Thais Debate Making Buddhism the State Religion

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Photo: Steve Evans

Thailand is famous among foreigners for being one of the most permissive societies in Asia. But look again. Sexy dancing, alcohol advertising, pornography, jackpot lotteries and even a few feature films have been restricted or banned under a fresh morality drive by the military-led government that seized power last September.

Some religious groups want even more.

Monks, nuns and pious laypeople are making noises to force the constitution drafters to declare Buddhism the national religion.

“The reality is that we are mostly Buddhist, and the constitution should record that in a straightforward way,” says Vironrong Ratanachaya, who previously helped organize thousands in a successful protest that kept Thailand’s top beer producer from listing on the local bourse. “The government now is devoting too much time to the Muslims in the South; the minority is running the country for the majority. We hope it will change soon. The country is weaker now.

“The nature of Buddhism is very peaceful and compromising,” she added. “We are not against Christians and Muslims, but those two religions don’t like each other, and they are trying hard to gain power in Thailand. So I think religious feuding could be eased if people who believe in the Buddhist way of life play a larger role.”

Indeed, the current fight over Buddhism’s role in society may stem from widespread fears that traditional Thai values are disintegrating in the modern world. “Indecent” material on YouTube or porn websites now enters the home with the click of a button. Countless shopping malls, movie theaters and fast-food restaurants deluge the country with Western values, while a brutal separatist struggle in the southern Muslim provinces has brought extreme jihadist ideologies into a country known for promoting surface harmony.

On political issues, morality campaigners are proving successful. Besides the victory to keep Thai Beverage Plc, the maker of the popular Beer Chang, off the stock exchange, Buddhist activists have also managed to ban gambling, alcohol ads and all-nude dancing. For several years now, moralists have been successful in forcing Bangkok’s bars to close around 1 am, which has led to a proliferation of “underground” after-hours haunts. Paradoxically, you can get a legal drink later in strait-laced Singapore than in wide-open Bangkok (although the closing hours have done little to end the sex trade in Bangkok’s entertainment districts.)

The political strength of Buddhist activists makes the fight over declaring a state religion tricky for the interim government. PTV, the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra satellite television station sponsoring anti-government rallies in Bangkok, came out this week to support the clause. About 1,500 or so Buddhist monks and nuns also rallied with elephants in front of Parliament this week ‑ much lower than initial estimates of hundreds of thousands – but it was still enough that Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said the drafters still have time to change the charter, and the junta leaders, including leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a Muslim, have come out in favor of a state religion.

“We give priority to peace in the country,” Sonthi said, according to the English-language daily Bangkok Post. “If a stipulation in the charter to this effect leads to peace in the country, then it is better that it is included.” The draft will be put up for referendum in September, and the military-installed government would like to have the powerful religious lobby voting “yes.”

The country’s youth, especially children of the elite and the middle class, are often target number one for the morality campaigners, who rail against the depravity of short skirts, tank tops and sex before marriage.

When 22-year-old actress Chotiros “Amy” Suriyawong showed up at a February awards ceremony wearing a slinky black dress that showed more of her voluptuous figure than it covered, the media had a field day. Her sexy dress was deemed a disgrace. A filmmaker ordered all scenes of her deleted from his new production. Thammasat University, her school, ordered the actress to read books to the blind for 15 days as punishment. Amy was reduced from sex-bomb to tearful supplicant while offering a public apology.

There is a constituency for the morality police even among the young. Although questions about Buddhism’s role in Thai society often conjure up images of graying temple-goers vs. sex-crazed kids downing bottles of whiskey, many younger Thais retain the values of their parents and are more conservative than the caricature.

Ruja Adisornkanj, a devout 22-year-old Thammasat student who hails from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, called Amy’s dress “very inappropriate.”

“I disagree with her choice of clothing, because this is Thailand and the most important thing is her own dignity as a woman,” she said. “We are Thais, and nothing is going to change that. Our elders teach us what is appropriate and what's not. They teach us how to dress properly as a woman.”

Other young people want the government to take a more proactive role in promoting Buddhist institutions. They fear the religion, which teaches that desire is the root of suffering, is losing its relevance in an age of luxury cars, mobile phones and flat-screen televisions.

“I think children should be more close to Buddhism, as our society is going down and it’s even harder with this modern society that has so many tempting things around,” said Duangporn Pritinitchai, a 21-year-old student. “I think it would be better if the government comes up with something that could help build up a better understanding between children and Buddhism, and what Buddhism is really all about.”

The struggle, of course, is how to reconcile those traditional beliefs in a world where national boundaries are increasingly porous. For Thailand’s youth, the answers aren’t nearly as black and white as the political groups want them to be. Young people certainly care about the values their parents instilled in them, but they also want to fit in with their friends.

“Our society is losing its morals due to all these temptations,” said Chaweewan Sapcharoenkun, a 20-year-old college student. “Sometimes you get tempted by what friends told you, or by what you know you shouldn’t be doing. But it’s hard to say how we are going to solve the problem, because it’s something that has gradually built up in our society. It’s not easy to quickly change back to the old days, when all the values were untouched.”

Many youngsters face pressures their parents never experienced. Sex, drugs and pop music are enticing and easily accessible, and temple life isn’t nearly as titillating as racy stars like sexy Thai-American singer Tata Young and the rollicking nightlife of Siam Square and Royal City Avenue. Moreover, the words of their elders fall on deaf ears when children see them saying one thing and doing another.

“We are used to seeing a lot of adults who go on a regular basis to the temple to make merit, but when they get out they do bad things,” Chaweewan said. “Buddhism is a good religion that we Thais have held on to, but whether it means anything has a lot to do with the upbringing of each person.”

Indeed, many think Buddhism doesn’t belong in the constitution for that very reason. A few written words, they argue, will hardly change individual behaviors.

“Placing Buddhism in the Constitution is all about power, and people will have to respond to the issue in terms of power. This is not realistic. It’s not Buddhist,” said Surichai Wun-Gaeo, a member of the junta-appointed legislature who heads Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Social Development Studies. “We need a more diversified platform to have broader discussions and think about real issues. This is a non-issue.”

Prasong Soonsiri, who heads the Constitution Drafting Committee and opposes the clause, told reporters: “There are two things that Buddhists should concern themselves with. They need to study Lord Buddha’s teachings and then find an opportunity to try to empty their mind of all impurities.”

With today’s technology, impurities lurk around every corner, and the lines between right and wrong are increasingly blurred.

“In the past, the younger generation still didn’t have all this technology and Western influence, so the culture hadn’t been destroyed that much,” said Watcharasak Sonjaitum, 20, a student at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The technology makes us better in a lot of ways, but our culture is inevitably going down as the world changes. You can’t really tell these days what’s moral and what’s not.”

Even so, Buddhism remains a stalwart in Thai life. Nearly 95% of the country practice Theravada Buddhism with its many uniquely Thai additions, like the worship of past Thai kings, and centuries of rule under Buddhist monarchs has tied the legitimacy of the nation’s leaders together with building up the religion. Temples remain the focal point of social life in many rural areas, and most of the country’s art, architecture and literature over the years is linked to Buddhism.

Moreover, religious zeal is in plain sight throughout the country. To honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who also serves as the upholder of Buddhism, thousands of Thais wear yellow shirts every Monday to mark the day of the week on which he was born.

Recently, Thais have flocked in droves to Nakhon Si Thammarat province south of Bangkok to purchase amulets that are believed to have magical powers. Flights to the region have been full for weeks, and hotels are all booked up. The frenzy turned negative in early April, however, when a woman was crushed to death in a mob looking to buy the amulets. Later that month, the Supreme Patriarch, the head of all monks in the country, said he would no longer provide incense ash or brick powder from his temple for the amulets because they had become targets of thieves in the province.

But while religion and superstition flourish, some fear that Buddhism as an institution has become staid and commercialized. None of Thailand’s previous 17 constitutions since 1932 have recognized Buddhism as the national religion, and some fear doing so may embolden religious institutions to impose their views on society.

“Putting Buddhism in the constitution wouldn’t do anything to solve social problems,” Surichai said. “We need religious institutions to be reformed, as the religion has become so commercialized and rather distant from real life issues of the people. It needs to focus more on spirituality, on leading a simple life.”

Without changes to Buddhism, he added, youth will inevitably turn elsewhere for answers to the new struggles they face. That could further push Buddhism into the background of daily life, no matter what the constitution says. “Regulating culture or legislating morality is very difficult,” Surachai said. “We need a platform for young people to make sense of what world they want to live in, of what morality they want. Without a capacity to reform, Buddhism will become a dead religion.”