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“Papal Visits and the State of Interreligious Relations in Thailand” by Katewadee Kulabkaew

2019/96, 20 November 2019

Pope Francis, the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church, is visiting Thailand this week. His is the second papal visit in 35 years to this predominantly Buddhist country, where Catholics account for only 0.5 per cent of the population.

During his 20-23 November stay in the Thai capital, the pontiff is scheduled to meet with King Vajiralongkorn and with the Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha, the country’s highest-ranked Buddhist monk. He will also give a papal Mass at the National Stadium, where forty thousand Thai Catholics are expected to gather. These events are significant to Buddhists-Catholic relations in the country. They are also an indicator of the current  state of interreligious relations in Thailand more generally.

Historically, Thai Buddhists’ interest in comparative religion and interreligious dialogue has been indispensable to the construction and reaffirmation of their national identity. Pope John Paul II’s 1984 visit to Thailand, the first ever papal visit to the country, triggered both suspicions of a Catholic invasion and reflections on the perceived “weak” state of Buddhism — one of the central pillars of Thai-ness.

During the Cold War years, the Thai Sangha was obsessed with its own paranoid fears of subversion by “foreign” religions. Monks and some Buddhist laymen protested against the local Catholic Church’s use of Buddhist terms and what they saw as imitations of Buddhist rituals. They accused Catholic priests of subtly “swallowing” Buddhism by slowly incorporating other religions into Catholicism — allegedly following decisions made at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It was therefore no surprise that the first papal visit to Thailand worried the Sangha greatly. The unprecedented show of Catholic unity at the papal Mass celebrated during that visit put pressure on monks to devise a way to reverse Buddhism’s perceived decline in popularity and support. As a result, they organized an annual Buddhism Promotion Week — a festival celebrating Buddhist teachings that continues to this day.

Perhaps the most powerful legacy of Pope John Paul II’s visit was the late King Bhumibol’s welcome remarks, in which he stated, “Thai people are religious. Most have faith in Buddhism, which is the national religion”. This brief episode of interreligious dialogue between the late king and the late pope has become a sacred reaffirmation of Buddhism’s superior status. It has often been cited by adherents to the nationalistic “Buddhism protection movement” founded two decades later, who use it as an argument for official recognition of Buddhism as Thailand’s national religion in the country’s constitution.

Pope Francis’s visit to Thailand this week presents a very different picture. The  mistrust of Catholics prevalent in 1980s has mostly faded away, with changes in world politics. The West is no longer considered a source of potential threats to national security or to Thai-Buddhist identity, especially relative to perceived emerging threats from Islamic extremism.

Since the persecution of seven Thai Catholic martyrs at the time of  the 1940 Franco-Thai War, no further state violence has explicitly disrupted the peace of the local Catholic community. Pope Francis himself has praised Thai Catholics for shifting their focus from aggressive evangelical activities to charity, which contributes more to the welfare of the Thai nation and to peaceful coexistence with the Buddhist majority.

Though Pope Francis has also praised recent Thai governments for “working hard” to achieve interreligious harmony, his compliment comes across as hollow. There has been no evidence of serious state efforts to promote ecumenism. In fact, Thai Catholics’ strategy of keeping a low profile is the real reason for the seemingly peaceful Buddhist-Catholic relations of recent decades.

Pope Francis’s visit has now stirred old sentiments and aroused the attention of contemporary Buddhist society. Recent public opinion, as expressed in social media, holds that Thai Catholics are relatively “quiet” and that the incumbent pope’s openness and modern thought are admirable. However, some social media users, especially those inclined to Buddhist chauvinism, argue that Catholicism may still be a threat to Thai Buddhism. They have pointed out what they consider  suspicious aspects of preparations for this week’s papal visit, seeing proof that the local Catholic Church still adheres to the old approach of “creeping assimilation” that will allow it to swallow Buddhism.

Despite this die-hard antagonism, it is not likely that the Buddhist chauvinists will be able to mobilize serious support for any attempt to rally against the papal visit. The revived attention to and suspicion of the Catholic Church’s activities will not bring hostility to Buddhist-Catholic relations in Thailand, since the focus of those determined to “protect” Buddhism is now centred on Islam. In their well-known analogy, Catholicism is like a stealthy python that slowly constricts and swallows its victims. But they consider the Islamic threat more serious, believing that Islam attacks like a fierce, violent cobra whose venom quickly kills.

The period of rule by military junta during 2014-2019 also brought suppression of the Sangha’s chauvinistic Buddhist protection movement. The overhaul in management of Sangha affairs, now centralized under King Vajiralongkorn, has seen the monarch exerting strict and absolute control over monastic dissidents. Although the monarchy’s and the junta’s concern in reasserting this control was more about breaking anti-establishment networks than promoting peaceful interreligious coexistence, the move has diminished the ability of religious chauvinists to launch any effective campaign of disruption.

Guest contributor, Dr Katewadee Kulabkaew, is a former Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.