Buddhism's Role in the National Identity of South and Southeast Asian Nations

The Buddhist Channel, on September 12, 2023

Bangkok, Thailand -- Buddhism, a spiritual and cultural cornerstone, plays a pivotal role in shaping the national identities of countries in South and Southeast Asia, according to the latest findings from a 2022 Pew Research Center survey spanning the region. The study sheds light on the deep intertwining of Buddhism and national identity in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, where over 70% of adults practice this ancient religion.

A staggering 95% of Sri Lankan Buddhists affirm the significance of being Buddhist in their identity as Sri Lankans. Furthermore, 87% of respondents in the same category consider Buddhism to be not just important but 'very important' in defining their Sri Lankan identity. This sentiment echoes through Thailand and Cambodia as well, underlining the profound link between Buddhism and national belonging.

While Buddhism is primarily considered a religious affiliation, a substantial majority of Buddhists in these countries regard it as more than just a faith. The majority describe Buddhism as "a religion one chooses to follow," "a culture one is part of," and "a family tradition one must follow." Remarkably, 76% of Cambodian Buddhists also view Buddhism as an ethnicity one is born into, highlighting the multifaceted role it plays in their lives.

The connection between Buddhism and national identity is reflected in the legal framework of these nations. Cambodia's constitution designates Buddhism as the national religion, mandating state support for Buddhist schools. Sri Lanka's constitution guarantees Buddhism "the foremost place" and places the government under an obligation to "protect and foster" it. Thailand, in a series of constitutional revisions over the last century, has continually reinforced the preeminence of Buddhism, with the latest constitution emphasizing the state's responsibility to "prevent Buddhism from being undermined in any form."

According to the survey, a significant majority of Buddhists in these countries advocate for their national laws to be rooted in Buddhist dharma, encompassing the knowledge, doctrines, and practices stemming from Buddha's teachings. This perspective is almost unanimous among Cambodian Buddhists, with 96% supporting the idea, while smaller majorities in Sri Lanka (80%) and Thailand (56%) also back the incorporation of Buddhist teachings and practices into national laws.

The survey also delved into the role of religious leaders in public life. Cambodian Buddhists displayed the greatest propensity for an intersection between religion and government, with 81% advocating for religious leaders to participate in political elections. In comparison, smaller proportions of Buddhists in Sri Lanka (66%) and Thailand (54%) support this idea, albeit with restrictions in Thailand, where the constitution bars Buddhist monks, novices, ascetics, and priests from voting.

Even in Cambodia, where nearly everyone supports basing the law on Buddhist dharma, no more than half of Buddhists are in favor of religious leaders participating in political protests (50%), publicly endorsing politicians (47%), or becoming politicians themselves (45%).

The Pew Research Center conducted this comprehensive study among 13,122 adults across six countries in Southeast and South Asia. Face-to-face interviews took place in Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, while mobile phones were used for surveys in Malaysia and Singapore. The survey was carried out between June and September 2022 in eight languages.

This research, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, is part of a broader initiative by the Pew Research Center to examine religious transformations and their repercussions on societies globally. The Center has previously conducted religion-focused surveys across various regions worldwide, offering critical insights into the intersection of faith and culture.
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