Academics and a female Buddhist monk conclude that the draft constitution is a step backward on freedom of religion.
BBC Thai reported on Tuesday, 12 April 2016, that Kittichai Jongkraijak, legal assistant at the Law Reform Commission of Thailand (LRCT), pointed out that the draft constitution written by the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) includes articles on freedom of religion and measures to promote and protect Buddhism, which did not exist in previous constitutions.
Such articles could be a step backward on freedom of religion once the draft constitution is promulgated, Kittichai told the BBC.
He pointed out that Article 31 of the draft constitution states that religious beliefs and practices must not harm national security while Article 67 stipulates that the state shall promote Theravada Buddhism, the dominant Buddhist sect in Southeast Asia, and come up with measures to protect Buddhism.
On the right to religious freedom, the 1997 Constitution stated “the state cannot enact measures which could suspend the rights to religious beliefs.” However, this wording is missing from the new constitution and replaced with Article 31 which states “[religious practices and beliefs] must not cause harm to national security.”
He added that since the interpretation of national security is not specified, influential religious institutions could use the article to their advantage in manners that could affect people with certain religious beliefs.
Kittichai called on people to urge the authorities to ensure the rights to religious beliefs in the draft constitution.
“The state should not have religious policies because in a democratic society, there is a rule of law which must protect rights and liberties of the people. Religion is a personal issue. The state should not patronise any specific religion because that might lead to inequality among religions and partiality.”
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Thai woman to be ordained as a female monk (Bhikkhuni), who is abbess of Songdhammakalyani Temple in Nakhon Pathom Province, said that female Buddhist monks expected the state to guarantee equality. However, as the draft constitution states that Theravada Buddhism will be given priority, this implies that the state will intervene in the religious beliefs of the people.
As a leader of Bhikkhuni whose monastic position is not accepted by the main Buddhist Institutions of the country, such as the Supreme Sangha Council (Buddhist Monks Council) and the Office of National Buddhism (ONAB), Dhammananda Bhikkhuni said that religious freedom should be protected by the law.
Somrit Luechai, a Buddhist scholar, told BBC Thai that another important aspect of the draft constitution in relation to religion is the interpretation of ‘Theravada Buddhism’.
What sort of Theravada Buddhist institutions will be given the authority to interpret the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, Somrit asked, adding that Buddhist institutions which are closely affiliated with the state will benefit from the draft constitution.
He concluded that this monopolization of religious interpretations might lead to religious conflicts.