Thailand is a warm, welcoming society. A majority Buddhist nation, Thailand leaves religious minorities alone.
Yet Bangkok’s policy of religious tolerance is coming under pressure. The forces of Buddhist nationalism were active in the campaign over the new constitution.
A military coup last fall highlighted the authoritarian undercurrent to Thai politics. The junta’s nationalistic impulse eventually could turn against minority religious faiths.
Thailand’s dominant religion is Buddhism, but the state always has been secular. The last constitution, suspended by the military, required the government to “patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions.”
The military produced a more authoritarian document, recently endorsed by a reluctant electorate. Although the Constitution Drafting Assembly refused demands by Buddhist nationalists to make Buddhism Thailand’s official religion, the nationalists still campaigned against the proposal as a result.
Buddhist activists charge that their faith is at risk. A Muslim insurgency in south Thailand has fueled these fears, as Islamic fighters have targeted Buddhist monks and bombed Buddhist temples.
The military originally dismissed the idea of turning Buddhism into a state religion, but a minuscule march in Bangkok—by just 4,000 people—spooked the junta. The public mood had shifted against the regime and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra attempted to turn the Buddhist proposal to their advantage.
So army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that he wouldn’t block an amendment turning Buddhism into the state religion. He explained: “If a stipulation in the charter to this effect would lead to peace in the country, then it would be better to include it.”
The drafting committee decided against doing so, but once elections are held, the new parliament could take up the issue again. Even though unsuccessful, the Buddhist campaign itself made Muslims and Christians nervous.
Some Thai observers dismiss the controversy as without substance. There is no Buddhist equivalent to Islamic law, for instance, said Ammar Siamwalla, a Muslim economist from Bangkok.
But even as a purely symbolic step, raising the status of Buddhism risks inflaming Thailand’s southern Muslim insurgency. “It’s going to make the situation in southern Thailand a hell of a lot worse,” argues Zachary Abuza, a terrorist specialist.
Some monks have warned their nation against following Sri Lanka, where Buddhist nationalists are politically influential. Former Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan makes a similar point: “They succeeded in Sri Lanka in making Buddhism the national religion and look at where Sri Lanka is—it’s a total civil war.”
After decolonization in 1948, the Buddhist Sinhalese majority enhanced its position at the expense of the largely Hindu Tamil minority. The Sri Lankan constitution provides Buddhism with the “foremost place” in Sri Lankan society.
Tamil demands for autonomy have led to a vicious guerrilla conflict. The terrorist tactics of Tamil Tigers, including suicide bombing, are appalling. However, government forces have been implicated in the murder and kidnapping of Tamil civilians. With the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire, the country appears to be spiraling back into full-scale civil war.
Moreover, religious liberty remains tenuous even in areas away from military conflict. Buddhist mobs, sometimes led by monks, have attacked Christian churches, ministers, and believers.
The Sri Lankan supreme court ruled that proselytizing was not a protected religious activity under the constitution. The jurists refused to recognize a Catholic medical group which, it declared, had provided an improper “allurement” (health care) to procure a conversion.
Some Buddhist nationalists want more. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party spearheaded a campaign to turn Buddhism into the official religion and advocated discrimination against minority faiths. JHU is a fusion of two Buddhist nationalist groups that had previously pushed for banning missionaries and punishing “unethical” conversions (of Buddhists, naturally).
Although the JHU is small, it provided important support for president Mahinda Rajapakse. The party and candidate agreed to an election program to revise the ceasefire and reject federalism as a basis for peace.
The JHU formally joined the government in January, boosting its narrow majority. The JHU’s influence likely ensures an even more bitter civil war.
The JHU continues to advocate a constitutional amendment to institutionalize Buddhism. The party also is pressing legislation that would ban “unethical” religious conversions. A similar bill has been approved by the Sri Lankan cabinet and was referred to a special parliamentary committee last year.
Thailand is not Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka demonstrates that Buddhism and nationalism constitute a violent, combustible mix. Neither Thailand’s people nor military should toss aside their nation’s reputation for tolerance in pursuit of short-term political gain.