is especially true for the monks and their leadership. There is both a conscious and subconscious realisation that Buddhism is on the wane as respect for the Sangha declines and the faith's relevance is increasingly challenged.

<< Thai monks rally for Buddhism as state religion of Thailand

Thus, it is likely that underlying the monk's support for this declaration is their hope, and perhaps expectation, that such a constitutional provision will divert attention from the present reality of the parlous state of Thai Buddhism, the Sangha, and particularly the established Buddhist Church, and, thus, help restore the significant loss of status, dignity and prestige suffered by the Thai Sangha in recent years.

This loss has been due to a series of scandals within the Sangha; perceived commercialisation of the Sangha, including the pervasive involvement of both urban and rural abbots in the production and rental (read sale) of talismanic amulets and medallions (Buddhapanit); the weakness, and indecisiveness of the Sangha's administrative leadership (Sangha Council) as well as the lack of transparency and accountability of this authoritarian leadership structure; lack of Buddhism's relevance in the eyes of the younger generation; the traditional social service and community leadership role of rural monks being assumed by government agencies and village-based lay leadership and organisations; the emergence of charismatic monk leaders with large followings and the popularity of sectarian off-shoots such as the Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke.

Needless to say, an official declaration of Buddhism as the state religion will not have the effect desired by the monk demonstrators unless the root causes noted above are adequately dealt with.

Whatever the motivation, the implications and ramifications of the state religion movement are cause for serious concern. At one level, it is predictable that the Muslim-Buddhist divide in the South will be exacerbated.

The Muslims may well perceive this formal declaration as a concerted move to affirm their second-class status; as a challenge to their identity as both Thai citizens and Muslims; and as a revenge for losses in Buddhists' life and property. These feelings will be grist for the mill of Muslim extremists and agitators who wish to encourage support for their violent efforts to destabilise the security of the South for their own political purposes.

Perhaps, an even more potentially adverse effect of the state religion movement on the political stability and national security of Thailand is the emerging political role of both rural and urban leadership elements. The state religion movement with its mobilisation of tens of thousands of monks and lay Buddhists; the support of political groups and power elites for their own self-interest; and the reluctance of the Sangha Council to rein in and caution the activist monks, all contribute to legitimising what is effectively a political role by the Sangha.

One may predict that such political role will not stop with the state religion declaration, when and if it materialises. It may be expected, whether ultimately successful on this specific issue or not, the monk leadership of this movement will be emboldened to further flex their new-found political muscle in future lobbying for state action on various issues viewed as special interests of the Sangha e.g. banning of alcohol. Networking and alliances with political parties and power elites will follow.

Manoeuvring and manipulation will be the name of the game as monk and political leadership strive to achieve their respective goals. This has already occurred as both pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin groups manoeuvre to identify with the state religion movement in order to garner popularity and votes. Religious power elites within the Sangha have acted in a similar fashion.

It would profit one and all to reflect on the adverse affects of past Sangha's political roles in Burma, Sri Lanka and Vietnam on the stability and security of those respective body politics. Thus, the prospect of a politically energised Sangha involved in political trade-offs, manipulation and alliances is most disturbing.

In Thailand's recent past, there have been isolated instances of political involvement by monks. This was particularly the case during the period of the sixties to the early eighties when the perception of a communist threat was at its height. Activist monks on both the left and right of the political spectrum became involved in political in-fighting.

The most famous, or rather infamous, example of political posturing and involvement was the remark of the monk, Kittivuttho, that ''killing communists is not sinful'' and his association with rightwing lay pressure groups.

However, over the past four to five decades, there has been no sustained and significant involvement of Thai monks in divisive political activities.

There has been an unwritten consensus among the Sangha leadership, the state and lay Buddhist leaders to discourage and disavow political role of the Buddhist monkhood.

Unfortunately, the present state religion movement presages the beginning of a change in the informally agreed upon rules of the game described above directed at obviating monks' divisive political role.

While the Thai Sangha has largely avoided such divisive political involvement, even given the volatile political turmoil over the years, Thai monks, particularly in the Northeast, were encouraged to carve out a non-political nation building role. There was a realisation on the part of reform monk elements, particularly at the two Buddhist universities, of the need to channel an increasing social consciousness on the part of younger generation monks into productive social service activities as opposed to divisive political protests, demonstrations and posturing. Rural monk leaders themselves saw an opportunity to regain their traditional social service oriented community leadership role through various rural development activities while articulating an alternative development paradigm.

These community development programmes have gone through several phases beginning in the late sixties and continuing today. Initially, monks undertook programmes focusing on hygiene and preventive health projects, including water seal latrines, wells, and sanitation.

New dimensions to these community service efforts were added in the following years to include vocational and adult education, home economics, village libraries etc. In recent decades, development initiatives have stressed villager participation, co-ordination and co-operation in the establishment of rice banks, buffalo banks, child health centres and environmental protection programmes etc.

There was also a distinct emphasis on spiritual as well as economic development. These village specific initiatives under the direction of rural monk leaders placed emphasis on appropriate technology and the values of diligence, frugality self-sufficiency, moderation and mutual help.

The efforts of these development monks, while positive and productive, have not resulted in a national movement and have largely been restricted to ad hoc initiatives in selected villages.

It is regrettable that Buddhist university leaders today, whose predecessors had played such a constructive role in supporting community service initiatives in the past, are in the forefront of the politically divisive movement to declare Buddhism the state religion.

One can only pray that wisdom, born of morality, awareness and contemplation, will prevail and the Sangha will forego its adventure into the political arena and return to its traditional religious mentoring and community service leadership roles.

William Klausner is Senior Fellow, Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, and author of ''Transformation of Thai Culture : From Temple Bells to Mobile.''