Is Thailand’s Buddhist Sangha Undergoing a Political Sea Change?

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Is Thailand’s Buddhist Sangha Undergoing a Political Sea Change?

The Thai Buddhist order has long helped to legitimize and prop up the prevailing monarchical order.

Is Thailand’s Buddhist Sangha Undergoing a Political Sea Change?
Credit: Depositphotos

On November 11, 2020, Thailand’s Buddhist governing body, the Supreme Sangha Council, ruled that monks were forbidden to take part in the wave of protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s administration. Expected to be “above politics,” monks do not have the right to vote, as per Chapter VII, Article 96 of the 2017 Thai Constitution. The reasoning behind this is that giving monks the electoral franchise would polarize society.

The government’s mandate that monks and nuns (mae chi) could not take part in protests exposes its fear and fragility. Just as importantly, it points to a parallel fear and fragility within the Buddhist establishment, where a shift is occurring in the willingness of monks to help legitimize state power. It is also a sign of a top-down approach to “religion-building,” whereby the government seeks to reign in the Sangha (monastic community), while at the same time, instrumentalizing the ambiguities surrounding public speech to promote, if not increasingly enforce, public silence.

Buddhism has long been a central tenet of Thai nationalism and of Thai national identity, which coalesces around three pillars, that of the nation (chāt), religion (sāsanā), which does not explicitly mean Buddhism, and the king (phramahākasat). Around 93 percent of Thais are Buddhist, with Muslims, the next largest religious group, making up 5 percent of the population. Buddhism is so prevalent in Thai society, that fewer than 1 percent of Thais identify as atheist. To maintain control, the state has appropriated both the right and the responsibility to protect Buddhism by controlling the space around public speech. It has also, since 2016, given license to state agencies to ensure the “right teaching” of religion (read: Buddhism), and has introduced punishments of one year in prison and fines of up to 20,000 baht ($670) for anyone “defaming and insulting” Buddhism.

Given the increasing digital sophistication of Thai society, and the evolving current protest movement, which has called for monarchic reform and Prayut’s resignation, is the pre-modern nature of state-Buddhist relations in Thailand under threat? In November 2020 the Thai government revived the country’s lese-majeste laws, first written into the Thai constitution of 1908, as a means of deflecting opposition and curbing anti-government protests. The country’s Buddhist hierarchy has long been viewed as a key component of the state’s moral and political legitimacy, which implicitly gives monks political leverage and power. This may be a hindrance to rather than an enabler of democratization, especially as Thai Buddhism is a royal prerogative, and the Supreme Sangha Council appears to have little impetus or capability of to reform itself. Would the Thai Sangha be better off as a self-governing body where monastic communities look after their own needs, instead of being subject to centralized rule from Bangkok?

Buddhism and Thai National Identity

The idea of nationhood, or the concept of the Thai nation, and “Thainess” (khwam ben thai), has long been entwined with Buddhism. The notion of modern Thai identity broadly corresponds to the politics of the rule of Chulalongkorn (known also as King Rama V), and commonly referred to as Phra Phutta Chao Luang (the Royal Buddha), who ruled from 1868 to 1910, and his son, Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who ruled from 1910 to 1925. Chulalongkorn undertook a major reorganization of the existing Buddhist hierarchy and centralized it with the monarch at its apex. The 1902 Sangha Act saw the Buddhist ecclesiastical hierarchy turned into an arm of the state, acting almost as a branch of the civil service.

Ostensibly intended as part of a wider nation-building process over which Chulalongkorn presided, the Sangha Act created a systematic and unified Buddhist hierarchy for the first time in Thailand’s history. It also aided in the centralization of all monastics and dictated that Buddhist texts and edicts be written in standard Thai. Education, which was largely under the purview of monks, was also to be taught in standard Thai, as opposed to Pali, the sacred language of the Theravada school of Buddhism predominant in Thailand, and local vernaculars such as Lao. Largely administrative in scope, the 1902 Sangha Act saw the introduction of a hierarchical structure within Buddhist institutions, especially at it relates to the chao awat (abbots) of monasteries, who were now forced to report to government-appointed district and regional heads. Its main feature, however, was the establishment of a Supreme Patriarch (Somdet Phra Sangharat), who in 1902 was a government minister from the Ministry of Education.

Subsequent reforms to the Act, in 1941, were the long-term result of the June 1932 Revolution, which ended the absolute monarchy, and replaced it with a conventionally Western style of constitutional government. To a degree, the 1941 amendments represented democratic notions. They saw the creation of an ecclesiastical assembly (Sangha Sapha), made up of 45 senior monks chosen by the Supreme Patriarch, and, in imitation of the civil service, an ecclesiastical cabinet (Kana Sangha Montri). Subject to overall political authority, the position of the king at this point, much like the Supreme Patriarch, acted on the advice of the new constitutional government, which gave new administrative and legislative powers to the Ministry of Education in particular.

A further amendment in 1962 resulted from the 1957 coup that brought Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat to power. The 1962 Sangha Act amendment saw an increasingly centralized political role for the Sangha, which up to this point, had numerous internal fissures within it, mainly the dichotomy between the Mahanikai and the Thammayut. The Thammayut (“teachings of the Buddha”) faction, founded by King Rama IV as a reform movement, was recognized as a monastic order by the 1902 Sangha Act. As a creation of the monarchy, the Thammayut played an outsized role in the hierarchy of institutionalized Buddhism, despite making up a tiny proportion of ordained monks. The 1932 Revolution opened a fissure which saw a group of Mahanikai monks reject the institutionalized rule of the Thammayut, under a veneer of democracy. This fissure, though waxing and waning in intensity, has continued to this day.

The Sangha’s Political Role in Modern Thailand

Overt clerical involvement in Thailand’s politics is a causality of the red shirt/yellow shirt dichotomy that has dominated it over the past two decades. The red shirts campaigning for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra comprised rural workers, left-wing activists, students, and members of the country’s business community. Many Buddhist monks were also overt in their support for Thaksin, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006 that enjoyed the support of many urban middle class Thais, royalists, and nationalists, who coalesced around the anti-Thaksin yellow shirt movement.

Thaksin, a telecommunications magnate, was widely popular among Thailand’s lower income populations, due to his funding of education and health care policies that benefited them. Dogged by corruption charges, stemming from a Constitutional Court case from 1997, which claimed that he illegally concealed his wealth while serving as premier, Thaksin enlisted the help of 1,000 Buddhist monks in a religious ceremony known as Thaengkae to ward off conviction.

A seeming pull factor for some monks who joined the anti-government protests in 2020 was corruption, especially within the Sangha, where it is believed that graft and financial mismanagement are rampant. This was certainly so in the case of Phra Panya Seesun, who spoke out on Facebook criticizing the royal prerogative of appointing monks to key positions within the Sangha, and contending that the monarchy therefore should not be above criticism. Currently living as an asylum seeker in an undisclosed country, Phra Seesun’s case is unusual in that rather than being disciplined internally by the Sangha, he was the subject of a royal summons for defamation.

The fissures opened by Thailand’s red-yellow polarization are a microcosm of broader societal fissures. In 2017, police raided Dhammakaya temple, on the pretext that the abbot, Phra Dhammajayo, had embezzled temple funds. The real reason, however, may have been the allegations that the temple has links with the Shinawatra family, both to Thaksin and his sister Yingluck. Yingluck, as head of the Pheu Thai Party, itself a partial reincarnation of the Thai Rak Thai Party that Thaksin led to electoral victory in 2001, served as prime minister in 2011-2014, before being removed by the Constitutional Court for acting illegally when she transferred her national security head. At the forefront of the anti-Yingluck protests was Luang Pu Buddha Issara, a monk.

Thailand’s Buddhist establishment and hierarchy are not immune from the broader currents of society. In some sense, being treated as an effective arm of the civil service has degraded the integrity of the Buddhist hierarchy, making advancement largely dependent primarily on patronage and financial clout. However, the very fact that the government has decreed that monks are forbidden to take part in protests may point to a changing dynamic within the Sangha. As Thai protesters stand against what they see as stifling and repressive government policies, these sentiments have permeated, unsurprisingly, into the Sangha. The very nature of the citizen-state relationship in Thailand is shifting. With its dynamic and youthful population, Thai protesters are demanding better of their government. Will this then turn into wanting better, and more, of Thailand’s monks?