Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Politics of Buddhist Identity in Thailand's Deep South: The Demise of Civil Religion?

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Politics of Buddhist Identity in Thailand's Deep South: The Demise of Civil Religion?

Article excerpt

   The fact that Buddhism is the national religion of Thailand should be

   accepted and declared, for the sake of the security of the nation,
   religion and monarchy, which would make it possible for Thailand to
   have enduring peace and security. (1)

In a well-organised campaign of protests and demonstrations in the early part of 2007, Buddhist monks and organisations pressed for Thailand's new constitution to proclaim Buddhism as the country's national religion. (2) Yet the above quotation predated this campaign by almost 18 months: it was part of a 20-point declaration issued by the Pattani Sangha Council in response to the violent October 2005 attack on Wat Phromprasit in Panare, Pattani. The national religion campaign of 2007 reflected a growing sense that Buddhism--the religion of more than 90 per cent of the Thai population--was under threat from a resurgent and militant Islam concentrated in the south. The recent rise of Buddhist chauvinism in Thailand illustrates the shortcomings of earlier claims that Thai Buddhism is essentially inclusivist and tolerant--in short, that it constitutes a 'civil religion'.

To demonstrate the growing implausibility of the 'civil religion' perspective, this article reviews a number of issues relating to the politics of Buddhist identity in Thailand's southern border provinces, which have been the site of renewed violent conflict since January 2004, claiming more than 2,000 lives. (3) Issues addressed include the militarisation of Buddhist temples, the formation of Buddhist militias, and the arming of the region's Buddhist population. Following the Wat Phromprasit incident, prominent monks in the three provinces launched public attacks on the stance of the National Reconciliation Commission, a body created by the Thaksin government to propose a peaceful solution to the southern crisis. These interventions by senior monks were apparently prompted by past and present senior military chiefs, but also testified to deep misgivings in wider Buddhist society. Underlying the abbots' uncompromising statements lay widespread Buddhist fears that they could ultimately be 'swallowed' by Muslim neighbours and driven from their land. Drawing on a period of extended fieldwork based at Prince of Songkhla University (PSU), Pattani, (4) the article uses interview materials and other texts to explore the fears and aspirations of the region's Buddhist community.

Thai Buddhist studies are too often pervaded by a set of simplistic and rarely challenged assumptions: Buddhism is a peaceful religion, Thailand is a tolerant country guided by the exercise of metta (loving-kindness) and characterised by religious freedom, while Thai Buddhists enjoy harmonious relations with people of other religions. Charles Keyes has been at the forefront of these claims. Indeed, he presses the idea of Thai Buddhism as a 'civil Buddhism' so far that he even characterises top-down interventions in the sangha carried out by the Thai monarchy as 'revolutionary' and progressive in intent. (5) In his keynote address to the 1999 International Conference on Thai Studies, Keyes actually compared Thailand's 'civil religion' with that of the United States, and drew parallels between the Thai term, 'satsana' (religion), and the ubiquity of the word 'God' in American public discourse. (6) In doing so, he glossed over the Thai state's suppression of dissident Buddhist movements, and ignored the ways in which Islam and other religions were subordinated to the demands of a Buddhist hegemony. Trying to obscure the distinction between a civic and ethnonationalist understanding of religion and identity is a highly misleading enterprise. As Jerry Muller argues:

   There are two major ways of thinking about national identity. One
   is that all people who live within a country's borders are part of
   the nation, regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religious
   origins. This liberal or civic nationalism is the conception with
   which contemporary Americans are most likely to identify. … 
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