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Nidhi Eoseewong: Thai Buddhism and democracy

“Democracy without dharma is a Gross Domestic Product catastrophe,” a well-known monk just recently posted on their Facebook page. Many people probably wonder, “What about dictatorship?” No matter which, a system of government that allows one individual or group to use absolute power without scrutiny or consultation from anyone would need dharma or a deterring tool much more than democracy. Why not warn dictatorship supporters, rather than warn only democracy supporters?
 
This same question can be used with the words of another monk who, despite already passing away, is even more well-known than the first monk. His words were “When there is no morality as a foundation, it is democracy that is the worst system.”
 
 
In fact, morality is necessary as a foundation for any system, especially a system that provides power to one individual or group. If there is no basic morality it would naturally and definitely be a system worse than democracy.
 
To say it’s because Thai people want democracy so much that they have to warn them beforehand wouldn’t be a very good reason. Since 24 June 1938 to now, we’ve been under the power of a semi-democracy or military dictatorship for incomparably far longer than we’ve ever tasted any true democracy. If we were to warn someone, there could be no one who deserved warning more than the field marshals or generals that used power to stand above the people’s heads, and there is no warning more suitable than those that may control or remove the unlimited power of these groups.
 
It’s only that “dharma” and “morality” in Thailand is not founded at all upon the truth in Thai society, economy and politics. This is another important point that prevents Thai democracy from making a firm stand. And intentionally or not, it’s the Thai monks that are one of the strongest groups of dictatorship supporters.
 
What does “dharma” or “morality” actually mean? If it means the dharma and morality of Thai-style Theravada Buddhism then it does not seem to be the case. Other numerous democratic societies around the world have lived peacefully without having the dharma and morality of Thai-style Theravada Buddhism.
 
More interestingly, the dharma or morality of these democratic countries aren’t part of the dharma or morality of any religion since they've mostly declared themselves secular states; that is, having any religious belief or establishing any religious organization, etc. is the freedom of any individual and the state cannot intervene, apart from fully protecting that freedom.
 
Thai monks may say that even though it’s not related to religion, our world still has universal “dharma" and "morality", some of which is in accordance with the dharma and religious morality.
 
Suppose that we agree on the existence of a universal morality, why is it that Thai monks never teach this morality? For example, gender equality, human equality where not only all of us have the potential to achieve nirvana but to also have access to safe and good food, good education, and good health care, have the time and opportunity to find happiness in life, etc., and freedom of religion, expression, travel, business, association, and many other types of freedom that some groups believe is the universal morality or value of the current world.
 
In addition to Thai monks not teaching or talking about this, they are often indifferent or sometimes even supportive of the violation of this universal morality (it may be wrong, but I personally believe that we can also assimilate these values that should be universal into Buddhism, something that Thai Buddhist thinkers have never done).
 
Have monks ever noticed that priests or religious leaders of almost all communities in South East Asia have taken roles in coming out to fight against injustice in their respective countries to revive national independence, democracy, religious tolerance, or to suppress dictatorial power, etc., but Thai monks have never engaged in these concerns?
 
What I’ve said doesn't mean I want monks to be leading some sort of movement, but I wish to show that priests or religious leaders of the modern world, no matter where, are faced with a new “dharma-morality” which may not be in accordance with the religious “dharma-morality”. It has become an issue that requires harmonization or must be dealt with by situating one’s own religious stance in such a way that it can remain standing in the present state of morality that has changed.
 
In conclusion, the “dharma-morality” that Thai monks have used to reduce the importance of democracy is no longer sufficient, since it is the dharma-morality of pure Buddhism without appending the morality of democracy at all.
 
Democracy has its own morality which has nothing to do with religion. Politicians in this system don’t have responsibilities towards any god or heaven, but they have responsibilities towards the people. They may or may not have any religious morality; as long as the people see them as good representatives, they will continue to get elected.
 
Therefore freedom of expression and to receive information and news becomes the basic morality of democracy, because only with this method will people be able to scrutinize their representatives. If after scrutiny they find their representatives unsatisfactory, the people must have the freedom in political organization and movement to affect the government and politicians. This side of freedom is also a basic morality of democracy which cannot be violated... just keep thinking. You’ll see that democracy also has a “dharma-morality” that is complex and diverse which cannot be replaced with the “dharma-morality” of Buddhism.
 
Monks cannot speak of democracy while ignoring democratic morality. Don’t forget that the actions that humans take towards each other all get controlled by some kind of morality, and it’s not necessary that this morality is the religious kind.
 
Because monks ignore democratic morality like this, Thai monks have been a strong fortress for various forms of dictatorial systems in Thailand.
 
Something just as sad is Thailand’s social concepts that are based on Buddhist dharma principles which always seem to be supportive of dictatorship and antagonistic towards democracy. For example, the theories on giving power to good people, or a peaceful community by people just doing their duties, or that roles, duties and rights are all born from “individuality”, or that “stability” is a condition of never changing, or that social “rules” would naturally be set up based on classes.
 
Even concepts which do not directly refer to Buddhist dharma principles but are based on Thai Buddhism-style harmony principles also have a part in supporting dictatorship. For instance, the Triangle that Moves the Mountain theory (which has become the Pracharat policy at present), since the three sides of the triangle, state-private sector-people, is presented as though they are homogeneous.
 
While in reality everybody knows that what we call the “state” is comprised of numerous agencies that conflict and scramble for power among themselves to the point where they cannot work together and get things done, what we call the private or business sector competes even more heavily. Moreover, it is unproductive competition, since they are not using development as a competitive tool but using “connections” through various means to take advantage of state power.
 
As for Thai citizens, they are no longer small-scale farmers that produce to -sustain themselves but they enter the market with diverse roles that conflict with each other.
 
If we look at it realistically, the only triangle that can possibly move the mountain may be democracy which allows conflicts to come to the surface publicly, but it must be under rules which don’t resort to violence. However the three sides without inside conflict, cooperating together harmoniously is a picture from a Jataka tale, a situation that requires a Bodhisattva to keep control using dharma-morality.
 
In conclusion, Buddhist dharma is used in Thailand without considering the foundations of reality.  Both monks and believers together help plant the story of the present and future of Thailand like it was another Jataka tale (or many Jataka tales) outside the scriptures; each tale supporting various forms of dictatorship to be able to continue a stable existence in society, turning democrats into sinners or hooligans (fools).
 
Buddhism is the religion of a prince born in a republic, but Thai philosophers have now turned it to the opposite of democracy, securely and surely.
 
As a Buddhist, this is a very sorrowful thing indeed.
 
The article was first published in Thai in Matichon Online and available here