Church and State : Monks and Politics
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Church and State : Monks and Politics

Thai Rath reports that a Military Commander states that TRT leaders should stop bringing Buddhism into the political sphere and that the use of Buddhism as a political tool is unacceptable and we can’t accept it.
/>COMMENT: I thought this was a good opportunity to put some thoughts and bring some quotes together on the relationship between the politics, the state and Buddhism and the recent debate about Buddhism becoming a state religion. I will only superficially look at these issues in this post. This is not a thesis statement or an academic work.

First, a history lesson from Darlington:

Mongkut linked the Sangha hierarchy with the absolute monarchy based in Bangkok, using it to legitimize the central government and weaken the influence of regional forms of religion and the power of regional political leaders. The legitimizing role that the Sangha played toward the state was strengthened as Bangkok expanded its control to the peripheral regions, using wandering forest monks to forge relations with remote rural peoples (see Jackson 1989, Kamala 1997, Tambiah 1976, 1984, Taylor 1993a). During the modernization period, Siam—renamed Thailand in 1932—established the three-fold concept of religion, monarchy, and nation, formalizing the connection between religion and state even further.
/>Three Sangha Acts enacted by the Thai government in 1902, 1941 and 1962 brought the Sangha formally under the government’s control (see Jackson 1989, Tambiah 1976). Each of these Acts created a state-imposed organizational structure for the Sangha that paralleled the current forms of government: in 1902, Siam was still a monarchy, and the hierarchical, centralized Sangha was headed by a Supreme Patriarch; in 1941, a decentralized Sangha structure was established that paralleled the democratic, constitutional monarchy in place at the time; in 1962, a top-down structure was reintroduced to match the autocratic government of Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat. Underlying the Acts, especially that of 1962, was an effort to garner support not only for the current government, but to legitimize its development policies as well. The 1962 Act, in particular, aimed to use the Sangha to foster Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat’s development agenda.

COMMENT: Sangha = community of monks. Mongkut is of course King Monkut – of King and I fame.

Duncan McCargo in “Buddhism, democracy and identity in Thailand” (Democratization, Volume 11, Number 4, August 2004 , pp. 155-170 – PDF) looks at the role of the monarchy and its interaction with Buddhism (p157):

Anderson suggests that the kind of modernization carried out by the Chakri kings was analogous to that pursued by colonial governors under formal imperialism. In this sense, the incorporation of the Buddhist sangha into a political order organized along principles of internal colonialism is an important element of the legacy of the absolute monarchy. A new political order was ushered in by the 1932 events which ended the absolute monarchy, but the country was left with a ‘modernized’ (in other words, a subordinated and captured) Buddhist sangha

For more on this see this book review by Clark Neher of “Buddhism and Politics in Thailand: A Study of Sociopolitical Change and Political Activism in the Thai Sangha” by Somboon Suksamran. Here is the abstract:

The author finds that, contrary to conventional wisdom, political power has pervaded the Sangha structure, enabling the political authorities to secure the loyalty of the Sangha and to subjugate Sangha officials to the policies of the state. Exploding the myth of the apolitical monkhood, Somboon explains why the co-opted members of the Sangha are willing to cooperate with the political and economic establishment in resisting changes in the existing socioeconomic structures.

COMMENT: I think I have made my point on the historical role of Buddhism, the monarchy, and the state.

McCargo has more on the on the post-1962 situation (at 165):

Under 1969 legislation, the Religious Affairs Department has the right to recognize new religious movements under certain clearly defined criteria, including their being non-political. For this reason, commentators such as Stewart have suggested that freedom of religion simply does not exist in Thailand.

COMMENT: Stewart’s paper, which is difficult to find, makes for an interesting read, particularly on freedom of religion for Buddhist sects/groups.

McCargo continues on the them of problems which arise for Buddhist groups who rise up against the government (at p158):

Certainly, monks were not permitted to participate in radical protests or overt criticism of the political order – when a few tried, they were excoriated by the authorities. By contrast, monastic support for conservative causes went unchallenged, most notoriously when the outspoken right-wing monk Kittiwutto declared that ‘killing communists is not a sin’.

COMMENT: Wat Thammakai is one of the better recent examples of a Buddhist sect which challenged the status quo and where action was taken against them – see McCargo’s full paper for more details although they eventually came back into the fold. Santi Asoke (more on them below) also had their own problems.

I should note that according to McCargo that Buddhism played a less important role after 1973 although this does not mean they played no role. I actually disagree with McCargo here as you will see below.

McCargo commenting on the aftermath of the 1991 coup/1992 protests, McCargo states (at p157):

Thai Buddhism remains to a significant extent enmeshed in an earlier set of political structures, immune from the emergence of much more plural and liberal politics since the 1970s. This reflects the role of the Buddhist order as the handmaiden of the Thai state.

COMMENT: One political party of the post-1973 era was strongly influenced by Santi Asoke as Fox states (PDF):

The most prominent politician influenced by the Santi Asoke movement was Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, the popular, clean-living, governor of Bangkok, whose Palang Dharma party was backed by Santi Asoke. In fact in the 1988 municipal elections, fully half of the 300 or so candidates running for Palang Dharma were ordained members of the Santi Asoke. This was the highpoint of the movement’s political involvement, however, and since then it has been more politically circumspect, if just as socially active.

COMMENT: Chamlong also played a role in the 1992 protests against the military as the article notes he was governor of Bangkok. He also continued his role again in politics in 1996 helping to promote a certain Thaksin.

NOTE: Palang Dharma Party can translate as “Moral Force”.

I’ll skip a few years until 2004 where Thaksin, like other Thai governments has had problems with monks, well, problems when they criticise him as ABC reported in 2004:

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has warned the country’s Buddhist monks to avoid politics, adding that they should defrock and join political parties, if they wish. Mr Thaksin’s warning comes amid reports that monks had been banned from mentioning him or the government in their sermons on public radio in the Buddhist kingdom.

LAM: But why would Buddhist monks in Thailand get involved in politics and comment on essentially political matters?

SIVARAKSA: Well a Buddhist monk is also a Thai citizen, and as a monk he has an official duty to direct society on moral principles, spiritual principles. And moral principles obviously linked to cultural, economic and political. You can’t teach morals in a vacuum; the monk has to say something which is interpreted to be political by the Prime Minister. But any monk who praises him, who tells him his fortune and says he will be Prime Minister for 20 years, he doesn’t regard that as political. But if the monk tells him that to use violence, to use falsehood, to use money to buy votes, that is immoral, then he will regard him as political. But then the Prime Minister came out himself, clearly he said if monks want to say anything politically he should leave the monkhood and wear the trousers. And of course the monks would not be shut up easily.
/>But they do that not openly, by canvassing something behind the scenes. In my opinion the most notorious monk is the Luangta Maha Bua, who raised a lot of money to help the Central Bank of Thailand, and he is known to be supporting the present Prime Minister openly. Yet nobody accuses him of being involved in politics.

COMMENT: That same monk Luangta Maha Bua famously turned against Thaksin in 2005. Chamlong Srimuang also turned against Thaksin and brought a 1,000 of his Buddhist sect’s followers to protest against Thaksin last year.

It should be no surprise that monks are out protesting against the CNS.

Now turning to Buddhism becoming a state religion. We have The Nation stating:

Although Buddhist followers and the growing number of Thais from other religions see nothing wrong in the glorification of Buddhism, the past 17 constitutions did not bear any religious flag. This is because Thailand has always been a secular state.

Every Thai king is a Buddhist and every royal palace from the Sukhothai era to Rattanakosin has a palace temple for royal worship and religious rituals.

But no Thai kings ever allowed secular and spiritual affairs to be mixed.

COMMENT: Well, it is The Nation, what can you expect?

I must say I find it difficult to get worked up about the issue of Buddhism becoming a state religion. I am personally against the state being involved religion, but we are not talking about, IMHO, some radical step. I am surprised at some of the coverage. As the State Department states in their International Religious Freedom report for 2005:

The state religion in effect is Theravada Buddhism

IHT reports:

Ammar Siamwalla, a leading economist in Bangkok who is a Muslim, noted that Buddhism, unlike Islam, is not a political religion and that it presents no equivalent to the Islamic laws instituted in some Muslim countries.

Given this lack of substance, he said, the entire debate seems pointless.

“I’m amazed that a 2,500-year-old religion has to obtain legitimacy in a document which will last probably, on the basis of past form, 10 years or less,” he said, referring to the constant rewriting of constitutions in Thailand.

“Our constitution is the least respected document in the country,” he said. “It’s been torn up too many times to be so obsessive about.”

COMMENT: I agree. I really don’t get the whole point either for it or against it – I get that some Buddhists feel under attack over the violence in the South, but making Buddhism the state religion will hardly improve things.

To give you an idea on the lack of separation of wat and state in Thailand, just look at section 66 the 1997 Constitution:

Every person shall have a duty to uphold the Nation, religions, the King and the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State under this Constitution.

COMMENT: Actually, “religions” could also be translated as “religion” as in Buddhism. Buddhism is one of the three pillars of the Thai state, it is linked explicitly with the whole Thai identity.

In fact, section 73 1997 Constitution requires the direct opposite of a separation:

The State shall patronise and protect Buddhism and other religions, promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions as well as encourage the application of religious principles to create virtue and develop the quality of life.

COMMENT: The State Department has more.

The Criminal Code also includes specific offences against religion:

  • s206 – it is a criminal offence to insult any religion (punishable by 1-7 years in jail or a fine)
  • s207 – it is a criminal offence to cause a disturbance at a place or worship
  • s208 – it is a criminal offence to impersonate a religious leader

I should note that in 1998 Supreme Court upheld a conviction of a person under s208 (Dika 3699/2541). Personally, I don’t know why the government is getting involved in having specific religious offences and I don’t know why fraud/deception offences would not be sufficient.

There are other provisions in other Acts which the State Department sets out. What is all the fuss about?

CONCLUSION: Thailand is certainly not a completely secular state. The state has tried to control Buddhism and still does. Monks though have spoken out, but the government often tries to punish or suppress them. I have no problem with monks being involved in politics, but think that the government should get out of religion completely.