Buddhism Divides Thailand

Apr 03, 2009
*Special to asia!

There is a certain political restlessness in Thailand and it is not just dissatisfied political groups taking to the streets, disrupting public order. It also has to do with the document that runs the government.


It was 2007. Thailand stood at a crossroad as her people prepared to vote on a new constitution on 18th August.

Constitutions are nothing new to the Thais. Since the Kingdom of Siam was thrown by a bloody coup in 1932, Thailand has had 17 constitutions and charters.

The latest one that was to be voted on was an interim one instituted the previous September, after then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed by the military in another bloodless insurgency. Much of it was nothing, except for one that stood out. It gripped the nation, as well as the rest of the world. It was the so-called "Buddhism clause", which pushed for the proclamation of Buddhism as Thailand's official religion.

The assembly voted 66-19 against the clause, sparking an uproar from the monks who had been keeping a round-the-clock vigil outside Parliament. Protests by Buddhist activists, mainly monks, erupted throughout Thailand as they marched on the streets of Bangkok, threatening to defeat the draft constitution when it goes to referendum this month.

Thailand is inextricably tied to Buddhism. Some 95% of the 64-million population are Buddhists. Many Thai males spend a portion of their youths as monks. High officials and businessmen often retire into monkhood. National holidays are based on the Buddhist calendar. Monks travel for free on public transport and have special waiting areas in airports and train stations. There's even a ministry devoted to monks and temples.

Despite all this, Thailand remains a secular nation. Her constitution gives all but one of her citizens the right to choose their religion. The monarch must be Buddhist.

This is a sensible approach, Thailand may have a lot of Buddhists, but she also has up to 3 million Muslims in the southern provinces. For decades the Muslim minority -- mostly ethnic Malays -- have led an uneasy co-existence with the Buddhists, leading to occasional clashes. In early 2004, a separatist movement turned the clashes into a full-blown insurgency. Three years on, nearly 2,400 people have died in southern Thailand, some of them monks.

It was the killing of monks that triggered the call for the Buddhism clause in the constitution. To its supporters, Buddhism is under threat in Thailand and the only way to ensure its survival is to give it a place in the constitution. That meant proclaiming Buddhism as Thailand's official religion.

The August referendum was thus to be a testing time for Thailand. The draft constitution, as it stood, was no great document. But if it was defeated, Thailand would face a long period of civil war.

For the moment, the anti-constitution Buddhist forces seem to have the upper hand -- not surprisingly, for they are using religion to forward their agenda. Luckily for those on the pro-constitution side, they can call on an equally powerful supporter -- King Bhumibol, 80, who is revered by his subjects as a living incarnation of the Buddha. He is also a Buddhist scholar, and an author of a bestselling book on the life of a Nepalese king that teaches moderation.

King Bhumibol is the champion of Buddhism in Thailand. Yet he has steadfastly refused to allow Buddhism into the constitution (he has lived through 14 of them since coming to the throne in 1946). It was his aversion to the Buddhism clause that led to its defeat in June.

The king's objection isn't based entirely on political grounds. He is also a keen follower of the Buddha's sayings, such as parable of the First Disciple. The activists are out to save Buddhism by law. The king, on the other hand, knows it can only be done through the heart.

In the end, the Constitution Drafting Committee voted down the clause to install Buddhism as the national religion. It took Queen Sirikit's personal intervention before the religious groups backed down and accepted it.

It was the right thing to do. Setting of a national religion would have alienated the Muslims -- including the majority who had not taken part in the current religious conflict -- making reconciliation in the future impossible.

Related Stories:

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Thailand's crown prince: A king in waiting?

Thailand: Where coups still rule

Paper chase

Talking Buddhism

Lina Joy: A case of state-minded religion

Cheat Sheets: Thailand


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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