The Politics of Contemporary Thai Buddhism

Dr Katewadee Kulabkaew’s seminar addressed the enduring but complicated role of Buddhism in Thai politics.

Friday, 22 March 2019 – Thai Buddhist establishments and leaders — ranging from the Sangha Supreme Council to the Supreme Patriarch and other leading monks and the more than 40,000  temples in the country—  have come under closer public scrutiny because of what Dr Katewadee described as incidents of “debauchery” and wayward behaviour on the part of a number of the half a million Buddhist monks and novices in Thailand.

Dr Katewadee Kulabkaew addressed the enduring but complicated role of Buddhism in Thai politics.  (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

A vocal movement of conservative and Buddhist-nationalist laymen have lobbied both the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta that took power in 2014 and the legislators in the junta’s unelected National Assembly to crack down on the alleged heretic Dhammakaya Temple and to reform Thai Buddhist institutions.   Some in this movement also formed a political party to contest in the general election on 24 March. Politicized clergy has opposed this lay movement’s interference in monastic affairs.

The NCPO government has thus faced religious turmoil. It recently amended the Sangha Act to return to the king, instead of the Sangha Supreme Council, the power to name the Supreme Patriarch.  Whereas the latter body would normally recommend the most senior  or most suitable monk for royal appointment to the position, the king chose to appoint the previously acting Supreme Patriarch and thus to  bypass two more senior monks — one  “tainted” by allegations of impropriety concerning his collection of vintage cars and the second in poor health.

King Vajiralongkorn has paid special attention to the need to clean up the Thai Buddhist establishment.  This is his constitutional role as the “upholder” of all religions in the kingdom.

More than 20 participants attended the seminar (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Katewadee pointed out that religious politics in Thailand is often determined or influenced by factors that are not religious at all. The Theravada tradition in which rulers seek to establish themselves as righteous upholders of religion, especially Buddhism, is not the factor that has motivated the junta to involve itself in the politics of Thai Buddhism.

The influence of and pressure from religious nationalists in the junta’s administrative network, the perception that an influential clique in the Thai Sangha represents a security threat, and the military government’s sense of duty to serve the monarchy — especially in the consolidation of monarchical power — have been the three political considerations behind the junta’s interest in and actions concerning Buddhism.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap (left), chaired the seminar, with Dr Katewadee Kulabkaew (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The junta has been successful in some aspects of its reform of Thai Buddhist institutions.  But future disputes are foreseeable. The prospects for a sustainable consensus among Thai Buddhists on how to separate Buddhism from national politics is still not in sight, Dr Katewadee concluded.