In the past two decades, Thai monks have become more involved in national politics. This development is unprecedented and has created a growing tension between the Thai state and the Thai sangha.
Buddhist monks are known as world renouncers. In Thailand, the ideal monk has nothing to do with worldly matters, including impure activities like the lust for power or with materialistic concerns like politics. But throughout the past two decades, Thai monks are getting more involved in national politics and in the politics of Buddhism itself. The Thai public usually frowns upon clerics who interfere in such matters. However, political monks enjoy an increasing number of supporters.
The Thai constitution denies to monks the right to vote and thus strips them of the other political rights enjoyed by Thai citizens in general. The Thai state has decided to deny monks these rights with the ideological goal of protecting the purity of Buddhism – a pillar of the national identity and of the society’s moral consciousness. Some monks however have discovered a backdoor through which to play a role in politics.
Generally, monks’ political status depends on interactions between a Buddhist state and its sangha or monastic order, which vary across Buddhist societies and their distinct cultural and historical contexts. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks are allowed to run for political office and are free to establish their own political parties. As Sri Lankan monks have played an important role as nationalist leaders in many political struggles for Buddhist-Sinhalese dominance, there is public acceptance of their participation in politics. Sri Lankan Buddhists interpret the national sangha’s political activism as part of a holy and selfless mission, equivalent to practicing the Dhamma.
In contrast, such activities are considered unthinkable for Thai monks. Thailand has a centuries-long historical legacy of monastic orders controlled and disciplined by secular rulers. That legacy leaves no room for positive views toward monks that disobey the governance of Buddhist rulers, whose traditional mandate is to uphold and protect the religion.
Ironically, while the Thai state detests political monks, it often utilizes the sangha’s cultural influence for its own political ends.
Successive Thai governments have labelled monks’ political activism as improper and even something that could represent a security threat to the state. The Sangha Council has banned monks from participation in politics, issuing decrees to that effect at government instruction in 1974 and again in 1995. Last year the Supreme Patriarch signed yet another Sangha Council decree prohibiting political activities in monasteries.
Ironically, while the Thai state detests political monks, it often utilizes the sangha’s cultural influence for its own political ends. Throughout the past five or six decades, the Thai state has employed monks and monasteries to campaign for national integration and to propagate state Buddhism and other political ideologies that unite people in Thailand’s conflict-ridden, fragmented society. Such activities have instilled in Thai monks a sense of political awareness, a realization that they too have a political role to play at certain moments.
In the last few decades there is growing tension between the domineering Thai state and aspiring members of Thai sangha. Monks have been unhappy that governments have neglected Buddhist affairs for so long. Their principal demand, for the reform of Buddhist administration through giving constitutional recognition to Buddhism as Thailand’s national religion, has repeatedly met with failure. Some among the country’s political elite, acting in an “arbitrary” manner, have denied that demand.
This scenario has led monks to be more vocal in demanding the right to vote. Many have also come to offer support to certain political parties in the hope that a democratic government that comes to power with that support may realize their goal of recognizing Buddhism as Thailand’s national religion. “Phra Suea Daeng” or Red Shirt monks have been known as staunch supporters of the Phuea Thai Party for this reason.
By rebelling against dictatorial governments of the past decade and a half, including the currently ruling National Council for Peace and Order, political monks have gained more sympathizers. Despite the fact that they have suffered heavy repression under the present military junta, clerics’ future involvement in Thai politics must be expected, as long as The Thai state and sangha cannot achieve a new consensus in reviving the two institutions’ traditionally symbiotic relationship.
Opinions recently expressed on social media have indicated increased public approval for monks’ participation in politics, especially when members of the Thai sangha seek to propagate the idea of Buddhism being attacked by a “foreign religion”. The Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand and some other Buddhist organizations under monastic leadership claim that Thailand is facing a great threat of Islamization. In 2017, Phra Maha Aphichat Punnachantho was arrested and then disrobed by Thai authorities for inciting anti-Muslim sentiment on his Facebook page.
If such monks can convince Thai people that the peril is real and that Thai state will do nothing to curb the allegedly looming disaster, it might soon no longer be a taboo for monks to vote, run for office, or establish Buddhist political parties. The discourse holding that Thai Buddhism is under threat is powerful. It provides monks with legitimacy to adopt drastic measures – to mingle in dirty, worldly politics in order to protect Buddhism itself.
Katewadee Kulabkaew was Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.