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Mar 7, 2016 | 12:04 GMT

9 mins read

Thailand: Buddhist Feud Threatens Fragile Peace

Thailand Political Buddhism
(PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • A dispute among the Thai Buddhist clergy will risk evolving into a proxy war between Thailand’s competing political camps. 
  • The ruling military junta’s decline in legitimacy will push it to rely more heavily on support from conservative Buddhist factions.
  • The fringe Dhammakaya Buddhist sect will shield itself from pressure by exploiting its ties to powerful opposition leader Thaksin Shinawatra — and vice versa.

In mid-February, the tenuous political calm in Thailand was disrupted by unprecedented scenes of Buddhist monks scuffling with Thai soldiers outside a Buddhist park west of Bangkok. More than a thousand monks had gathered to protest the ruling Thai junta's reluctance to endorse the 90-year-old Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, known as Somdet Chuang, as Thailand's new supreme patriarch, or chief monk, because of rifts within the clergy over corruption allegations against him. Footage of the incident shows monks taunting soldiers and attempting to push through a military blockade; one monk is shown holding an army officer in a headlock. Most notably, troops were reportedly deployed to a controversial temple, known as Wat Phra Dhammakaya, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok to prevent monks there from rallying to Somdet Chuang's cause.

The dispute among the Thai Buddhist clergy is not just an isolated internal power struggle over a new supreme patriarch, but rather a reflection of Thailand's broader socio-economic fractures. And it holds the potential to spread overtly into the political sphere as a proxy war pitting supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against his opponents among the Bangkok elites, military and the monarchy.

On one side of this dispute is the Dhammakaya Movement, a fast-growing sect of Thai Buddhism considered heretical by mainstream Buddhists. In the past, the movement has openly supported Thaksin, who, despite living in self-exile, remains at the center of Thai politics. Opposition to Somdet Chuang stems in large part from his ties to the Dhammakaya and his alleged efforts to shield the sect's leader from investigation. On the other side is a camp led by Phra Buddha Isara, a firebrand abbot with ties to the ruling generals who helped lead the chaotic street protests in 2014 against the government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, that culminated in a military coup.

For the Thai junta, the dispute threatens to complicate the ruling generals' plans to centralize power and sideline Thaksin before returning the country to civilian rule, which is currently slated to occur after elections in mid-2017. The junta faces heavy pressure from its power base, including Phra Buddha Isara's camp, to deal more decisively with Thaksin and advance contentious reforms to preserve the interests of the establishment. But the Dhammakaya embodies the latent power that Thaksin and his so-called Red Shirt supporters still hold, keeping the junta in a tenuous position.  

Buddhism as a Political Force

Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia is innately political because monks are deeply engrained in everyday aspects of society, such as education and charity. They advise leaders and common people and have often acted as human shields in protests or as representatives on behalf of activists to shame politicians. Thus, Buddhism has long proved to be a potent political force the region. In Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhist nationalism has continually fanned the flames of conflict with the country's Hindu and Muslim minorities. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks mobilized en masse to support the 2007 Saffron Revolution demonstrations, and, more recently, Buddhist hard-liners there successfully lobbied for anti-Muslim legislation. 

In Thailand, more than 90 percent of the population subscribes to one flavor of Theravada Buddhism or another, and there are around 300,000 monks in the country at any given time. (Most Thai males spend at least a month or two as monks, and it is common for disgraced politicians and other public figures to retreat to the monkhood as an act of contrition.) The nominally secular state lacks the crosscutting ethnic divides of its Buddhist neighbors, and interfaith violence has largely been confined to a low-boil Muslim insurgency in the remote deep south. Instead, the Thai state has long used Buddhism, mostly through the Supreme Sangha Council, Thai Buddhism's governing body, as a means to subdue and unite the country's disparate regions under the the ideology of "Nation-Religion-King."

Traditionally, Thai Theravada Buddhism emphasizes principles such as the rejection of material wealth and identification with traditional village life. These tenets are echoed in the Thai king's "sufficiency economy" philosophy, which focuses on development through moderation and sustainability. Though this ethos remains interwoven with Thai cultural and ethnic identity, it has adapted uneasily to Thailand's boom-and-bust economic growth since the 1980s and the social upheaval concomitant with rapid urbanization. And over the past two decades, the Thai establishment has managed to bend the faith to its aims with increasing difficulty.

Thaksin and the Dhammakaya: Upending the Established Order

Thaksin gained unprecedented political power in large part by uniting rural blocs that felt disproportionately excluded from Thailand's economic rise. But the royalist establishment saw his rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s as exploiting the erosion of traditional principles. While in power, the telecommunications tycoon struggled to win cooperation from the mainstream Buddhist elite and often faced resistance from the Supreme Sangha Council, headed by the supreme patriarch. But he found greater support in the upstart, unorthodox Dhammakaya, similarly reviled by the royalist establishment. 

Among other differences with traditional Thai Buddhism, the Dhammakaya teaches that merit can be accumulated through financial donations. This ideology has garnered vast wealth for the sect, allowing for lavish ceremonies at its otherworldly Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple complex north of Bangkok; it has also provoked continual allegations of corruption and decadence. Nonetheless, in a time of surging prosperity and consumerism, Dhammakaya's brand of faith resonated widely in Thailand, particularly among politicians and the Bangkok professional class. With its growth and commercial ventures abroad, not to mention its battles at home, the Dhammakaya resembles Turkey's Gulenist movement or China's Falun Gong in its prime. Thus, the movement eventually came to be seen, like Thaksin himself, as a threat to the long-established order in Thailand. The Dhammakaya's ties to Thaksin's political machine only reinforced this view. 

Indeed, Thaksin-controlled political groups once sponsored the Dhammakaya movement, and Thaksin sought to align the Supreme Sangha Council with the Dhammakaya during his time in office. In return, the sect's head monk extolled Thaksin as an ideal Buddhist whose billions could be explained by the merit he accumulated in past lives. Perhaps most alarming to the royalist establishment were the sect's actions in the years following Thaksin's 2006 ouster in a military coup. During the 2010 pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protests, for example, a special anthem praising Thaksin was played repeatedly at Wat Dhammakaya. Billboards appeared around the country hinting that the sect's 100,000 novice monks would act as human shields in the event of a military crackdown on the tens of thousands of Thaksin supporters occupying central Bangkok. Stratfor sources say the army managed to broker a deal to forestall such a scenario when the crackdown eventually came, but the threat remains a potent one today.

The Junta's Tenuous Position

Since the 2014 coup, the junta's strategy has essentially been to hold power as long as possible — at minimum, until the looming royal succession process is settled — while seeking to sideline Thaksin by further dismantling his patronage network and encouraging factions from his Pheu Thai party to move on without him. Meanwhile, Thaksin's core strategy has been to deny the junta any pretext to further delay elections, which his allies would still almost assuredly win, while allowing the current rulers to bear the brunt of Thailand's economic woes. Eventually, according to the Thaksin strategy, the junta will be viewed as overreaching and over-staying its welcome.

At this point, Thaksin gives no indication of changing course and urging his supporters back to the streets. Even the junta's latest draft constitution, which includes a number of measures meant to contain Thaksin's political machine in the next civilian government, has failed to change Thaksin's approach. In recent weeks, Thaksin made a number of moves, including a blitz of interviews with international media, meant to signal that no lasting political settlement can be reached without him. And so long as the junta continues to pressure him by, for example, prosecuting his sister Yingluck on corruption charges and investigating his son's role in a banking scandal — and so long as Thaksin continues to taunt the junta — it will signal that Thaksin's clan feels it can outlast the junta.

As a result, the junta is under heavy pressure from the royalist establishment to come down harder on Thaksin and his allies. For instance, although the military dismantled much of the Red Shirts' organizing capabilities after the coup, it refrained from seizing Thaksin's assets. These camps also view an empowered mainstream Buddhism as necessary to fill the cultural void that will be created once the ailing king eventually dies, as evidenced by Phra Buddha Isara's push to enshrine Buddhism as the state religion in the next constitution. Such a move would likely facilitate legislation intended to rein in the Dhammakaya's influence over the monkhood. 

For its part, the Dhammakaya sect would likely act on Thaksin's behalf only if it felt that doing so would deter a probe into its inner workings and finances. The group made this implicit threat clear in January 2015, during an investigation into its connections to a massive money-laundering scheme. In response, more than 1,000 Dhammakaya monks marched unannounced through Bangkok, paralyzing rush hour traffic across the capital — a move borrowed from the Red Shirt playbook.

Thus, the military has refrained from intervening in the dispute over the next supreme patriarch in order to avoid drawing either side further into the political muddle. But this position may prove untenable. The royalist establishment is keen to see the junta stall elections indefinitely — last week, for example, Phra Buddha Isara called for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to stay in power for another 10 years — or at least drastically curb the next civilian government's power with the new constitution. But as illustrated by the latest draft charter's unpopularity among moderates and liberals who initially supported the coup, the junta faces a decline in legitimacy the longer it stays in power, particularly once royal succession is completed. This, perhaps paradoxically, will increase its reliance on arch-conservative forces. Taken to their extreme, these camps' favored measures could very well back Thaksin or the Dhammakaya into a corner.

All of this reflects the junta's weakness and inability to reconcile Thailand's myriad competing factions — and the forces of instability still lurking beneath the country's superficial calm.

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