Buddhism and Human Rights

By Damien V. Keown; Charles S. Prebish et al. | Go to book overview
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Soraj Hongladarom

Introduction: The Problem of Buddhism and Human Rights

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 raises the problem of how the concept of human rights are compatible with the cultures and practices of those civilizations where the concept has not taken a firm root. The concept of human rights, as expressed in the UN Declaration, is regarded as alien, or as an imposition of foreign, namely Western, powers on the lives and minds of non-Western people whose cultural development does not go along the same path trodden by the West. In the case of Thailand (formerly Siam), 1 which was not directly colonized by any Western powers, the concept is also generally regarded as foreign, and the Thai word for human rights Sitthi Manussayachon still rings an unfamiliar sound. For most Thais, the word simply conjures up the image of someone who disregard the traditional pattern of compromise and harmonization of social relations; someone, that is, who is quite out of touch with the traditional Thai mores.

However, the mores themselves are changing. As the country is surging toward industrialization, and as the people are ever estranged from the traditional way of living, more Thais are beginning to realize the need for human rights. This is well attested by the Black May incident of 1993, when scores of Thais lost their lives fighting for democracy against the army. The discourse of Thai people is beginning to presuppose the basic premises of human rights, even though these are not spelled out explicitly. The situation is that of a dynamic where traditional mores are being left behind and the people are groping for a new one. This situation, then, raises, the problem of how to accommodate human rights within the constitutive beliefs of Thai culture. Since the core of Thai beliefs is represented by Buddhism, a problem then ensues concerning how to reconcile the religion and its way of life with the new mores, part of which is the conception and actualization of human rights.

In this paper I shall investigate the situation, comparing and contrasting two famous thinkers in contemporary Thailand Sulak Sivaraksa2 and Phra Dhammapidok ( Prayudh Prayutto). 3 The former is a

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