No Buddhist bullets in Thai turmoil


Golden Buddha statue, from Dhammakaya websiteIt's often said in Thailand that the three pillars of Thai society are Buddhism, the monarchy and the nation, or political system. In recent months I've witnessed many noisy anti-government protests in Bangkok where political groups have been very visible. But amid the turmoil, Buddhism and the monarchy are notably absent.

The low profile of the monarchy is easily explained. Absolute rule of the king ended in 1932, and since then Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy. The king does not comment on day to day affairs of the country.

The absence of Buddhism is more puzzling. Thailand is the heartland of Theravadan Buddhism, and Buddhist temples, shrines and monks are ubiquitous. 95 per cent of Thais claim Buddhism as their religion and, alongside the 250,000 permanent monks and nuns, most men spend at least a few months of their youth in a monastery.

Perhaps the low profile of Buddhism in the present crisis is a good thing. Thais look nervously at recent events in nearby Buddhist countries where firebrand Buddhist monks have led militant ultra-nationalist movements against religious minorities, mainly targeting Muslims. There has been a string of articles in Thai newspapers denouncing these movements. Thais clearly don't want this type of religious leadership infecting their country.

In neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma), the so called 969 Movement, led by 46-year-old monk Bhikku Wirathu, began in mid-2012 and quickly spread. The number 969 alludes to notions central to Buddhist belief: to the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six special features of the Dhamma (Buddhist teaching), and the nine characteristics that should distinguish the Sangha (Buddhist monks).

But Wirathu has subverted these Buddhist ideals, as attested to by a Time feature from July 2012. It was entitled 'The Face of Buddhist Terror' and referred to him as 'the Burmese Bin Laden'.

His movement began with calls to stop the spread of Islam by boycotting businesses run by the Muslim Rohingya minority, ethnic Bengalis living in Myanmar since British colonial times. But it quickly escalated into open violence, with scores of Rohingya killed, many doused in petrol and burnt to death, entire Muslim villages and communities burnt to the ground, and tens of thousands of people forced to flee areas where they had lived peacefully alongside majority Buddhists for generations.

Around the same time in Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) emerged. Its founder is 37-year-old Buddhist monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara. While his movement so far has eschewed violence, he has led a virulent public campaign of intimidation against minority Muslims. He has said Sri Lanka is 'a Buddhist nation (and) not everyone can live under the umbrella of a Buddhist culture'.

While this type of extremist Buddhist leadership seems absent in Thailand, and monks do not have a strong presence in the political protests in the Thai capital, there is concern about the partisan involvement of some high profile monks and Buddhist associations.

Well known 58-year-old Luang Pu Buddha Issara, abbot of Or Noi Temple just west of Bangkok, was appointed to oversee one of the seven main anti-government protest sites designed to shut down the capital. Another Buddhist group supporting the protestors is Santi Asoke, the so-called Dhamma Army, led by monk Phra Bodhirak. Begun in the 1970s, this is a small ascetic splinter group of socially engaged Buddhists.

On the government side, many point to the wealthy Dhammakaya sect's support for the Shinawatra clan. Begun in the 1970s, the centre of this sect's activities is an enormous futuristic shrine just north of Bangkok whose huge dome is encrusted with thousands of gold Buddha statues.

A recent opinion piece in the Bangkok Post criticised Dhammakaya's association with the powerful Shinawatras, saying it 'has heightened public concern that the Dhammakaya's capitalist version of Buddhism — that money can buy merit and nirvana — will dominate the entire clergy and Thai Buddhism'.

So there are a few monks and some Buddhist groups openly supporting one side or the other in the conflict. But what seems absent is any bigger religious discussion of the morality or basic principles that might guide a way forward. The only cogent discussion in this vein I've seen has come from Sanitsuda Ekachai, an assistant editor at the Bangkok Post in a series of incisive opinion pieces she's written over the last few months.

A few brief quotes give a flavour of her arguments: 'Buddhism teaches tolerance and inter-relatedness of all beings. What kind of Buddhists are we — red (pro-government), yellow (anti-government), or in between — to support violent acts to purge the objects of someone's hatred from the earth?'

'As self-proclaimed Buddhists, we must ask ourselves a few questions too. Should we let hatred prevail over goodwill? Should we allow extremism to lead to more bloodshed? Are our political views worth dying for or having other people killed? ... We don't need monks who side with a particular political camp and fan hatred. We need monks who live by the Buddha's teachings.'

In this time of turmoil and political upheaval, perhaps Thailand needs monks and lay leaders who not only live by the teachings of the Buddha, but who also speak out forcefully in a non-partisan way about them.

Paul Kay, an Australian journalist with a masters in theology, has spent the past several months in Thailand.

Topic tags: Thailand, Buddhism



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Existing comments

Amazing that such an interesting and disturbing article attracts no comments.
Gavan | 24 January 2014

I find calling Thailand a Buddhist country about as helpful as calling Italy a Catholic country. As a senior monk said a few years ago in Bangkok: "Thailand - a Buddhist country? Yes I suppose there are some Buddhists here." All you have to do is walk down a street anywhere in the country to see what an amalgam of religious influences affect Thais. What's Buddhist about the Spirit House that adorns every entrance to a building in the country? That comes from animist influences which real Buddhists would dismiss. The reality is that in Thailand in recent years, the monks have lost the moral authority they still enjoy elsewhere like Cambodia and Myanmar and are seen by many as wealthy and self-satisfied. Catholic parallels? The King is absent because he's ill with Parkinson's disease. And because his "invisible hand" has been the circuit breaker here since the 1940s, no mature democratic culture has developed, despite this being a Constitutional Monarchy. It's actually a power vacuum and heaven knows what the outcome will be.
Michael Kelly | 24 January 2014

Small reaction not much of a surprise to me, Gavan; most followers of this saga have their bellies full of disenchantment, I think, with the loss of their faith in a country they thought had so much to offer the West. Bemoaning the current mess is very unrewarding. I've found, in living with these people for a long time, that Buddhism as practised here is very flexibly interpreted by those who would "misbehave"; the lies, cheating, venality, and widespread immorality of senior bureaucrats in this country are breathtaking, and when viewed against the background of such admirable Buddhist precepts, are disappointing to see. The wonderful natures and morality of the huge majority of lovely, smiling people are stomped into the mire by elitist power-playing ruling cliques. And that goes very much for both sides. We have the alarming paradox now of a mob protesting a corrupt exiled PM, led by a former deputy PM who is utterly corrupt himself. So, thanks for the article, Paul Kay, but as much as we westerners think Buddhism is a guiding light this country, it's easily pushed aside by those who find its teachings inconvenient.
Adrian Ashenden | 25 January 2014

I agree with Michael Kelly about religious labels for populations. But also find that many outside commentators, like Zoe Daniel for the ABC get it notoriously wrong when reporting on Thailand. The current demonstrations are ex-professo non violent. The violence came from Thaksin's goons imported from Cambodia or police. Burma is different, the behaviour of monks there suggests that groups of monks have been infiltrated by the regime or are yobbo monk robed thugs doing dirty work for the Junta. But what I find most depressing is that the western press and the US ambassador have been condemning the demonstrators to protect the interests of American companies, especially oil interests intimately linked with Thaksin. The observable behaviourof the current demonstrators, their solidarity, their age span, their words, and how they are being supported is impressive anywhere. The farmers who were supporters of Thaksin, but have not been paid for their rice in the 13 Billion Jinluck scam have joined the demonstration. Thaksin and America do not have to abandon principles because capitalistic greed has no principles to abandon. That kind of ammorality stands in stark contrast with the moral plurality of the monks and Buddhism and the idealistic anti-corruption demonstrators.
Michael D. Breen | 26 January 2014


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