Understanding Thai-style Buddhism

The involvement of a controversial monk Buddha Issara as an anti-government protest leader sparks fierce debate on the function of Buddhism in this turbulent country.
 
It is commonly acknowledged that monks play political role in Thai society; maybe not as officially involved as in Sri Lanka where monks can run for political offices, or as dreadful as in Myanmar where the monastics lead the call for the purge of Muslim Rohingya. The recent protest in Thailand, however, sees monks participating in modern Thai politics in a radically different way from before. 
 
Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Buddha Issara is one of the most popular faces of the leaders of anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Camping out at the occupied government complex in the outskirts of Bangkok since the beginning of the Bangkok Shutdown campaign by PDRC on 13 January 2014, the monk is well known for his daily negotiation with heads of various governmental units, who come to ask him to authorize permission to reclaim the buildings.
 

Buddha Issara surrounded by personal guards during negotiation with the authorities
 
The 58-year-old monk stunned the public last week when he led a group of protesters to SC Park Hotel, owned by Shinawatra family, and requested the management to pay for the “time loss” fee to the tune of 120,000 baht after the hotel manager refused to let the group stay at the hotel. 
 
On Monday, he led a group of protesters to Voice TV, perceived to be pro-red shirt largely due to one of its major shareholders is Panthongtae Shinawatra, the son of Thaksin Shinawatra. Once there, they demanded “fair” reporting, citing the Blue Sky channel, which has close ties with the Democrat party as the example, and asked the executive to apologize for distorting news. After the station’s news director came and went down on his knees to apologize, the group was satisfied and left.
 
“Ideally, it is not correct for monks to be involved in politics,” said Eak Akarasilp, 48-year-old business owner who is a regular at PDRC protest. “But when the nation is on fire, how could you expect monks to just sit there and watch?” 
 
The recent conflict between the caretaker government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the PDRC, comprising of networks of elites, middle class Bangkokians and the Southerners, has been playing out on the street for over three months and already claimed at least 22 lives. The demonstrators said their aim is to rid influences from Thai politics of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of Yingluck, who they believe is all to blame for rampant corruption and deep national polarization. 
 
The group disrupted the general election earlier this month, as a part of the demands to set up the unelected "People's Council" to replace the current government.  
 
Buddhism above politics?
 
In Thailand, it is a generally held assumption that religious and secular world should be kept separate. The action of Buddha Issara has prompted negative responses from Buddhist organizations and the public, who consider his political involvement an inappropriate behaviour for monk and call for his defrocking. All sides, however, seem to avoid taking the responsibility of moving forward with their grievances. 
 
Buddha Issara, whose loyal followers include the Army Commander-In-Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, and former one like Anupong Paochinda, said despite him being sued by Buddhist Association for treason, he would not disrobe until the cases are finalized in the criminal court. 
 
Many academics, who study Buddhism and Thai politics, see that sangha dynamics has been deeply intertwined with that of secular politics. Some even suggest that the perceived status of Buddhism as sacred and thus “above politics” may have obstructed, rather than enabling, democratization in Thailand. 
 
Duncan McCargo, a professor in Asia politics from University of Leeds, writes in his recent article, “The Changing Politics of Thailand’s Buddhist Order,” that the sangha has been a source of legitimacy that government leaders must seek in order to gain moral and spiritual approval, a factor which could determine the fate of political leadership in the worldly order. 
 
McCargo points out that the main problem in Thailand lies in a lack of moral leader who is able to push for progressive ideas supporting the democratic process.
 
Even though there are  monks who are regarded as having influence over liberal thoughts in Thai society like the late Buddhadasa Bhikku and Phra Paisal Visalo, their teachings are often interpreted to align with the deeply ingrained ideology of ‘Nation, Religion and the Monarchy.’ 
 
“Ironically, in a society where slogans about “wisdom” are proliferating – [it] undermines civil order and makes the task of institutionalizing liberal and democratic norms so difficult,” notes McCargo.  
 
This may be the reason why the talk of “morally good people,” despite being unelected, should be the best governance option for Thailand is so prevalent among the anti-government protesters, as well as the conservative technocrats.   
 
Keeping the sacred away from the ‘dirty’ politics 
 
In an attempt to remove the secular from the religious, Thailand is one of a few nations in the world that disenfranchise monks and other monastics such as Mae Chi (nuns). This happens despite the fact that the UN convention on civil and political rights recognizes universal suffrage for everyone, including clergy. 
 
Speaking on the complex relationship between religion and politics in Thailand, Tomas Larsson, a professor of politics from University of Cambridge, argues that the effort to keep Buddhism from the profane world of politics could be considered a security concern to protect the “national essence” and its hierarchical order.  
 
According to this perspective, the secular authority, acting as a “guardian state,” seeks to protect the sacred status of monks from the invasive Western values such as democracy and human rights usually through the policy of disenfranchisement.
 
Larsson’s recent research on universal suffrage and monks has found that in Asia, only Thailand, Burma and Bhutan do not allow monks to vote. 
 
Monks in Laos and Cambodia were disenfranchised under the colonial period, but they were given back rights to vote after gaining independence in 1960s. 
 
While Burma and Bhutan disenfranchise clergy of all religions, Thailand places exclusive restriction on monks’ voting right, claiming that they should be above politics. 
 
He estimates that about 310,000 people are religiously disenfranchised in Thailand. 
 
The regulation does not, however, prevent monks from political engagement. In 2005, the late Luang Ta (Venerable Grandfather) Maha Bua, a highly revered monk among the elites and urban middle class, called for a nationwide opposition against former Premier Thanksin Shinawatra, claiming that Thaksin intended to overthrow the monarchy in order to become the first Thai President.
 
Another case was V. Vajiramedhi, a celebrity monk popular among middle class Bangkokians. His followers tweeted his saying during the 2010 red shirt crackdown that “killing time is more sinful than killing people,” a statement that many red shirts recalled bearing a strong resemblance to Kittiwuttho, a militant monk who in the 1976 student massacre said, “killing communists is like killing fish and giving them as alms for monks.” 
 
Monks' participation in the red shirt rallies in 2010
 
In 2010, hundreds of monks also came out in support of the red shirts and joined the street protest, but none of them claimed the leadership role. The protest ended in military crackdown that resulted in more than 90 people dead. 
 
There remains a popular belief among people that electoral suffrage for monks could lead to the schism among the sangha, and monastic involvement in “dirty” politics would undermine the reverent position that monks and Buddhism have.
 
Larsson notes in his study that the suffrage exemption of monks in Thailand is widely justified on the basis of the Vinaya, or Buddhist monastic codes, because voting could lead to negative karmic consequence if the politicians that monks vote cannot uphold proper code of morality. The secular authority thus has the duty to protect the sacredness of Buddhism so that monks can continue being the proper “fields of merit” among the population.
 
"Religious disenfranchisement exemption in Thailand, Burma and Bhutan constitutes the instances of resistance to globally dominant normative order, and specifically Buddhist resistance to the powerful norm of the universal suffrage," said Larsson. 
 
Buddhist factions and the national divides
 
Conflict within the Thai Sangha becomes an escalating issue as the divide between the red and yellow shirts has deepened in recent years.  This is reflected in the competition between two monastic factions: Thammayut Nikai, founded by King Rama IV, and Mahanikai which represents every other sect beside Thammayut .    
 
Emphasizing strict monastic rules, Thammayut has mainly dominated in the Council of Elders, a centralized ecclesiastic body established in 1902. Part of the great modernizing process initiated by King Rama V, the council is enlisted with the power to govern monks and temples in provincial and district levels throughout the nation. 
 
The creation of the Council of Elders, the selection procedure of its members and the centralized hierarchical order make the council function like stiff bureaucracy and full of internal politics, critics say.  
 
The politics between the religious and secular world materialized in 2004 when during Prime Minister Thaksin, Somdet Kiaw from Mahanikai was appointed to the position of an acting Supreme Patriarch in place of Somdet Phra Nyanasamvana, the then current Supreme Patriarch whose declining health was a justification for such change.  
 

Somdet Phra Maha Somanachao Kromlunag Vajirañanavamsa (left) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (right) during ordination
 
The move, however, received backlash from Thammayut monks and their followers, particularly those led by Laung Ta Maha Bua, who accused Thaksin of interfering with the royal power since the King has the sole power to appoint Supreme Patriach. The ailing Supreme Patriach replaced by Somdet Kiaw was also King Bhumibol’s spiritual mentor when he ordained for a brief period in 1956. 
 
Laung Ta Maha Bua then went on to join Sonthi Limthongkul, a media mogul and a prominent leader of the ultra-royalist yellow shirt movement in a talk show broadcasted through the yellow-shirt television station, ASTV, calling to oust Thaksin. The protest was soon followed by the military coup in 2006.  
 
Thammakai, one of the largest, if not the largest, contemporary Buddhist movements in Thailand, is also seen by yellow shirts and many as closely allied with Thaksin. They have long been highly criticized for the materialist approach to Buddhism. 
 
A call for secularized reform
 
Suraphot Thaweesak, a scholar of Thai Buddhism, said that the Sangha should be self-governed, and local monastic communities should be able to look after themselves rather than being enforced with rules from Bangkok. Otherwise, the chance for the Sangha to be more democratic and responding to the community’s need is impossible, he said.  
 
“The nature of the Council of Elders was to accommodate the authority which was the King in the past,” said Suraphot. “Until now, it still is responding mainly to the King and the nation’s conservative values.”
 
Not that more a democratic Sangha never happened before. During the government of Field Marshal Pibul Songkram who spearheaded 1932 People Party’s Revolution that overthrew absolute monarchy and installed constitutional monarchy, the short-lived Sangha Act of 1941 was created from the demand of monks who wished to see check-and-balance system replacing the centralized Council of Elders. 
 
Under the period, the monastic governing body mirrored the structure of secular governance and was divided into parliamentary, legislative and judicial parts. Although all positions were appointed rather than elected, the change reflects an attitudinal change regarding the question of monastic governance and how to respond to more complex needs of monastic communities in a more democratic way. 
 
The 1941 Sangha Bill also aimed to unite Thammayut and Mahanikai orders, but received resistance from the Thammayut side, who accounted for a much smaller number and was afraid of losing control. 
 
After Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup and came to power, however, the Council of Elders was restored through the Sangha Act of 1962, a legacy that is still in effective until today. 
 
Suraphot, together with a group of like-minded scholars of Thai Buddhism, recently formed “Buddhism for the People,” a group seeking to advocate for the secularized Thailand. They suggested that the Council of Elders should be abolished to make way for monastic self-regulation. 
 
“This would abolish all hierarchy and the holy titles within the Sangha,” he said. “When the monkhood are truly independent, the democratic culture within could then be born because they no longer need to be a mechanism of the state.”
 
Suraphot, who recently conducted a nationwide survey on monks’ involvement in politics, estimated that about 70% of the monks he studied were sympathetic toward the red shirts. This was due to their view that policies initiated by Thaksin were economically and socially favorable to a majority of people, he explains. 
 
Still, Suraphot worries that the liberal democratic values are lacking from the monkhood. He noted that even the monks joining the red shirt movement in 2010 had their own agenda when it came to pushing Buddhism to be the national religion, a move that could endanger an already fragile situation in a country that has seen social hostilities fueled by religion, especially in the three southernmost provinces. 
 
Suraphot was not too optimistic about the Sangha reform. He said the first obstruction would be the palace, which would not let go of the control of the monkhood so easily. Because Buddhism is still considered a sensitive subject due to the perception that its status is sacred and thus above criticism, the discussion concerning the Sangha is as difficult a topic to touch upon as much as that of the monarchy. 
 
“Abolishing the 1962 Sangha Bill would be as difficult as abolishing the lèse-majesté  law in Thailand,” he said.  
 
Pinyapan Pojanalawan, another scholar who studies Thai Buddhism and a member of the advocating group, said the teaching of Buddhism itself is not against democracy; however it is the interpretation that creates clashes against the democratic values. 
 
He said that Thai-style Buddhism allows issues like commercial Buddhism, which he viewed playing big role in money laundering, to prosper while being too rigid when it comes to allowing women to be ordained as nuns. 
 
“Thai-style Buddhism is relaxed where it should be strict, but it is also too rigid where it should be open and inclusive,” said Pinyapan. 
 
 
Cover artwork by Prakit Kobkijwattana