This framegrab from Thai TV Pool video taken on May 5, 2019 shows Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn lighting a candle in a ceremony in Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha during his coronation procession in Bangkok. (Photo: THAI TV POOL / AFP)

Managing Moral Authority: Thai King’s Revived Devotion to Buddhism

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King Vajiralongkorn’s recent enthusiasm in religious matters could be a game-changer in Thailand’s cultural politics.

In recent months, the Thai King has demonstrated his devotion to practising Buddhism more than ever before. Reports of his increased religious activity have come as a surprise to most Thais, who have not seen much of their King in mass media lately amid the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

The logic behind the campaign to create more virtuous impressions of the monarch is straightforward. Since the middle of 2020, younger Thais have unprecedentedly voiced their discontent with the monarchy. They have proposed that the institution be reformed, as the King’s conduct has deviated from the standard of secular morality often practised in modern democratic societies. Some Buddhist academics have also pointed out that the monarch might be lacking in observing the Thotsaphit Ratchatham – the ten duties of Buddhist rulers.

The latest royal trend includes King Vajiralongkorn’s interest in learning Pali, the ancient language of Buddhism’s oldest school. He is seen chanting lengthy Buddhist mantras and perfecting Buddhist meditation. His recent activities also involved the management of monastic affairs. The 2018 amendment of the Sangha Act allowed the King to regain his traditional power over decisions on ecclesiastical titles and offices. As a result, he appointed several new members of the rachakhana – the royal chapter of high-ranking monks. He also switched abbotships among some royal monasteries as well.

For the general public, updates about the King’s spiritual life are hard to come by. So it recently made headlines when a series of monks invited to discuss meditation techniques at the royal palace revealed the King’s secretive religious inclinations. These monks reported to uninformed Thais that His Majesty was healthy and that he was diligently “practising dhamma” (purifying one’s mind with Buddhist precepts and meditation) in seclusion.

There is also a historical and political context here. With the demise of King Bhumibol in 2016, Thailand lost the highest and the most powerful moral authority of modern times. The event marked a turning point in the cultural politics of the nation. All eyes turned to his successor, who swore an oath to preserve and build on King Bhumibol’s legacy. The late King’s moral authority had bolstered the power of the monarchy, including its special influence on national politics.

In the early years of his reign, King Vajiralongkorn intervened in some problematic matters regarding the administration of Buddhism. Such actions fulfilled his traditional duty as the supreme upholder of the faith. But the appointment of the incumbent Supreme Patriarch and the purge of Dhammakaya Temple in 2017 were mainly motivated by worldly political interests. These moves have been portrayed as the eradication of pernicious influences from Thai Buddhism, but they were, in fact, the demolition of political strongholds of his enemies, the Red Shirts, who are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The harsh intervention tainted the King’s public image.

Even though King Vajiralongkorn did not seem worried about Thai people’s perceptions when he ascended to the throne, there have been recent attempts to craft impressions of a morally upright monarch. The royal household has provided press releasesvideo clips and even gossip pieces on social media, aiming to improve the King’s moral image. 

Information and updates about King Vajiralongkorn’s private spiritual life have recently come out. Press releases from the royal household and royalist social media accounts have depicted the King as a secretive Buddhist saint like his father. However, they suggest, the present King is more inclined to let his good deeds go unnoticed. Such conduct is in line with a popular Thai idiom, “pit thong lang phra”, which literally means attaching gold leaf to the back of a Buddha statue. This is used as a counter-discourse to contemporary criticisms of the King. Demonstrating that he is misunderstood suggests that his alleged immorality does not exist.

Elements of Thai Buddhism are once again being utilised to gain leverage in the game of cultural politics.

The royal household has also tapped into the immense spiritual and cultural influence of the Dhammayut sect — the politically active network of religious royalists in Thai Buddhism. Dhammayut’s forest lineage is led by a group of monks and lay disciples under the patronage of Luang Ta Maha Bua, who was one of the country’s most famous clerics. Since the late 1990s, they have campaigned ceaselessly for the restoration of absolute royal power over monastic administration. 

In return, King Vajiralongkorn, has rewarded the Dhammayut monks with higher ecclesiastical ranks. Outstanding monks from the forest lineage were handpicked by the King to attend his meditation sessions and dhamma discussions. They spread the word that the King has been faithfully following in his pious father’s footsteps.

The dissemination of reports on King Vajiralongkorn’s recent lifestyle has been well-managed and controlled. Phra Vajirayankosol – the monk who first broke the news about the King’s well-being and his new religious routine – disclosed the story in May via the popular Facebook page of a senior royal figure. The monk gave an exclusive interview to the government-run Radio Thailand the next day but denied interview requests from all other media outlets. The messages sent out by the King’s monks are uniform in emphasising his religious piety and secret devotion to the well-being of Thai people. 

Elements of Thai Buddhism are once again being utilised to gain leverage in the game of cultural politics. King Vajiralongkorn’s freshly constructed religious image has successfully assured Thai royalists and conservatives that the monarchy’s moral standard and legitimacy are securely sustained. The increasing scandalous reports and criticisms of the royal family are effectively discredited as fake news generated by “immoral haters”.

In the view of the royalists, these “haters” are allegedly dishonest people who are members of Thailand’s younger generation. They constitute a growing number of politically discontented liberals. In the view of these liberals, the campaign to craft the King’s newly-invented image only adds more doubt and disenchantment about the Thai monarchy. The result: Thai society is split down the middle, with some Thais supporting the royalists and others supporting the liberals. It is a political divide that has been festering and will continue to fester for years to come.

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