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Wash your mouth out

 A family funeral gives you chance to show off your knowledge of Thai ceremonies and to make a complete nuisance of yourself by asking useless questions.

The nightly chanting is performed by 4 monks. Why 4? Because even numbers are associated with bad things, like death. But if you do something nice, like hold a tham bun ceremony, then you will have 9 monks, an odd number. OK, so far so good, but what’s the connection between even numbers and unpleasantness? Er, …

And funerals have 7 nights of chanting, because odd numbers like seven are supposed to be, er, … And then no cremations on a Friday. Everyone knows that. Why? Er, …

In common with many questions about religion, such queries are, as I said, useless. They represent a futile attempt to find reason in the realm of unreasoning belief. And even if there is no reason, or maybe exactly because there is no reason, you have to go along.

You use your right hand to light the left-hand candle first; you sprinkle scented water on the crude figure of bone shards and ash working from foot to head; and you make sure every envelope has the donor’s name on it. (Though I’m not sure how much this last one has to do with religion.)

Fail to follow ritual, and you’re wrong, even though no one can explain why. Trivial transgressions might be excused on the grounds of ignorance, negligence, or, if it’s someone you don’t much like, sheer bloody-mindedness. But more serious sins, even inadvertent ones, quickly turn sacrilegious, as the careless clowns caught burning Korans in Kabul have found out.

Sacrilege and blasphemy, from religious law, pose problems when they collide with human rights, from secular law.

Freedom of speech is nowhere unrestricted. If I knowingly and willfully print malicious lies about a Thai political figure with the intention of blackening their reputation (though to be honest, why tell lies when the truth is damning enough?), I will get sued.

If I stand up in court and swear it was that other feller did it, yeronner, sweartogod, when I know full well it wasn’t, I will end up in the cells.

And if I shout fire in the proverbial crowded theatre, just for a bit of a giggle, like, and there are injuries or even deaths in the stampede for the exits, I will be prosecuted.

In these cases, I have abused freedom of speech in order to cause deliberate harm to others, or with reckless disregard for their rights.

But what if I say something that does not actually harm anyone, in terms of the safety of their person, property or rights, but merely offends their religious sensibilities? If we are co-religionists, then I have offended not just you, but the beliefs we supposedly both share, and I am then subject to the sanctions that our religion prescribes, be it half a dozen Hail Marys, excommunication, or stoning to death.

But what if, as is more likely, we do not share the same beliefs? Do I have to respect your beliefs by keeping my mouth shut? By what authority can you demand suspension of my right to freedom of speech?

Where earthly power coincides with holy power in the form of state religions, then such rights of minorities routinely get trampled. Everyone, whatever their faith, is expected to refrain from things that would offend the dominant religion; and the minority may be forced to comply with practices of the majority, like wear headscarves or close the shop on someone else’s holy day.

Thailand, despite the best efforts of its militant Buddhists, has no state religion. But it looks as if the monarchy is beginning to acquire the trappings. Look at the typical response to a bail application in a lèse majesté case.

Bail is routinely refused because of (a) the severity of the crime (which is what comes of calling it a state security offence); (b) the risk that the defendant might flee (even if they turned themselves in); and (c) the fact that the Thai people hold the Institution in deepest reverence. This last reason uses the language of religion in a country where religion and the law are supposed to be separate.

So if you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a lèse majesté charge, don’t pin your hopes on the facts of the case, or basic principles of justice such as the presumption of innocence. Just start praying.

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