Thailand’s military government, which seized control of the country in a coup last May, has taken a special interest in Thai Buddhism and the moral authority its institutions command. After settling into power and naming itself the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta immediately set off on a paternalistic mission to rid Thailand of corruption, immorality, and anything deemed “un-Thai” (like underboobs, for example). Since Buddhism makes up such an integral part of the agreed upon definition of “Thai-ness,” junta leaders quickly set their sights on religious reform, installing a special panel to focus on the “protection of Buddhism” within their National Reform Council (NRC).
“We are under a military autocracy (again), which attempts to utilize and enforce ‘Thai’ values in order to bolster its moral superiority and compensate for its lack of legitimacy,” said Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political blogger and journalist. “And one core feature of these ‘true Thai values’ to many conservatives and nationalists is Theravada Buddhism—despite it not being an official national religion.”
At the end of last year, the junta sponsored the Bill to Patronize and Protect Buddhism, a reflection of its desire to return to a very traditional form of Thai society—one in which free speech is limited, sexuality is quelled, and Theravada Buddhism in its most traditional form (and only that form) is protected by law. The bill would appoint a committee to monitor temple spending and dole out legal punishments, including jail time, for monks caught breaking the rules of the monastery. Jointly written by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), a small gerontocracy of high-ranking monks with deep ties to the government, and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the bill is currently under consideration by the Thai Council of State, the government’s legal advisory board.
“Religion and politics have never been properly separated in Thailand, because Buddhism still plays a big role in the lives of most Thai people and that’s what they base their moral compass on,” noted Saiyasombut, who added that handing over moral authority to big stakeholders like Thai politicians and military leaders could be “disastrous.”
Venerable Shine Waradhammo, a Thai Buddhist monk, scholar, and writer, agreed. “It’s dangerous,” he told me. “This bill gives laymen the power to control everything about Buddhism.”
Until now, Thai Buddhism has generally mirrored Thai culture in its relatively tolerant “live and let live” mindset regarding LGBT individuals. Many high-level monks within the sangha system are said to be gay, and a popular Thai talk show that last year interviewed two homosexual monks who formerly identified as “ladyboys” espoused a mostly positive message of acceptance. Though there are certainly exceptions, the general consensus has been that as long as monks operate within the rules of the monastery and uphold the precepts, including celibacy, it shouldn’t matter what their sexual proclivities were prior to ordination.
“Thailand is one of the only places on earth where homosexuals are actually left alone to live their lives,” said Justin McDaniel, a scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhism at University of Pennsylvania and a former monk in Thailand. “But now, of course, it has to be an issue, dealt with through official rules and legislation. It’s like, ‘We gotta fix the problem.’ No, you invented a problem in order to be the hero who fixes it.”
Feminist activist Ouyporn Khunkaew suspects that the junta and SSC are spotlighting “sexual deviance” in order to distract the public from their ineptitude in dealing with more pressing issues, such as the Dhammakaya embezzlement scandal, currently one of the most talked-about controversies in Thailand.
The contentious and somewhat cult-like Dhammakaya tradition, said to be modern Thailand’s fastest-growing Buddhist movement, was founded in Thailand in the 1970s and is known today for its influential leaders, massive ordination ceremonies, and spaceship-like golden temple just outside Bangkok. The SSC’s recent decision to clear allegations against Dhammakaya’s leaders for distorting Buddhist teachings and embezzling hundreds of millions of baht enraged laypeople and clergy alike.
Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai historian and founding member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, echoed the thoughts of many Thais when he wrote on Facebook that the “money and power of Wat Phra Dhammakaya monks . . . can buy almost all of the Sangha members.”
Many take the Dhammakaya movement as a sign of a growing crisis within Thai Buddhism.
“The cooptation of Buddhism by consumerism and nationalism takes the practice of Buddhists, especially monks and Buddhist teachings, away from the real essence of the Buddhist morality,” said Ven. Phra Paisal Visalo, a respected monk, Buddhist scholar, and activist. As a result, “Buddhism in Thailand is weaker and it cannot creatively respond to the changes of the time.”
McDaniel, however, believes that positing a narrative of Buddhist decline only provides fodder for religious conservatives.
“It sets up an idea that there was a pure Buddhism at one point that wasn’t involved in politics or with culture. There’s never been a time in Thai Buddhism where that was the case,” he said. “I think this rhetoric of decline actually fits into what the government wants us to think.”
It’s no secret that many Thai people are fed up with the current state of Thai Buddhism. News of misbehaving monks appears near daily. They’ve been caught leading lavish lifestyles, punching English teachers on trains, perpetrating pedophilia and sexual abuse, and making amulets out of dead babies, to name but a few of the latest transgressions. But given that monks are human and not inherently good by virtue of being monks (particularly in Thailand, where the majority of Thai males are pressured by their families to enter the monkhood at least once), this is not exactly surprising, or new. The unprecedented amount of media coverage of errant monks, however, is of great benefit to conservative reformers in government and the Sangha.
In March, not long after the not-guilty verdict against Dhammakaya was upheld by the SSC, the junta’s reform council rather suddenly dissolved its panel on Buddhism. “Our work has raised public awareness and the mission is complete,” said NRC member and panel leader Paiboon Nititawan, rather unconvincingly. Of course, should the Bill to Patronize and Protect Buddhism be passed into law, secular oversight would quickly return to the Thai monkhood.
Khuankaew makes little distinction between the tone-deaf leadership of the junta and that of the SSC. She believes that reform is essential, but not the kind that is coming from those in power. As she told me in an interview last year for another story, “The Sangha is failing. There’s no one progressive at the top, no grassroots movements within. Just a lot of old men set in their ways.”
And therein lies the problem: instead of focusing on the real issues of both Buddhism and Thai society, the powers that be are trying to enforce an antiquated and highly patriarchal social order, and doing so under the pretext of preserving a vision of Thai-ness that they themselves have constructed.
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