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The junta cabinet has approved a bill on religion which can be used to prosecute, with jail terms, people who propagate ‘incorrect’ versions of Buddhist doctrines or cause harm to Buddhism. The bill also posts jail terms specifically for homosexual monks.

In recent decades, although Theravada Buddhism, the prominent Buddhist sect in mainland Southeast Asia, remains the most popular faith in Thailand, followed by about 90 per cent of Thais, the conventional practices and doctrines of Buddhism and the institutions which promote it have lost their ability to attract followers. This religious gap is filled with Buddhist cults which have managed to attract hundreds of thousands of followers, such as the Santi Asoke, a Buddhist sect which promotes simplistic communal lifestyles whose founder was disrobed by Thailand’s Buddhist monastic authorities in 1989, and Dhammakaya, a controversial commercialised version of Buddhism which has attracted billions of baht in donations from its followers. Viewing these developments as threats, prominent Buddhist institutions have come up with the legal mechanisms to control Buddhist practices and regain power.

Since 2006, the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), known in Thai as ‘Mahathera Samakhom’, the governing body of Thai Buddhist clergy, and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the secular office under the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for promoting Buddhism, have unsuccessfully tried to propose a ‘Bill to Patronise and Protect Buddhism’, written by the two organizations. The draft bill was rejected under previous military and civilian governments, who recommended that the contents of the bill should merely be included in monastic rules, but not apply to the general public. However, in August 2014, the junta cabinet, which sees Buddhism as a part of the Thai identity, has approved the bill and is preparing to submit it to the National Legislative Assembly. It is now under consideration of the Council of State.

Pointing to the importance of Buddhism to the nation, the draft bill says “Buddhism is one of the pillars of the Thai nation and is the religion that most Thai people adhere to. Therefore, Buddhists should be united in patronising and protecting Buddhism to make it prosper and enhance Buddhist principles and ethics to develop the quality of one’s life.” In addition to these vague sentiments, however, the bill will allow the SSC and the government to punish anyone deemed to threaten a narrowly defined version of Buddhism promoted by the authorities.

For Sulak Sivaraksa, one of the founding members of International Network of Engaged Buddhists and a historian who is renowned for his criticisms of the SSC, the bill clearly shows the SSC’s desire to gain more prominence in Thai society.

“This bill shows blind stupidity and lust for power,” said Sulak. “The Sangha Supreme Council is a very weak council. It doesn’t have its own identity. That’s why it wants to show that it has power, which is regrettable,” he added.

Monopolising Lord Buddha’s teachings

In Section 8 of the bill on penalties, Article 32 states that anyone who propagates wrong versions of Buddhist teachings or, in others words, versions which differ from the SSC’s interpretation of the Tripitaka, the ancient Buddhist scriptures, could face one to seven years imprisonment.

To effectively enforce this doctrinal monopoly of Buddhism, provincial Buddhist committees will be established under Article 14 of Section 3. One of the functions of these committees, as laid out in Article 16 of the bill, is to form a warning centre in each province against threats to Buddhism.

According to Venerable Phramaha Paiwan Warawunno, a liberal Buddhist monk known for his criticisms of the SSC, the content of the bill to protect Buddhism violates the rights of individuals to interpret the Buddha’s teachings. He pointed out that the Buddhist doctrines in the Tripitaka should not be monopolized by any specific institution, but should be open to all on individual basis.

A spectacular Buddhist ceremony organized on October 2013 at the controversial Dhammakaya Temple, which continues to attracts billions of baht in donations from its followers (courtesy of Dhammakaya Post).  

“Whose interpretations of Buddhist doctrines are correct and shall be used as standards? Who will have the right to judge whether a specific version of the Buddhist doctrines is correct and point out that the others are not?” he questioned.

Venerable Shine Waradhammo, an undergraduate student monk at the International College of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, a Buddhist university in Bangkok, said that if the bill is passed it may become the religious version of the controversial Article 112 of the Criminal Code, aka the lèse majesté law.

“It will be a grave danger to education especially tertiary religious education of both monks and lay persons alike,” he added.

Nidhi Eoseewong, a prominent Thai historian and political commentator, also drew a comparison between the Bill to Patronise and Protect Buddhism and Thailand’s lèse majesté law.

At a public seminar on ‘Religion and State: We Won’t Be Able to Separate in this Life’ organized by Dome Front Agora, a student group at Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan Campus in Bangkok on 21 February, Nidhi pointed out “No one really knows what the Lord Buddha taught word by word. You only have the Tripitaka which was in fact written some 500 years after the Lord Buddha died. Therefore, even the oldest Buddhist scripture is written through an interpretative process.”

Tightening the rules against ‘sexually deviant’ monks         

In an attempt to prevent men with sexual orientations other than heterosexuality from entering the monkhood, Article 40 under Section 8 of the bill stipulates that monks who perform, knowingly or unwittingly, an ordination ceremony for persons with “deviant sexual behaviour” can also be punished with a prison term of no more than one month.

Article 41 of Section 8 also states that monks who are ‘sexually deviant’ can be imprisoned for up to one month if they cause ‘harm and disgrace’ to Buddhism although the bill does not mention what kinds of actions are deemed harmful to Buddhism.

In countries where Theravada Buddhism is a prominent faith, such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Cambodia, the subject of homosexuality and monkhood is understudied. In Thailand, although homosexuality is generally accepted, since the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic rules, stipulates that monks must be celibate, most monks choose to remain silent about their sexual orientation.

A photo of two men in Buddhist monk robes kissing, posted on a Facebook page titled Monk Fetish, a page which uploads pictures of appealing Buddhist clergymen

In Thailand, the SSC has never applied strict rules regarding this matter. Sulak said that even some high-ranking monks in the SSC are themselves openly homosexual. Nonetheless, if the Bill to Patronise and Protect Buddhism is enacted, this could all be changed.   

Venerable Shine believes that the disenfranchisement of people of alternative sexes and genders from the Buddhist monkhood is a form of violence and a violation of human rights.

“It seems as if people who took part in writing this bill hold prejudiced views against people with alternative sexes and genders. This is a form of violence and a violation of human rights because naturally gender and sex can’t be straightforwardly defined as male and female.” the monk told Prachatai.

He added that the application of this section of the bill is going to be problematic because it is based on prejudice.

“Although the bill states that only monks with alternative sexes and genders who cause harm to Buddhism could be prosecuted, the bill does not mention what sort of actions constitutes harm to Buddhism. Since the wording of this section of the bill already discriminates against monks with alternative sexes and genders, its application will be very problematic,” said the monk.

Religious hindrance to democracy

Besides the legal loopholes in the bill, Vichak Panich, a Matichon columnist and expert on Buddhism and religious studies, pointed out that if the bill on protecting and patronising Buddhism is going to pass, it will become another obstacle to democracy in Thailand.

“This bill will give the SSC, which is already quite a dictatorial organization, since it is not transparent and elected, the power to prosecute not only monks but also lay persons who defy its authority,” said Vichak.

Vichak added that the version of Theravada Buddhism which is promoted by the SSC and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) in Thailand always has two functions in Thai society.

“It [Theravada Buddhism] is promoted as a part of the Thai identity and nationalism. Moreover, it promotes the intangible concept of virtue and morality over freedom and rights. This lends support and justification for some groups of people in society to judge others,” said Vichak. “It is no surprise that this bill is being accepted under the current political regime.” added the religious expert.

In addition, according to Sulak, an attempt to further elevate the status of Buddhism in Thai society can backfire and become a grave danger to Thailand’s plural society.

In the 2011 version of the Bill to Patronise and Protect Buddhism, Article 4 states that Buddhism will be made the state religion of Thailand. However, in the current draft bill, which has been approved by the junta cabinet, the statement that Buddhism is a state religion has been deleted.  

“Although Buddhism is not the state religion now, Buddhism always assumes a state of paramountcy over other religions in Thailand and the Buddhist clergy already enjoy many privileges. If it is to become a state religion it might stir up some conflicts with other religious minorities in the country,” Sulak told Prachatai.

To sum up, Venerable Shine pointed out that the bill itself is counterproductive and would end up destroying Buddhism instead of protecting and patronising it.

“In order to thrive, religion must always be adaptable to societies to allow people to understand its practices and teachings, including, making itself open for debate and discussion. If this is prohibited, then the religion itself would be dead,” he concluded.

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