Toward a Buddhist Social Ethics: The Case of Thailand

Article excerpt

Traditional Buddhist concepts of moral conduct need to be reinterpreted for the modern world and integrated into a social ethical theory.

Buddhism is often criticized as a religion that, being mainly concerned with personal salvation, lacks a social ethics. Although this may seem to be true, Buddhist teachings on personal conduct do contain principles that could be reinterpreted and extended to a social ethical theory. Thailand offers a good framework in which to approach Buddhist social ethics, for it provides an opportunity to examine sociopolitical issues under the global market economy at a structural level and from a Third World point of view. Buddhist monks in Thailand are part of a unified hierarchical sangha (community of monks) which in turn is controlled by the government. Every day, they also eat food donated to them by Thai people, the majority of whom are poor and oppressed. This situation makes it possible to look at Buddhism from a social justice perspective, and thereby add a new dimension to the Buddhist hermeneutics for the poor. If greed is understood not just in individual terms but also as a built-in mechanism of oppressive social structures, then to reduce or eliminate greed through personal self-restraint will not be enough; these social structures will have to be changed as well. Many Buddhists seek liberation (Pali: nibbana; Sanskrit: nirvana) by practicing meditation, but they do not pay sufficient attention to the way the society in which they live is organized. I wish to offer a challenge to Buddhist ethical values by interpreting liberation as necessarily involving social as well as personal liberation.

The Thai Political Economy

Absolute monarchy was ended in Thailand in 1932. A revolution led by a small number of members of the civilian, bureaucratic, and military elite brought about a radical change in the power structure by placing the monarchy under a constitution. Influenced by the Western idea of democracy, they introduced a new political system in Thailand. Since then the country has experimented with democracy for sixty-five years, during which politics has been overwhelmingly dominated by the military, with seventeen coups d'etat or attempted coups, and sixteen revisions of the constitution. During this time, influenced by the global market economy, Thailand has also experimented with capitalism. From 1932 to the fall of Phibun's regime in 1957, it was ruled primarily by the military under democratic constitutions. The monarchy was suppressed, and the economy was dominated by state-owned enterprises. From the 1957 coup by Sarit Thanarat to the fall of Thanom-Praphat's regime in 1973, Thailand was under a military dictatorship without a constitution. There was an increase of private enterprise and capitalism. During the same period, the Thai monarchy gained wide respect both among the people and the military.

The 1973 student-led revolution and the middle-class revolution of 1992 were the first uprisings by the people in the modern history of Thailand. Although neither revolution changed the fundamental social and political structures of the country, they demonstrated that ordinary people, especially the middle-class, have become increasingly powerful in Thai politics. From the mid-70s to the mid-90s, there was an economic boom in Thailand within the global market economy dominated by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, but this was accompanied by a widening income gap between urban elites and the rural poor, the destruction of the rain forests, and deterioration of the natural environment. This economic expansion, which saw the rise of an affluent upper-middle class, was interrupted by the economic crisis of late 1997 and early 1998.

During successive regimes from 1973 to the present, the military maintained control, staging a number of coups and dominating parliamentary government. The monarchy continued to win wide support from the Thai people, gaining the power to negotiate with the military, as seen by the king's intervention in the resignation of Thanom Kittikhachorn in 1973 and of Suchinda Khraprayun in 1992, as well as in the appointment of Sanya Thammasak as prime minister in 1973 and Anand Panyarachun in 1992. …