Junta’s latest attempt to regulate faith suppresses rights and freedom: experts

To amend woes in the new constitution, the Thai junta premier has once again enacted absolute power to issue an order aimed at patronising and protecting Buddhism and other faiths. However, experts warn the order could be used by the authorities as a license to suppress rights and liberty.

On 22 August 2016, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai junta leader and Prime Minister, invoked Section 44 of the Interim Constitution, the order that gives authorities absolute power to maintain security, to enact the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s Head Order No. 49/2016.

The order titled ‘Measures to Patronise and Promote Religions in Thailand’ was issued as a measure to “patronise and protect all religions acknowledged by the Thai state and Thai people and to support the roles of people of all faiths in developing the nation and fostering national unity and reforms in manners which are not against the law and religious principles.”

It mandates the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of  Justice, Ministry of Interior, National Security Council, Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, National Office of Buddhism and the Sangha Supreme Council (the governing body of the Buddhist order) to cooperate in coming up with measures to protect Buddhism and other faiths. The order also aims to create consensus between all religious communities on national reforms, such as on the implementation of the King’s philosophy on sufficient economy.  

Despite the regime’s attempt to ease religious tensions caused by the new constitution, which has been criticised by many as being biased towards Theravada Buddhism, law and religion experts pointed out that the junta’s latest order to regulate faiths could lead to violations of rights to freedom of expression.    

Junta’s order overrides the new constitution?

According to Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law academic from Chulalongkorn University, the primary reason Gen Prayut issued such an order was to address dissatisfactions with the clause on religion in the new constitution, which has recently been approved via a controversial public referendum.

The junta-sponsored constitution has been criticised for being religiously biased because 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.

“Obviously, the junta invoked Section 44 [of the Interim Constitution] because of the new constitution, which mandates the state to protect Theravada Buddhism,” Khemthong told Prachatai. “Religious minorities, especially the Southern Muslim community, were not happy with such ignorance and insensitivity. The referendum result showed this. Perhaps, the series of explosions also showed that.”

Surapot Thaweesak, a well known religious scholar, said that overall the order is better written than the constitution because it makes it clearer that the state does not give priority to Theravada Buddhism. However, he said the important question is “between the constitution and the order authorised by the junta leader which once is higher?”      

“Should the modern democratic society have religious duties as it is written in the constitution or as it is written on the order issued via the use of Section 44 [of the Interim Constitution],” Surapot queried on his Facebook account.

Yet for Khemthong this question is potentially mute, since a closer reading reveals the order’s seemingly equitable treatment of religion as superficial.

“Despite a lengthy preamble acknowledging the importance of religions, it confirms the same old stance, religious freedom to all religions but preferential treatment to Buddhism, the religion practiced by the majority from time immemorial.”

Threats to freedom of expressions

Similar to the new constitution, the NCPO’s Head Order No. 49/2016 states that Thai authorities and the state-sponsored religious institutions, namely the National Office of Buddhism and the Sangha Supreme Council, shall come up with measures to protect and promote the ‘correct’ teachings of Buddhism.  

But Phramaha Paiwan Worawanno from Soi Tong Temple, a Buddhist monk known for democratic advocacy, said that the order is problematic because there is no such thing as the ‘correct’ teaching of Buddhism. “Religions and spirituality are things very personal. Therefore, interpretations of religious teachings vary from persons to persons,” said Phramaha Paiwan.

Taking the monk’s argument further, Surapot said it is not the duty of bureaucrats in ‘modern democratic society’ to enact measures to regulate religion. “What are the definitions of threats against religions? From what I have seen in the past, the definitions are excuses to limit the rights to freedom of expressions of the people,” Surapot asked.

He added people should already be able to guess what would constitute ‘threats and conflicts’ from the perspective of the Thai civil servants. “We have already witnessed that those who are accused of distorting the facts about the constitution are those who disapprove of it,” said the religion scholar.

From a legal perspective, Khemthong told Prachatai that the wording of the order seems to suggest encroachment upon internal freedom, or how an individual interprets religious teachings as ‘right’.

“This order could lead to thought crime allegations. As a result, this order might curb freedom of expression and freedom of religion of minorities, as well as non-mainstream Buddhist schools,” Khemthong said. “The government might like this measure as it provides more control over religious communities. The Sangha Council loses nothing from this order.”

Khemthong concluded that a healthy and mature state would rely less on regulating religion than Thailand. Military governments, for instance, always face a legitimacy deficit from dirty elections, a dysfunctional bureaucracy or a non-democratic government, so will rely quite heavily on religious legitimacy.

“The Thai government has to appear religiously benevolent to compensate for its bad performance and dubious origins. However, when the government overdoses by supporting one religion over others, then religion could be the source of tension, as we are witnessing,” said Khemthong.