Buddhistalization of the politics in Thailand?

Buddhistalization of the politics in Thailand?

 Written by: Megan Butthong

Buddhism and politics. Two worlds with their differences, but at the same time they also share some similarities. For example, religion and politics have quite a similar nature. It can both make people blindly believe in certain things. From this perspective, religion and politics could enhance each other, right?

The ideas of Buddha “should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilized place, both gentler and more intelligent.”

It was this statement by Richard Gombrich [13] that made me wonder if we shouldn’t just have to encourage the interference of Buddhism in the political field of Thailand, as another level of society, as well as the other way around. Or is the relationship between Buddhism and the Thai politics something that already knows its existence? To find out, we first have to understand what Buddhism is, as well as for its meaning. This will be discussed in headlines.

 

So, Buddhism…

 

In Thailand Buddhism is the national religion. Buddhism is a philosophical religion which finds its origin in India with Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha [15], around 2,500 years ago [14].  Buddhism distinguishes three traditions: Theravada (southern Buddhism), Mahayana (eastern Buddhism), Tibetan (northern Buddhism). Theravada is the Buddhistic religion that is pursued by the Thai citizens [11].

Buddhism is not like the other main religions. In contrast to Christianity for example, Buddhism is not a religion that includes believing in some kind of god, or multiple gods like Hinduism. Buddhism is more like a religion that provides a way of living life and a path to enlightenment, created by the Buddhistic teachings.

Buddhism is considered an important element of the Thai culture. The religion is even, beside ‘nation’ and ‘King’, part of the state ideology trilogy, which forms the identity of the country [7] [8]. Many Thai citizens are trying to live alongside the lines that Buddhism draws.

Flag of Thailand
The national flag of Thailand also reflects the trilogy of nation (red), religion (white) and King (blue) – Image from: Edarabia [9]
Buddhistic countries in 2020
Buddhistic countries in 2020 – Image from: Countries [4]

Buddhists acknowledge the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as the Three Jewels of Buddhism, also known as the Three Refuges. Buddha is a title that means ‘Enlightened’ or ‘Awakened’. This title is given to a person who became aware of the Dharma, the Truth, and thereby reached Enlightenment. Outsiders of Buddhism most of the time portray Gautama as the founder of Buddhism, however Buddhists see Gautama in another way. They believe that the Truth is perpetual, but its presence is not always recognized. Over time, there will be a person who realizes the Truth and becomes Buddha. Gautama can be seen as the latest Buddha [12]Lastly, the Sangha can be defined as the community that consists of the followers of Buddhism who devote their live to reach Enlightenment and keep the teachings of Buddha alive, like the monks and nuns [12] [13]

So, the religion Buddhism and the Sangha are important elements of the Thai culture, and therefore also part of the socio-political and religio-political structure [19]. Buddhism influences other institutions, but, at the same time, is affected by these institutions [19]. In Thai history, there are some examples that can be given.

 

Let’s go back in history, shall we?

For example, because of the Sangha Act of 1902, the monastic community got a more bureaucratic element. The religious and monastic hierarchy were organized alongside the national political structure and grew more towards the state [8] [20]. Dubus [8] says that the monastic community even “has become an extension of the Thai state”. Buddhism as an aspect of the politics of Thailand is not something of the latest decades. It has been part of political environment since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries up to the present day [20].

To show also the other side of the dynamic, Buddhist texts are used to give a certain base to policies and actions of the government. For instance, in the past King Vajiravudh wrote some articles about his policies and their foundations in Buddhism [22]. This kind of work ensured that Buddhism and the king are seen as the inseparable pillars of the nation, and therefore the traditional religio-political structure in Thailand continues. Buddhism and the Sangha can also be seen as an instrument to effect state policies, because of its deeper and religious reach in the community [19].

An example of Buddhism in a specific Thai political field, the kingship, is Section 7 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 2017. This section states that “The King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions” [3]. This shapes a certain image of the King and his position in Thai politics. Some Thai people see him as a person who stands above the law, for instance. The former King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, mentioned in his first speech that he would rule the country with the thought of Dharma. His son and current King Maha Vajiralongkorn is willing to continue this way of reigning the country [24]. This can be related to this section of the Constitution.

 

But what about these modern days…?

You could say that Buddhism in the Thai politics is not that significant anymore, because of the decreasing believe in Buddhism. One of the reasons for this is globalization. Globalization causes a diversity of influences from all over the world, and social media is an instrument that emphasizes this change. Now more than ever, people are able to widen their ideology, make comparisons with other people and societies all over the world and obtain influences from these people and their cultures [24] [25]

King Vajiravudh, King Rama VI
King Vajiravudh, also known as King Rama VI – Image from: Reurnthai [18]

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX)
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as King Rama IX – Image from: Royal Thai Embassy [10]

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as King Rama X
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as King Rama X – Image from: Wikipedia [23]

Because of globalization countries become multicultural and have to deal with a diverse range of religion among their population. This results in less stronger believes in the Buddhistic religion and the acknowledgement of its teachings, especially when it comes to the young generations. And as mentioned before, because Buddhism is an important element of the Thai nation and its identity, it is also part of the socio-political and religio-politcal structure. So, you could say that this declining phenomenon has also a declining effect on the relationship between Buddhism and Thai politics and the acknowledgement of this existence [24] [25].

Another reason for the decreasing power of Buddhism among the young generations is the change in the relationship between the religion and the education system. Some years ago, Buddhism was an important part of the education system in Thailand. Children would learn about the Buddhistic teachings and form their own ideology about this. However, there have been some changes in this influence field of Buddhism. A governmental administration in the past took the Buddhism out of the education system what resulted in a weakening power of Buddhism in this system of Thai society. The younger generation looks different to Buddhism and its importance in Thai society. This weakens the power of Buddhism in the Thai society and therefore also in its politics [24].

Luang Por Dhammajayo
Luang Por Dhammajayo – Image from: Thailand News [17]

Wat Phra Dhammakaya
Wat Phra Dhammakaya – Image from: J. Nalewicki [16]

An additional influence that is worth mentioning is a result of corruption cases related to the Sangha. An example of such case is the one of Luang Por Dhammajayo, a Thai Buddhist monk and a former abbot of the temple Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The former abbot has been involved in a money laundering scandal. Also, the thought of the Wat Phra Dhamakaya temple having close links with the former prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra is widely shared. However, the Buddhist order of the temple says not to be involved in political matters  [2]. Scandals like this can lead to people questioning the Sangha and Buddhism, and its customization, more [24] [25].

From looking at the decreasing believe in Buddhism and its teachings, we can also look at the restriction of participating in political activities, such as protests, and expressing political opinions for Buddhist monks. Since 1974, the Sangha Council, the ruling institution of the Thai Sangha, adopts a resolution that forbids monks to participate in political protests. This resolution has been restated over the years. You would say that this separates the religion from the state. However, this is not fully true. Extensions of restrictions for the pro-democracy minded-ones were introduced, while excluding the royalistic side [21]. So the resolutions of the Sangha Council are intended to separate religion from state, however only a very specific part of the monastic community; the democratic side. Also here you can sense some kind of customization. This bias-acting results in protesting pro-democracy monks questioning the Sangha Council. Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism (NOB) is also a big player in preventing interference of monks in political activities. This institution ordered monks not to participate in the anti-government protests that took place in November 2020. The NOB referred in this case also to the resolution of the Council about non-participation in political activities [6].

 

So, in conclusion…

To come back to the main question that was formulated due to the statement of Gombrich:

“Shouldn’t we just have to encourage the interference of Buddhism in the political field of Thailand, as another level of society, as well as the other way around?”

Some examples discussed above show that there are extreme ways of customization of Buddhism. This affects the believe and trust of some people in the religion and its system in Thai society, and automatically affects its power in Thai politics. Encouraging the interference of Buddhism in politics and the other way around can come along with the customization of the religion in a inconvenienced way with negative effects for Buddhism. In addition, globalization and social media provide the change of collecting knowledge and influences from all over the world. So in the modern days, is it even possible to achieve a significant dynamic relationship between Buddhism and Thai politics, if globalization, social media, customization of the religion and taking Buddhism out of the education system, to a certain extent, make sure that the believe in Buddhism is weakened, especially among the young generations? Furthermore, how can Buddhism function as a fundamental support of the Thai politics if among the Buddhistic society itself lurks some kind of transformation, expressed by some protesting monks questioning its own Sangha Council.

 

References

[1]   AsianLII. (1997). Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1997. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from AsianLII: http://www.asianlii.org/th/legis/const/1997/1.html

[2]   Cochrane, L. (2017, February 16). Thai police search controversial Dhammakaya temple for accused money-laundering former abbot. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from ABC News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-16/thai-police-surround-controversial-temple-in-latest-stand-off/8277300

[3]   Constitute. (2021). Thailand’s Constitution of 2017. Constitute. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Thailand_2017.pdf?lang=en

[4]   Countries. (2020). MOST BUDDHIST COUNTRIES 2020 – BUDDHISM BY COUNTRY. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from Countries: https://countries.cam/buddhist-countries/

[5]   Dahlke, P., Sīlācāra, B., Oates, L., & Lounsbery, G. C. (2008). The Five Precepts (3 ed.). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from http://www.what-buddha-said.net/files/library/wheels/wh055.pdf

[6]   DeMaioNewton, E., & Jensen, K. (2020, November 14). Buddha Buzz Weekly: Thailand Bans Monks from Protesting. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from Tricycle: https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/thai-monks-protests/

[7]   Dressel, B. (2010, June 8). When Notions of Legitimacy Conflict: The Case of Thailand. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from Wiley Online Library: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2010.00243.x

[8]   Dubus, A. (2018). Buddhism and Politics in Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Institut de recherche sur I’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=qEuMDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=buddhism+and+politics+in+thailand&ots=4kc4Q3hPr9&sig=HZq3ZMS4QIcCSU4PMgxzL84UngI&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=buddhism%20and%20politics%20in%20thailand&f=false

[9]   Edarabia. (n.d.). Flag of Thailand. Flag of Thailand – Colours, Meaning, History. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.edarabia.com/thailand/flag/

[10]   Embassy, R. T. (n.d.). H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://thaiembdc.org/h-m-king-bhumibol-adulyadej1/

[11]   Gethin, R. (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=FUwSDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=buddhism&ots=P3VXmdt6_B&sig=D9PQiwshGmwCJohYo_uo9h9irkA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=buddhism&f=false

[12]   Gombrich, R. (2006). Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (2 ed.). New York, United States of America: Routledge. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=KCh-AgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=theravada+buddhism:+a+social+history&ots=MavMV7N6j-&sig=mMjXYrShFIWnCWFS9vf_dykyO7Q&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=theravada%20buddhism%3A%20a%20social%20history&f=false

[13]   Gombrich, R. (2018). What the Buddha Thought (1 ed.). Delhi, India: Equinox Publishing. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=D4rtDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=what+the+buddha+thought+gombrich&ots=spmXV_SJ4x&sig=OaK6LbxUWOIC40xI-bc1WJiihk0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=what%20the%20buddha%20thought%20gombrich&f=false

[14]   Harvey, P. (2013). An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (2 ed.). New York, United States of America: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=8XAgAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=introduction+buddhism&ots=qUrk8hpNDB&sig=jD0EJv6OnjeXszJhypyQk-UPfnQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=introduction%20buddhism&f=false

[15]   Hesse, H. (1998). Siddhartha. (S. Appelbaum, Trans.) Mineola, New York, United States of America: Dover Publications, Inc. Retrieved March 11, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=zF8JnxhazMQC&oi=fnd&pg=PR4&dq=Siddhartha+Gautama&ots=fupFYnwmKh&sig=YRfXKr16pWFQKGTuJ0gOXQaxmes&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Siddhartha%20Gautama&f=false

[16]   Nalewicki, J. (2019). Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Six of Thailand’s Most Magnificent Temples. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/six-thailands-most-magnificent-temples-180969106/

[17]   News, T. (2017). Luang Por Dhammajayo at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Scholars urge Buddhism body to defrock ex-abbot. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.thailandnews.co/2017/03/scholars-urge-buddhism-body-defrock-ex-abbot/

[18]   Reurnthai. (2008). King Vajiravudh of Siam. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from http://www.reurnthai.com/index.php?topic=2612.105

[19]   Suksamran, S. (1982). Buddhism and Politics in Thailand: A Study of Socio-political Change and Political Activism of the Thai Sangha. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=mzeTnSf4J1gC&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=buddhism+and+politics+in+thailand&ots=Th27G1rWkx&sig=4TVfF-Gwgu2c_P9t_rG1Ls0SAIU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=buddhism%20and%20politics%20in%20thailand&f=false

[20]   Swearer, D. K. (1999). Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth Century Asia. (I. Harris, Ed.) Continuum. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://books.google.nl/books?hl=en&lr=&id=nUXUAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA194&dq=buddhism+and+politics+in+thailand&ots=69V0n79u97&sig=1HD9VoKgzlC4h6LZy27BBwy0-xU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=buddhism%20and%20politics%20in%20thailand&f=false

[21]   Tonsakulrungruang, K. (2020, November 16). The pro-democracy monks joining Thailand’s protests. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from New Mandala: https://www.newmandala.org/the-pro-democracy-monks-joining-thailands-protests/

[22]   Wachirayanawarorot, P. (1916). Buddhist attitude towards national defence and administration: a special allocution. Bangkok, Thailand. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://digitallib.stou.ac.th/bitstream/handle/6625047444/1680/The%20Buddhist%20Attiude.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[23]   Wikipedia. (2017). Vajiralongkorn วชิรลงกรณ์. Vajiralongkorn. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajiralongkorn

 

Interviews

[24]   Jang, P. (2021, March 19). Interview Thainess Blog with Arm. (M. Butthong, Interviewer) Retrieved March 27, 2021

[25]   Limsuvech, S. (2021, March 17). Interview Thainess Blog with Ben. (M. Butthong, Interviewer) Retrieved March 27, 2021

 

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