Water and oil don't mix, neither do politics and religion

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak, The Nation, January 15, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand -- LAST WEEKEND, a Buddhist temple opened its doors once again to hold a red-shirt political rally. The key speaker used the occasion and the venue to do what he does best - to vilify those he took to be enemies.

As usual, baseless accusations were made such as the one about a "secret deal" between a former foreign minister and the British government to revoke the visa of Thailand's 23rd prime minister.

The same speaker has been an important source of subjective, biased, untrue and damaging information on Thailand and our institutions fed to the foreign press - especially to a British magazine reporter who, by failing to keep challenging what he had been told, violated one of the cardinal rules of journalism: fact-checking.

And since media these days tends to take reports from other media and run them as straight news, falsehood here and fabrication there become a tangled web of deceit that is impossible to undo.

In a free society such as ours, political rallies - which are a form of freedom of speech - should be acceptable if staged within the realm of civil parameters. Unfortunately speakers at these rallies, in order to achieve maximum dramatic political impact, often mix truth with lies.

These lies become facts as they get repeated and reiterated, and then abused and exploited to an indeterminate degree. The mendacity destroys people's good names and, thus, their lives. Unfortunately most of these innocent people who are wrongly accused do not have the wherewithal to come out and defend themselves. They and their families suffer the injustice in silence.

To most Thais, a temple provides a spiritual sanctuary. We go to temples in search of respite and peace, and some will find them there. Political rallies on temple grounds not only tear apart this delicate security blanket for our society, they expose this neutral and venerable institution to the process of politicisation that has swallowed up almost every institution and aspect of our social fabric in recent years.

While it is true that religion and politics are about our way of life and our livelihoods, the two are like water and oil, and they do not, cannot and should not mix.

When King Rama I acceded to the throne, the very first thing he did after moving the capital across the Chao Phaya River from Thonburi to Bangkok was to right the wrongs that had plagued the Buddhist institution for years. During the final period of the Ayutthaya empire, the Buddhist religion became so intertwined with politics that there were times when monks themselves staged revolts or coups while they were still in the monkhood. Many monks were ill disciplined, poorly educated and susceptible to heresy and secular manipulation.

King Rama I issued a series of ecclesiastical laws intended to restore the discipline and pious nature of the religion and to create a wall of separation between religion and politics. The intention was for religion and politics to maintain a healthy symbiotic relationship as each pursued its own growth, separately and independently, in its respective role in society. That has been the tradition until today.

Throughout history, man has tried to find this delicate balance. There were times when such separation did not take shape, and this usually led to disastrous results and a decline for both institutions. In the United States, the line of separation between Church and State was drawn clearly by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The intent was to create a political and legal order that would allow and protect the freedom of religion. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the United States is perhaps the only place on earth where people still go to church on Sundays.

In chemistry, one rule of thumb is "likes dissolve likes". For two liquids to mix, the bonds holding each liquid together must be broken and new bonds formed, and that is when the "mixing" reaction can take place. The hydrogen bonds of water are especially strong, as much as the bonds holding together hydrocarbons are particularly weak, so it "costs too much energy" to break the hydrogen bonds that cannot be "paid back" by forming the water-hydrocarbon union.

This is where it gets interesting. The immiscibility [inability to blend] of water and oil breaks down if we introduce detergent into the mix. In such a case, one end of the detergent molecules attaches to the water, and the other end sticks to the oil, and the two liquids are held to each other by the detergent molecules and form an emulsion.

Many do not doubt that the abbot of the temple that was offered as the venue for political rallies had nothing but good intentions. He must have thought that the temple's dhamma-filled environment would neutralise the political anger and hatred and cool down political tempers and temperatures. But it was evident that dhamma failed to change the behaviour of politics, whose actors seek not to heal but to destroy.

In politics the end can justify unjustifiable means. A temple is not a detergent and can never be the bond that bridges two incongruous political elements. All it did in this case was provide unwarranted validation to the unwarrantable.