Section 67 of the 2016 draft constitution mandated the state to protect and promote the dissemination of Theravada Buddhist teaching to uplift the spiritual well-being of Thai people. Though unexpected, the official recognition of Theravada Buddhism is not a surprise. It confirms the trend that Thailand has been gradually sliding into religious intolerance.
Since 1932, all constitutions have guaranteed religious freedom. But Thailand’s 1997 constitution was the first that assigned the government the duty to support “Buddhism and other religions.” This was a compromise with the nationalist Buddhist front for not declaring Buddhism the state religion.
The 2007 Constitution employed more elaborate language, emphasising the special status of Buddhism due to its historical and demographical importance. These changes coincided with attempts to reform Thai politics by appointing courts and independent watchdog agencies to scrutinize elected politicians accused of corruption. Members of these agencies were not elected, but nominated based on their personal qualifications including “moral standards.”
In the 2016 constitution, the language is even more protective of Buddhism and even specifies which sect of Buddhism to uphold. Despite warning of possible religious tension, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) insisted on, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) approved, and the majority of Thai public endorsed this clause in the national referendum on 7 August.
The 2016 draft constitution is further evidence of Thailand’s mistakes when it comes to religious policy. Decades of indoctrination in the public education system have convinced Thais that Buddhism is the only true belief and an integral part of being Thai. It has bred the Buddhist nationalist movement — a band of monks and followers who leverage the power of the state to maintain Buddhism’s superior status over other faiths.
Governments also rely heavily on Buddhism for legitimacy to rule. As a result, the Buddhist nationalist movement easily asserts its influence over a government –one that it finds difficult to resist for fear of losing support. This is particularly apparent for a government that cannot claim majority support, like the NCPO.
In addition to constitutional changes, the Buddhist nationalist movement has proposed a series of policies that benefit their religion. It has asked the state to create the Buddhist Fund to support the dissemination of Buddhism. A monk who passes the Pali language exam can also receive a title and recognition equivalent to a PhD.
Moreover, some Buddhists have demanded a law on pilgrimage. According to this, the state must regulate and facilitate Buddhists who travel to India and Nepal to visit the birthplace and nirvana site of Lord Buddha.
These policies reflect a fear of Islam, which across the Muslim world enjoys government-operated Islamic banking and support for the Hajj pilgrimage. This fear is unfounded, but the government dares not ignore the wishes of Buddhist nationalists.
Although the majority of Thais voted to accept the 2016 draft constitution, the Deep South provinces rejected it. The other region to reject the new charter was the Northeast, the stronghold of the anti-coup Redshirt movement.
Residents of the Deep South were concerned that the new constitution would enable the Buddhist-Siamese government to overlook the demand to preserve their Muslim-Malay identity. The region has always been restive, witnessing years of insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives on both sides. Adding insult to the injury, the NCPO blamed the high disapproval rate for the draft constitution on Muslim Malays’ ignorance, and their failure to understand the true content of the proposed constitution.
A week after the referendum, small bombs went off in several southern provinces, including the tourist attraction of Hua Hin, leaving one dead and several injured. The NCPO quickly blamed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and arrested Redshirt sympathisers. Reluctantly, it later admitted that the Southern insurgency was more likely behind these bombings.
The attacks represented a rare operation by insurgents outside of the Deep South. For many, this was a message from Muslim Malays expressing their dissatisfaction with the new policy on religion. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the NCPO, responded by invoking Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which gave him absolute and uncontrolled power to issue Order 49/2559 to promote religious harmony.
However, doubts remain if Order 49/2559 can alleviate religious tension.
Despite a lengthy preamble ensuring that the government recognises the importance of all religions, the Order simply confirms the government’s usual stance. Other sects of Buddhism and other religions may enjoy the freedom of belief and practice, but Theravada Buddhism deserves the state’s special attention since it has been practiced by the majority of Thais since time immemorial.
Worse, the Order mandates all relevant state agencies to monitor that only “the right teaching” is taught, claiming that there have been attempts to distort religious teaching to undermine social harmony. Moreover, the Order explains that the right teaching should complement ideas such as sufficiency economy, good governance, national unity, and honesty.
Not only does the NCPO understand nothing about the root of the problem, but it also takes advantage of tragic incidents. Under the pretext of “the right teaching,” the government is now authorised to revoke personal freedoms to ensure that people do not deviate from the NCPO’s ideologies. Unsurprisingly, the violence in the Deep South has continued. Most recently, an explosion blew up a train, halting the whole southbound service. Another explosion in front of a kindergarten killed a father and his five-year-old daughter.
Playing the Buddhist card is naïve and dangerous. Making an alliance with radical Buddhists is short-sighted. In the long run, this pact could cause more harm than good. The CDC and the NCPO are ignoring the fact that modern Thailand is a multi-faith and multi-ethnic community. They underestimate the impact of the Theravada Buddhism clause.
This constitution will alienate more and more people. It has fueled the insurgency and could claim thousands of more lives. Even moderate Buddhists have become uneasy about this move toward a greater extreme. Buddhism could become a tool to suppress those who disagree with the state. Thailand could become more religiously intolerant. Religious freedom could diminish.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a Thai constitution law scholar.