Buddhism, Politics, and Values

Thailand Table of Contents

The organizational links between the sangha and the government are an indication of their interdependence, although the fine points of that relationship may have changed over time. The traditional interdependence was between religion and the monarchy. The king was, in theory, a righteous ruler, a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, foregoes nirvana in order to aid others), and the protector of the religion. Because succession to the throne was problematic and the position of any king in many respects unstable, each ruler sought legitimation from the sangha. In return, he offered the religion his support.

After the king became a constitutional monarch in 1932, actual power lay in the hands of the elites, primarily the military but also the higher levels of the bureaucracy. Regardless of the political complexion of the specific persons in power (who, more often than not, had rightist views), the significance of Buddhism to the nation was never attacked. In the late 1980s, the king remained an important symbol, and public ideology insisted that religion, king, and nation were inextricably intertwined. Opposition groups have rarely attacked this set of related symbols. Some observers have argued that the acceptance of religion, king, and nation as ultimate symbols of Thai political values was misleading in that the great bulk of the population--the Thai villagers--although attached to Buddhism and respectful of the king, often resented the particular manifestations of government in local communities and situations. It seemed, however, that whatever discontent there was with the political, social, and economic orders, most Thai remained at least passively committed to a national identity symbolized by the king and Buddhism.

Puey Ungphakorn, a former rector of Thammasat University and human rights advocate, viewed the ethical precepts of Buddhism as insurance against oppressive national development. Although the fundamental role of development was to improve the welfare of the villagers, in a number of nations without the protection of religion the rights of the villager were often abused. In Thailand, according to Puey, the peasant, like the urban dweller, has an individual identity protected by the shared belief in Buddhism.

The support given the king (and whatever political regime was in power) by the sangha was coupled with a prohibition on the direct intervention of monks in politics, particularly in party, political, and ideological conflicts. It was taken for granted that members of the sangha would oppose a communist regime, and available evidence suggested that virtually all Thai monks found Marxist thought alien, although monks elsewhere in Southeast Asia have been influenced by socialist, if not explicitly communist, ideas. Historically, monks occasionally have been involved in politics, but this involvement was not the norm. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, monks became aware of the political and ideological ferment in Southeast Asia and in a few cases engaged in political propaganda, if not in direct action. A few were accused of doing so from a position on the left, but the most explicit instance of political propaganda in the 1970s was that of a highly influential monk, Kittivuddha Bikkhu, who preached that it was meritorious to kill communists. Although not supported by the religious and political establishments, he provided right-wing militants with a Buddhist ideological justification for their extremist activities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress