Making Buddhism state religion violates human rights, academics say

Thai academics have claimed that a campaign to make Buddhism the state religion of Thailand goes against human rights principles.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 4-5 November 2015, Thaivoice Media posted on YouTube a video interview of Surapot Thaweesak, a well known religious scholar.

In the interview, which was divided into three parts, Surapot talked about a campaign to make Buddhism the state religion, Islamophobia, and a proposal to arm Buddhist monks and laypersons in the restive Deep South of Thailand.

The academic said that the current trends are worrying as the movement to enshrine Buddhism as the state religion is accompanied by a rise of Islamophobia in the country.

He urged that the Buddhist Sangha (monks), Buddhist scholars, and the Chula Rachamontri, the head of Muslim communities in Thailand, should attempt to stop these trends from developing further. He added that many Buddhist monks and scholars, however, seemed to be influenced by Ashin Wirathu, the well-known head of a radical anti-Muslim and nationalistic Buddhist group in Myanmar.

Muslim and Buddhist clergymen should come forward to create mutual understanding between Muslims and Buddhists in the country so that the two religions can co-exist peacefully, he added.

He said that he disagrees with the campaign to make Buddhism the state religion because it goes against the democratic principle of equality of all religions.

The religious scholar added that much of the anti-Muslim sentiment in many countries is stirred up by politics and a fear of cultures from the western world. Therefore, it seems as if the concept of liberalism and democracy is not suitable for the Muslim world.

He concluded that democratic countries must support and uphold every religion equally in line with the democratic principles of safeguarding freedom and peace.

Vichak Panich, a Matichon columnist and expert on Buddhism and religious studies, also posted a statement on Facebook against the plan.

“A country with a majority of its population adhering to a specific religion does not need to lift that religion above other religions and the state does not need to define religion, because it can be used as a tool to direct politics,” wrote Vichak.

The academic cited India as an example of a secular democratic state despite the fact that 80 per cent of its population is Hindu.

He added that the ‘state version of Buddhism’ might come in a package with certain hidden agendas.

“Buddhism as a state religion is a state-promoted religion in which its interpretations serve the ideology of ‘the nation, religions, and the monarchy’ (Thailand’s national motto),” said Vichak. “This version of Buddhism never opens space for other interpretations. Therefore, it would not be strange for Buddhism, if it gets promoted as a state religion, to lead to limitations of freedoms and rights or the prosecutions of people who think differently under the allegation [that they] ‘insult Buddhism’.”

Last Thursday, Venerable Aphichat Promjan, chief lecturer monk at Benjamabophit Temple, a Bangkok temple under royal patronage, posted on Facebook the suggestion that state authorities should take radical measures to quell the violence in the Deep South.

His statement says “If a [Buddhist] monk in the three southern border provinces dies from an explosion or being shot at the hands of the ‘Malayu bandits’, a mosque should be burned, starting from the northern part of Thailand southwards.”

Although many people posted comments and Facebook stickers in support of the monk, many also posted comments against it with the hashtag ‘#resist Wirathu model’, comparing Aphichat to Ashin Wirathu.

Aphichat has been active in the movement to make Buddhism the state religion of Thailand, campaigning through groups such as the Committee to Promote Buddhism as a State Religion.

The overwhelming majority of Thai people are Buddhists, but Thailand is a secular state despite the fact that no other religion in Thailand enjoys support from the state in a manner similar to Buddhism.

Although many Buddhist monks and laypersons view favourably the move to enshrine Buddhism as the state religion, many criticise the move for potentially stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, especially as Thailand is still locked in a protracted armed conflict between the state and Muslim insurgent groups in the Deep South border region.