Politics and religion do mix after all

by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post, March 9, 2006

Bangkok, Thailand -- We used to believe that politics and religion should not mix. That it is a no-no for monks to take sides when the country is in a political mess. Is this belief still as firm as ever? No, judging from what is happening at Sanam Luang these days.

If it was, we should have heard some complaints when the Santi Asoke monks and nuns took to the streets and vowed to join the anti-Thaksin rallies to the very end. Or when the pro-Thaksin monks urged their peers to bring followers to show support for their favourite leader.

But we didn't hear even a whimper. What happened?

Seeing monks taking to the street no longer shocks simply because it has become common fare over the past few years of noisy monk politics.

When the clergy wanted the National Buddhism Bureau, they sent the monks to the street. The same when they wanted the Buddhism Ministry.

Hearing monks fiercely attack politicians or one another also no longer shocks, given the boisterous conflicts between Luangta Maha Bua, the Sangha Council and the government.

The Sanam Luang rallies highlight the long cleric devide that is not new to the public. What is new is now monks no longer care to keep up the pretence that they are above politics; they are all too ready to join the political melee.

Does this mean that from now on each camp can openly seek political support for what they want?

How far can this go?

Where should we draw the line?

Before we try to answer these questions, which are tied to our opinions of what should be, we should look at what is and who is who in the cleric politics that are played out at Sanam Luang.

Like it or not, the fact is that the belief that monks and politics do not mix is but a myth.

Remember the late Phra Pimondham of Wat Mahatat who tried to democratise the clergy?

Strongman Sarit Thanarat quickly accused him of being a communist, sent him to jail and introduced the draconian Sangha Bill to strengthen the clergy's iron grip on power.

The clergy paid back by keeping their mouths shut to state abuse of power. Hence the monks-and-politics-don't-mix ploy to silence monks from speaking up against state misconduct.

Too much power of the Sangha Council, however, has led to apathy and irrelevance. Hence the emergence of different reformist groups which take different stands in the Thaksin crisis.

Wearied by state support for the Sangha Council, Luangta openly backs the ousting of Mr Thaksin. The politically cautious Sangha leaders, meanwhile, remain tight-lipped to play safe, which is the elders' way of playing politics.

The anti-consumerism Santi Asoke backs Chamlong Srimuang no matter what. They also want to show repentance for earlier supporting Mr Thaksin whom they now see as the symbol of capitalistic evils. The Dhammakaya remains supportive of the Thaksin government not only because it sees nothing wrong with capitalism, but also because it needs political support to save their embattled abbot.

While the Sanam Luang rallies have raised questions about the roles of monks in politics, they also provide some answers.

Calling themselves socially engaged Buddhists, a group of monks and lay Buddhists faithfully attend the anti-Thaksin rallies to advocate the need of non-violence and the use of civil disobedience to bring about change.

Interestingly, the presence of the quiet, stoic Santi Asoke monks and nuns also helps provide a sense of restraint to counter the dangerously strong emotions in the rallies.

Politicians come and go. Religion stays. We must think about the role religion should play amid the upheavals stemming from moral degradation and political abuse. As the non-violence groups have shown us, the question is not whether religion should get involved with politics or not, but how?

For we must remain true to the Buddha's teachings on compassion, endurance and tolerance.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.