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Authoritarianism of the holy kind


The Ecclesiastical Council considers the activities of the United Nations as political, and therefore unsuitable for any ordained member of the Sangha

Bangkok, Thailand -- The relationship between the United Nations and Thailand's Ecclesiastical Council is a curious one. For the past few years, the Ecclesiastical Council has been promoting the International Day of Vesak, based on the UN resolution recognising the day and the contribution of Buddhism to the ``spirituality of humanity''.

Yet, the council of clerics frowns on Thai monks attending UN conferences on grounds that UN activities are political and, therefore, an inappropriate venue for any ordained member of the Sangha.

The council's division of what is political and apolitical has attributed to its failure to take an active role in peace issues.

The Lord Buddha once risked himself in order to intervene in a dispute over water rights, thus averting war. Is this political? While the UN has a good understanding of the philosophy of Buddhism, the Ecclesiastical Council seems to have failed to understand the humanitarian missions of the UN.

To date, the Ecclesiastical Council has issued no official document supporting the UN Declaration on Human Rights, nor the Rights of the Child by Unicef.

There are no council's representatives at UN conferences on human rights, the promotion of peace, conflict resolution, education, anti-corruption or poverty, reflecting lack of interest about its role on these issues.

The monks who want to attend those UN conferences face an uphill task. For as far as the council is concerned, the UN is a political body, so monks should not be there. And they cannot, if the council does not approve their applications for passports.

Founded by the military regime of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the Ecclesiastical Council has developed into a feudalistic cartel. The spirit of authoritarianism is alive and well and many of its rules violate basic human rights.

For example, Thai monks do not have access to national identification cards issued by local offices of the state, thus making them unqualified for state benefits. No monk of Thai nationality can apply for a passport without official permission from the Ecclesiastical Council. It takes months for a monk to apply for and receive a passport. The entire process takes only two working days for the laity.

Equal rights for men and women are denied by the Ecclesiastical Council. No woman can be ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun or bhikkhuni in Thailand. The Council has issued a national warning that any monk who ordains female monks will severely punished.

It is not wrong to say that the Ecclesiastical Council of Thailand is deeply entrenched in feudalism while the rest of Thailand is opening up. The feudal thinking was evident at the recent international conference at the United Nations Building in Bangkok. While a Buddhist nun led a chant in Pali at the international conference, Thai bhikkhunis ordained in Sri Lanka were not invited to attend the event, let alone to speak to the conference. Buddhist activists who work along the UN rights platforms were also absent.

And although the resolution naming Buddhamonthon as the centre of World Buddhism was approved unanimously, it is a near certainty that the delegates from other nations were thinking of Thailand as a centre, not the centre.

The endorsement of Buddhamonthon as a world Buddhist centre seems to help solve the cleric council's internal problems by helping legitimise its decision to move the council's meetings from Wat Bovornivet, the centre of Dhammayutika Nikaya, to Buddhamonthon instead.

The international community has the right to expect that the International Day of Vesak celebrations to be all-inclusive and answering to global concerns, considering that those celebrations were sparked by the United Nations' recognition of the holiday. That was not what it turned out to be.

Mettanando Bhikkhu qualified as a physician at Chulalongkorn University before being ordained as a Buddhist monk. He subsequently obtained an MA at Oxford, a ThM at Harvard, and a PhD at Hamburg.

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