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Debate continues – institutionalizing Buddhism in the charter

Updated On: Apr 24, 2007

Judging from the deluge of articles in the newspapers commenting on the draft charter that was released last week (18 April), the conclusion seems to be that it “leaves much to be desired”. 

The draft charter contained provisions clearly aimed to eradicate the weakness that has allowed former premier Thaksin to concentrate his power.  But it has been criticized by some for being “riddled with flaws”.  One issue that has sparked off intense debates is whether to declare Buddhism as a national religion and “enshrined” it in the new constitution. The decision by the constitution drafters to leave this provision out has disappointed those lobby groups who have petitioned them earlier on to make Buddhism the national religion.

In explaining the decision to leave out this declaration on Buddhism as a national religion, chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), Sqn-Ldr Prasong Soonsiri maintained that Buddhism is already a “state” religion and hence need not be mentioned in the charter. Instead, he wants Buddhists to practice religious devotion in compliance with the Lord Buddha's teaching and felt that whether Buddhism will progress or decline depends on the ability of its followers, both laymen and monks, to maintain the religion.

His statement has invoked strong reactions. The Buddhist group led by Phra Thepvisutthikavi, Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, declared it would gather a quarter of a million of the faithful at a mass rally on April 25 to continue to put pressure on the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) to declare Buddhism the official national religion in the new charter. 200,000-300,000 Buddhists were expected to join the rally to monitor the deliberations of changes to the first draft by the CDC, to begin on April 26.

Showing their displeasure, the monks have reportedly issued a verdict of “ookakhepaneeyakarma”, to “excommunicate” Sqn-Ldr Prasong.

However, just as there were groups pushing for Buddhism to be declared state religion in the charter, there are groups, particularly amongst the Bangkok elites, who worried that

if state Buddhism is instituted, it could further deepen the mutual distrust between Buddhists and Muslims and increase the feeling of marginalization by the minorities. Violence in the South may then move quickly into Bangkok as Muslims take their fight into the capital and political centre.

They also point out that fervent Buddhism may inspire nationalism and exclusivity and breed intolerance of and discrimination against people of other faiths. They added that Buddhism should not be “institutionalized” and advocate practicing Buddhism “in the head and mind”. 

The issue over whether Buddhism should be declared as state religion in the charter has sparked a wider debate over issue of morality, national symbols and identity and culture.  It was indeed the very sense that Thai society is facing a decline in morality and that Buddhism is in “disarray” that groups lobbied for the “revival” of Buddhism by reaffirming its importance through enshrining it in the charter as a state religion.

Meanwhile, state religion aside, political violence continues in the Kingdom. The Thai government has declared that it will never make peace with the insurgents in the South but remains committed to a reconciliatory approach in rebuilding trust among the ''good people''.  Responding to earlier criticisms by Human Rights Watch about the excessive use of force by militias and vigilantes in the South, Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont reiterated that the government wants an emphasis on non-violent methods to regain the trust of the majority of law-abiding people in the Southern region. But perhaps also reflecting the frustration at the lack of success in quelling violence in the South, he warned that “for the villains, the peaceful approach is out of the question''.

He was speaking about this on a tour of the Southern region which included a visit to Noppadol Pueksomon, the Narathiwat deputy police chief who was critically injured by a booby trap this week and is being treated in Songkhla. Holding out an olive branch, the PM welcomed the suggestion of an amnesty for sympathisers of the insurgent groups put forth by Fourth Army commander Lt General Viroj Buacharoon who earlier proposed the introduction of a law similar to the now-abolished Anti-Communist Act to grant amnesty to insurgent supporters.

But in the meantime, the PM is focused on security measures such as more security equipment including surveillance cameras to be supplied to the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre and the Internal Security Operations Command while listening to pleas to provide residents in insurgent-prone areas with weapons so they could arm themselves in self-defence.

As the debate over state religion continues, the Thai nation needs some soul-searching as to how to shape the future of the role of religion in national politics or its status either as a panacea or accelerator of politico-religious violence. (23 April 2007)

Sources:

Buddhism already 'official' religion (Bangkok Post, 23 April 2007)

Draft charter closes loopholes for graft, conflict of interest (The Nation, 22 April 2007)

Charter 'runs the risk of rejection' in referendum (The Nation, 22 April 2007)

Constitutional conflict over 'state religion' (Bangkok Post, 22 April 2007)

Thai PM rules out term extension for army chief (Xinhua, 22 April 2007)

PM rules out forging peace with militants (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

Beyond the charter (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

Insurgents burn school, ambush soldiers (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

Update: Two soldiers killed in South blast (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

Prime Minister gets tough on southern rebels (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

SOUTHERN UNREST (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

BROADCASTING / MEDIA REFORM PROPOSALS (Bangkok Post, 21 April 2007)

'Alternative charter not the reason for Paris trip' (Nation, 21 April 2007)

Thailand unveils post-coup draft constitution (Channelnewsasia, 19 April 2007)

OPINION / BUDDHISM IN THAILAND (Bangkok Post, 19 April 2007)







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