Buddhist Cosmology and the Genesis of Thai Political Discourse
Professor Dr. Thanet Aphornsuvan
Throughout history, religion has played a significant role in shaping Thai political institutions and practices. Since the formation of the Tai states in central Southeast Asia from the sixth to the ninth centuries, the formation and development of Dvaravati civilization had been shaped by the dominant religious beliefs, among them Buddhism of various sects, which had been transmitted to the kingdoms in various waves and shades. Religion as an organized idea and worldview brought with it new ideas that gave rise to social and political institutions in the Thai kingdoms. The most important ideas and beliefs informing
Thai political ideas for about seven centuries are those teaching and beliefs which are originated and have been developed within the framework and structures of Theravada Buddhism. It stresses the relations between men especially along the vertical structure such as relations between the ruler and the ruled, kings and subjects, male and female.
Although I am not a specialist on religious studies, an ongoing interest of mine has been the influence of Buddhism on Thai ideas of authority in relation to the modernizing nation-state. This exploration into Buddhist cosmology is an attempt to explicate a kind of political theory underlying certain behaviors and practices of Thai politics over times. The paper, therefore, intends to discuss the salient aspects of relationships between Buddhism and the state, their
development and their implications to Thai political thinking, particularly the role of religion in legitimating of power in Thailand. The paper contends that the Thai polities are oriented towards more symbolic assertion of the rulers more than the positive theory of government. The ruler is a central symbol of power in which the goal is unity of the state. The emphasis of symbol over real practice of the polity is termed “ritual sovereignty.” Thai political authority thus has transformed from ritual sovereignty to ritual democracy.
I hope that this exploration into history sheds light on the contemporary period in which we see more overt (and sometimes troubling) ways in which Buddhism not only legitimize sovereign authority but constitutional democracy as well.
The successful assimilation of novel and foreign ideas into the local Thai setting could be seen in the golden age of the classical Indianized empires of Angkor and Pagan during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The collapse of these empires gave rise to the new Thai communities who had moved down from the upland valleys in the north onto the plains in the central area. From Sukhothai and Ayutthaya to Bangkok kingdoms, Theravada Buddhism, of the Singhalese variety had become the dominant religion and way of life of the people. The influence of Buddhist civilization is pervasive in all areas of lives from
cultivation to education and government. From early on the ruling classes proclaimed Buddhists and were able to consolidate the kingdoms based upon the Buddhist conceptions of power. The so-called separation of Buddhist Sangha organization and state never happened in Siam. Both needed each other in order to maintain their legitimate status and role. The intimate political relations between Buddhism and the state were evident since the formation of Sukhothai in the 14th century and more so in the founding of the Chakri dynasty as the ruler of the Bangkok Kingdom in 1782.
In this paper, the term cosmology is defined as a "framework of concepts and relations which treat the universe as an ordered system, describing it in terms of space, time, matter, and motion, and peopling it with gods, humans, animals, spirits, demons, and the like" (Tambiah 1976;15). Buddhist cosmology portrays this physical universe into a pantheon of deities, humans, animals, and demons to which can be attributed ethical and moral qualities. The basic doctrinal concepts of Buddhism such as karma (ethical causation), samsara (Cycle of rebirths), nirvana (final extinction), and dukkha (suffering), which are alleged to explain man's predicament and to direct his religious action, are also embedded in the cosmology (and its associated pantheon).
From Buddhist cosmology, we can derive some basic concepts about humans and the world. First those humans are not the only beings in this universe but one among many others. The importance of human beings in Buddhism is not their superior moral or intellectual capabilities but their capacity to find the wisdom that will enable them to extinguish the cycles of birth and karma, by entering nirvana and ending the self and existence. Buddhism therefore negates the centrality of individuality and the self in their positive social existence and realities.
According to the early Buddhist political thought, the major objectives of politics or government could be summarized as follows: 1) to preserve and strengthen the proper moral order; 2) to protect and provide sufficient property and wealth to the needed people. In the modern sense, the first goal can be said to belong to the realm of politics, or political ethics, and the second to the economic arena or political economy. Together they form the notion of the moral
order as the righteous basis for politics and administration. The source of this political knowledge comes from the early Buddhist sutras, for example, Aggannasutr, Cakkavattisutr and Singkalasutr. The most important and best representative of the Buddhist cosmology in Thai political discourse is the Traiphumikatha or Three Worlds according to King Ruang written by King Luthai of Sukhothai in 1345 and revised in 1783 under the reign of King Rama I of the Bangkok Dynasty.
From the Buddhist myth of creation, the social order--indeed society--occurs together with and as a result of the institution of kingship by the voluntary acts of humans. In the last section of the Aggannasutra it describes the formation of classes in a society. After the birth of kingship, there came the Brahmans to preach and teach and perform ceremonies for other people; next the Vessa or tradefolks and merchants, the last was Sudda, hunters and the lowest grade of folk. The justification for these different grades is due to their specialty of labor, not because of their family origins like Hinduism. In terms of class and social relations, the king is the mediator between social disorder and the social order. Thus the kingship is an underlying basis for over all order and peace and the functioning of the society.
The last important point in the Buddhist Genesis is about the relation between the moral and the political or the bhikkhu and the king. Clearly these two are the foremost superior beings in the world. The Pali sutra confirms that the bhikkhu is superior to the king. While the king is the mediator between social disorder and the social order; "the bhikkhu is the mediator between home and homelessness, between a world of fetters and a free state of deliverance. The king is the fountainhead of society; the bhikkhu is of that society and transcends it."(Tambiah 1976;15) In practice, the conflict between power and dharma underlies the formation and development of the political theory.
S.J. Tambiah coins the term ‘Buddhist Polity’ to explain the Buddhist conception of political sovereignty and righteousness as the ordinating principle in mainland Southeast Asian kingdoms of Theravada Buddhist followers, i.e., Burma, Laos and Thailand. Such concept dealt with the practice of political ethics and “morality which acts as an enduring yardstick by which to measure political performance and as an inspiring but not wrought in detail ideal to which political aspirations of different complexion can equally refer themselves” (Tambiah 1978; 123).
The galactic polity, however, has its limitation in the reality of pre-modern Southeast Asian empires where technology and extensive bureaucracies were lacking or inadequate in reaching out to the vast territory of the empires. The most that the galactic polity can do is to posit that there is a system of symbolic rule that allows the ruler to express or to assert through religious scriptures that a cakavattin (world conqueror) had created a conceptual realm of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. The persistence and development of Buddhist polity in Siam thus reflects such tradition of “ritual sovereignty” working in Ayutthaya to
Rattanakosin or Bangkok kingdoms. Based on the history and practice of states in Asia, most of them did not possess a kind of “unified sovereignty” as practices in the European polities in which political monopoly was so crucial to the definition of the state. The concept of ritual sovereignty therefore attempts to demonstrate that there is a system of government over the kingdom even when one cannot locate the specific “mechanism”—taxes, armies—bureaucracy in the state. It might or might not be able to administer the government based on its family connections and might or might not be able to control its military commanders effectively. But what we can see is that the state is capable to express itself symbolically, to assert, through stone inscriptions and pillars, that a cakkavattin ruler had created a conceptual realm of Ayutthaya or Rattanakosin on this earth (Rudolph 1987:739).
Here one can say the main ingredient of traditional Thai political discourse was the integration and balance of the institution of kingship and Theravada Buddhism. The religion and politics informed each other. This particular world view had received a strong revision in the early Bangkok dynasty, starting with King Rama I (1782-1809) and culminated under King Chulalongkorn or Rama V (1868-1910). In essence the renewal of traditional Thai Buddhist political discourse was in response to the increasing pressure and domination of external powers especial those from the West. The Siamese elite quickly grafted on to their own tradition and ‘civilization’ of glorious and powerful Thai kingdoms.
In order to assert a certain pattern of history, three components were pertinent in the discourse. First was the establishment of Buddhism in Thai kingdom from the beginning of Thai history as early as the 13th century and continued down to the present. Second was the establishment of kingship as a legitimate rule and system throughout the Thai history. The final component was the people of various ethnics, languages and races who accepted these two institutions as the guiding light and to whom these two institutions must protect. The perfect example to illustrate this point is the political views of former Prime Minister Anan Panyarachun in his eloquent lectures and answers to the foreign audience in Thailand. In 1996 he addressed the International Association of Historians of Asia (IAHA) that:
“To understand the present-day Thai monarchy, one needs to go back to the founding of the first central Thai state, Sukhothai, in the 13th century. The pioneers of independence chose to elevate the wisest and most capable among them to be king. The king, having been entrusted with the task, not out of any divine right but by the consent of his peers, had an inherent obligation to rule the country ``with righteousness, not for the glory of himself or his family, but ``for the benefits and happiness of the people in his trust. The king, being a Buddhist, was in effect a ``dharma raja _ that is, a monarch upholding the rule of Buddhist righteousness, ruling in a style of kingship some have summarised as ``patriarchal (The Bangkok Post. 6 September 2005.)
Essentially the traditional Buddhist political relationship was conservative in its outlook and ideas. The existence and development of Buddhist polity relied upon the interaction with other Buddhist kingdoms and states either through war and trade. But there was a strain within this polity and discourse. Chief of these questions was how to strike the balance between the state and the Sangha. The recent spade of violence and terror in the southernmost provinces of Thailand could be seen, from one perspective, as an outcome of the failure of the Buddhist polity.
It’s interesting to note that the name and origin of the first Buddhist ruler is Mahasammuti (Mahathammata) or the Great Supposed which makes it clear that the king originally was a common man and elected by the people to be their leader. When these early Buddhist political ideas came to mainland Southeast Asian states around the 9th-13th centuries, the concept of kingship had undergone some transformations. The important point was the rationale underlying the kingship. He must be equipped with the most merit (bun) and charisma (barami) to be eligible to rule the land. Thus the first elected king that appeared in Triphum Pra Ruang was no longer a common man but was the Bodhisattva or a future Buddha.
At this conjuncture, the assimilation of the idea of Bodhisattva into Theravada Buddhist political ideas was crucial as an alternative to the practice of real politics. While the Buddha was revered as the compassionate teacher, the bodhisattva was the basis and legitimacy for kings to rule with force. The Buddhist political ideas thus reached its completion with the legitimization of ruling power by dharmma. After that it was a common practice for the Buddhist kings to
be associated with the Cakkavatti(world ruler) or the Great king or King of kings. The Sukhothai’s dharmma raja eventually gave way to the world conqueror of Ayutthaya kingdom. The dramatic end of Ayutthaya and violent emergence of the Bangkok kingdoms thus sought the legitimacy for the new dynasty in the old Buddhist tradition of kingship and rule.
This discourse was especially significant in the early reign of King Rama I in 1783 when the Triphum was revised and renamed as Trailokwinichai. This time the section on the origin of the Bhodhisattava king and on Cakkavattin were expanded and elaborated in more detail than the Sukhothai version. In the case of Rama I, it was clear that he needed a political theory that explained his legitimate or righteous role in assuming the kingship following the execution of the
former King Taksin of Thonburi. This fact is actually not that surprising in any political regime that the ruler tries first to seek legitimacy and obedience of the governed. The Bangkok’s Traiphum (Trailokewinichai) discourse on the origin of the king stressed the direct relationship between the king and Bhodhisattava by maintaining that to be Bhodhisattava, one must equip with barami. The implication is that to be king is not an ordinary man but the one who has in his possession a special quality of power, barami.
The concept of barami (moral perfection, virtue, charisma) has its origins in Theravada Buddhist discourse. It’s a key term in Thai discourses about power. Originally it came from the Buddhist tradition in which a Buddha-to-be (bodhisattava) vowed to ‘accumulate’ ten kinds of barami in order to achieve the state of moral and spiritual perfection that enabled the attainment of enlightment and Buddhahood. The ten perfections (thotsabarami) comprise the perfections of
Giving, Moral Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Resolution, Loving-Kindness, and Equanimity. This ‘theory of the Perfections” is developed in Pali canonical works but far more popular in Jatakas--the stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, particularly the Vessantara Jataka. The Bangkok kings thus modeled themselves according to the Bhodisattava and “consciously made use of the story to promote the idea that barami was inherent in the royal line itself, conflating the genealogy of the Buddha with that of the ruling dynasty” (Jory, 2002; 37-38.)
The comparison between the formations of Buddhist political discourse in Sukhothai and Bangkok eras is interesting. In the case of king Lithai of Sukhothai (1346-1374?), he as a supreme ruler of the land, had to face political instability and challenges from within the other ruling families in Sukhothai and other Thai principalities in the northern area. Triphum thus was conceived as a new alternative to political conflicts especially the transfer of power of the king. In this light, the religious content and format of the Traiphum was essentially the political authority of kingship. On the other hand, the formation of
Trailokewinichai in the early Bangkok era was originally conceived as a political instrument to stave off the attempted rebel and usurpation of the power of the king by oppositions disguised in monkhood. For king Rama I, political instability came from many sources outside the immediate family circle and nobility. Interestingly, the monkhood and temples were regarded as the dangerous center for instigating rumors and libel against the present king and regime. The Rama
I's reform, including recension of Tipitaka, rewriting of Traiphum, and recodifying of the Three Seals Law, ultimately aimed at creating a loyal and obedient subject of the king. This was done spiritually through Buddhist dominant ideology and physically through the enforcement of the law. The successful transformation and formation of the Bangkok political discourse in the subsequent reigns thus led to the supremacy of the state over the Sangha. That's why for Rama I and Rama IV, the political reforms were in the end also very religious. The political is actually the moral.
Thus the theory of kingship is the central thesis in Traiphum and Trilokewinichai of the Bangkok’s version especially in the section on Cakkavattin. Because the king now is supposed to embody merit in his own self in order to be a legitimate leader.
Dharma of the Cakkavatti consists of the five moral precepts; no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying and no drinking. The ten kingly virtues are almsgiving, morality, liberality, uprightness, gentleness, self-restriction, non-anger, non-injury, forbearance, and non-obstruction (Ishii: 1986; 151). Note that almsgiving is the first virtue of the king. This implies that social unrest and disturbances in the kingdom always take place, not because of the karmic nature of people alone, but more so because the king does not take care of their welfare or their necessary material world. So poverty and want of wealth led men to commit other sins. The practice of almsgiving is very common and popular among Thais, both the government and private sectors. Again we see that the act of dhana or almsgiving by a king is the most political in this discourse because it is the basis for the well-being or demise of the state. That's why for the political elite, to be moral (or religious) in Thai political world is at the same time very political. Thai politicians, therefore, are concerned with all kind of religious activities more than any other positive policy related works.
The modern interpretation of Thai political discourse in light of Buddhist worldview was the work of the most illustrated royal historian of the Siamese court during the Chulalongkorn era. Prince Damrong was named the “father of Thai history” because of his great contributions to the writing of Thai national history. One of the major influences from the Prince was his discourse on the salient characteristics of the traditional government or state in Thai history. He was the first historian who formulated the theory of the ancient Thai state or administration. Composing the discourse during the period of realization of the royal absolutism in the late 19th century, he was confident that the foremost characteristic of the Thai state was the absolute power or authority of the
king, and the second was the obligatory service rendered the king by phrai [corvee labor], mostly male subjects. Ironically such theory was conceived when he eventually had been excluded from the ruling circle of King Rama VI (1910-1925), his nephew, who did not get along with the senior princes who had performed efficiently under his famous father, King Rama V. This political view was put forth by Prince Damrong in 1924, a few years before the Revolution of 1932 that officially ended the absolute monarchical regime in Siam.
The Thai word describing the absolute power of the king is 'amnaj ayasith' or 'amnaj detkhad'. The adjective to the word 'power' or amnaj is many, ayasithi, sitthi khad, and detkhad. All have the same meaning that is the king's power is absolute and also is morally the highest in the kingdom. While this might not strike one as so significant since most kings and emperors alike always described their powers as absolute, in the Thai case this concept is interesting in the sense that it offers the insight and understanding into the intricacies and logical reconstruction of the political knowledge of the time based on Buddhist cosmology.
Power is Absolute
In Ayutthaya kingdom, according to the modern Thai political discourse, the power of the king was absolute and sacred. The source of that absolute power was not specified but simply followed the traditional Buddhist beliefs that the king must have that power to rule and punish the wrong doers. The Ayutthaya chronicle described the power of King Borommakot (1733-1758) as follows:
“[T]he kingdom became great because of the king since he is the sammati deity. He can make high person low and low person high. The king’s order on any issue was like ‘magic axe’ [kwan faa] whose power even the trees and mountains could not withstand its forces. They must be broken and destroyed. Whenever the king said no to anything it means that there is absolutely no one can do that thing. In Thai the last phrase is ‘no absolute rights in that thing’ (Nidhi Eusriwong 2000; 77).
It is interesting to see that there is no attempt to qualify the power of the king with any government duties except to rule with absolute authority. It is crucial to characterize the power of a ruler which is absolute. The reference to the concept of kingly power is the first Buddhist king according to the Agganasut or Buddhist Genesis when the first king is authorized to use force to punish people who break the law and order. To sum up the idea of power in traditional Thai culture, it is helpful to take a look at an exposition of the idea of power in Javanese culture, which is in many ways similar to the Thai setting. Anderson finds in contrast to Western conceptions of power that “the Javanese see power as something concrete, homogeneous, constant in total quantity and without inherent moral implications as such” (Anderson 1990; 23.)
The important development in pre-modern Thai political discourse is the introduction of the idea of merit [bun] as an imperative qualification of the Buddhist ruler. Now dharma alone was not enough. The basis for kingship or power had to include charisma (barami) and merit (bun). This can be seen in Triphumikhatha and continued down to the early Bangkok period. Theoretically this discourse emphasizes on merit-power, that is, power based strictly on merit or righteousness of the king. This idea of power is not much of worldly or real powers but more important is the effect of that power upon the mandala of kingdom. It's not because of the power that the king is successful in his rule. On the opposite, it was because of his merit and righteousness that through his merit-power he could affect the just society and prosperity for the people--Bhikkus, Bramans and all subjects in the kingdom.
Further implications of this political discourse of power and merit are that political activities have always been limited only within the upper echelon of the society, namely, among the royal family and the high nobilities in the central court and the major vassal states. The essence of such politics is not about the exercise of power but the accumulation of power since the nature of such polity is the unifying and concentrating of power through the person of a ruler. Its politics therefore has to be elitist, aiming at particular goals of the ruling classes. Consequently the next crucial political phenomenon is the change and transfer of power of the kings as can be seen from Sukhothai, Ayutthaya down to Bangkok eras from which the main arena of political conflict centered on the succession to the throne (Wyatt, 1984: 67). In 417 years of Ayutthaya kingdom, there were 15 usurpation of power, average 27 years and 9 months per one palace coup, some were peaceful, others violent.
The very acts of politics were very limited in its desires and aspirations, because there was no involvement of people outside the central court at all. The discourse, of course, is informed by Buddhism. For example, when Pra Thien Racha schemed with four other nobilities to seize power from Khun Worawongsathiraj, he went to pray in front of the sacred Buddha image in the monastery. In his prayer, he said that the reason he and other nobles had to plan a rebel against the king because of the concern for the state of Buddhism and people in the kingdom under the immoral king. Interestingly in the next reason he is very open to tell the lord Buddha that he also needed to have power first so that he could realize the first wish.
Socially this idea of power-merit also excludes the majority of people in the kingdom. Mainly because the only group of persons who are qualified to have accumulated enough merit and charisma, which must be done in the previous lives and if in the present life it must be a major one, are those who control and access the wealth and powers of the state. Since the big merit that one can perform is always related to wealth in a form of almsgiving, the lower classes will not make it that easy. Social mobility is also limited. There were no other social means by which a commoner could climb up the social ladder.
By having dharma and merit as the sole sources of authority of the king, the system of transfer of power is in a state of fluidity. One reason is pointed out by Anderson and Tambiah about the nature of religious thinking and an abstract notion like charisma or merit which denotes the sign of singularity but in fact turns out to be un-singular because its essence cannot be supported by history and even the personality of the ruler. The Royal Ayutthaya Chronicles therefore never mentioned any king who did not have merit and power even many of them were far from being decent or ideal rulers. But many instances of the Chronicles we find plenty of instances where rulers are said—for various reasons—to have lost it (Anderson 1990; 86). The idea of power thus can be used by every politician regarding of different political aspirations and ideas. When the Buddhist conception of political sovereignty or absolute power and righteousness became the ordinating principle in society, it then acts as an enduring yardstick by which to measure all political performances (Tambiah 1976). Without detail elaboration of the political discourse, the result is that there can be no right and wrong ideas to be learned from the discourse or the ruler. But that it is the person whose deeds are remembered by the descendants. So what do matter are only the right and wrong kings or leaders.
The Buddhist political idea clearly sanctions the king with all power he needs in order to be eligible to rule and legitimize the paternal position of the king over the people by guiding the people into a correct and moral path, even to enter nirvana. The only legitimate reason underlying the power of the king, therefore, is his dharmma or being righteous, not material powers. Here the spiritual is clearly on top of the physical. Since all human beings, including kings, are subject to the law of karma and the impermanence of lives and things, the power of the king, no matter how absolute, is always subordinate to dharmma. In the Budddhist Genesis, after the creation of the king then come the three classes of people, completing a worldly society. At this moment that the Lord Buddha reminds all that above the four social classes, there are bhikkus or Buddhist monks who by their dhamma stand above all other classes, including kings. The implication is that the king and his power is only transient being and must be subjected to the law of impermanence. In the abstract world of Thai politics, it can be said that political power is never absolute and is checked and balanced by dharmma. In practice, this also brings about many problems and contradiction because dharmma is also supposed to be an innate quality in the person of the king or the ruler as well. That means, in the final saying no one else except the king can check and balance his own power.
The moral/ethical source of power thus entrusts the king with the highest and absolute authority to rule with his own discretion. In practice, this invites two possible outcomes. First if the reigning king is capable and righteous in governing the kingdom according to the royal and religious traditions as well as the law of the land, then the kingdom would enjoy stability and peace for a considerable time until the death of the king. The second outcome is the opposite when the ruling king is miserable and evil or weak and could hardly uphold the court and the country, then chaotic and soon usurpation of power would occur to right the wrong path. That's why in Thai political history there have been only two kinds of rulers; one is the good king, the other is bad. Correspondingly, the Thai idea of history is also informed by this perception of the political ruler. In general, there are two major eras or yug (period) in history; one is the Golden Age and the other is the Dark Age. This historical concept also has its origin in the early Buddhist Cakkavattisutr.
So in the issue of change and transfer of ruling power and authority, the main characteristic is the fluidity of political power, its open to extra-legal means and violence in the name of another presumably more meritorious leader. In this political struggle, merit or 'bun' has been used to sanction and justify the practical use of force by any group or factions within the ruling circle. Interestingly, in Thai political discourse politicians and rulers are not worrying about the political, but more so of the moral. Therefore in this discourse it is rather difficult to find a tradition and reference to explain meaningfully the political aspects of one's acts and decisions. On the contrary, it is the moral side of politics that the ruler wants to express publicly. This kind of morality or ethics thus is applied in two separate spheres. First is to use it against the existing ruler by the contending parties or individuals. This usage does not intend for the one who is upholding the moral precepts but mostly for the target person. Second after the fight the one who has won the battle will declare to the public his merit and righteousness suitable for the highest position in the kingdom. Such political ethics thus serve more political than the religious means. The social implication of this moral practice by the political elites is that it erodes the internal consistency of religious morality and deprives it of the general principle benefiting the whole society not just serving the particular interest of certain factions and individuals of the upper classes.
The role of religion, in this case, Buddhism, becomes more political during the late nineteenth century and in the first decade of the twentieth century. The main factor and force that influenced such trend was western colonialism and its modernity. Siamese elite from King Mongkut, Rama IV, to Chulalongkorn, Rama V and Vajiravudh, Rama VI had exploited the symbol and meaning of Buddhism in order to counter and compete with Christianity and modern knowledge. Along the way they also found it plausible to create and invent modern Siam as a nation-state. King Rama VI further shaped the process of national formation when he invented the concept of nationhood which was composed of the nation, the religion (Buddhism) and the monarchy. This new political ideology of Thai nationalism since then has become the foundation of the civic religion of Thai socio-political life. With the democratic form of government, the king now is stipulated to
be the supreme protector of religions and, importantly, he must be a Buddhist. The present king once made a remark to Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister because of the Coup of 1991, when he submitted the draft of the 1997 Constitution to the king. He said that it is odd that the Constitution stipulates that the king must protect religions and must be a Buddhist but no where that it decrees that the king must be a Thai (Thai Post, 2007). At that time there was a campaign by monks demanding that the new constitution of 1997 must state that Buddhism is a national religion. Such movement by monks was first started in the last stage of the drafting of the 15th Constitution of the Thai kingdom in 1997. At that time there were two demands put forth by two opposing political ideologies. The first group demanded that Buddhism should be stated as a national religion in the new constitution. The second group, however, demanded that the sovereign power "belongs to" and not "comes from" the people.
On July 7, 1997, more than 5,000 monks and layperson gathered to urge the Constitution Drafting Assembly to state in its draft that Buddhism is the national religion. The protesting monks and layperson gathered at Phutthamonthon, a symbolic Buddhist center in Nakhon Pathom that was built and completed during the Prem administration in the 1980s. The group included senior and young monks who had gathered the signatures of more than three million people (they claimed).
Phra Racha Voramunee, a senior abbot from Wat Saket, Bangkok, said in practice Buddhism had been the national religion for 1,000 years and was a major factor in national security. He believed that to state clearly in the Constitution that Buddhism is the national religion would not lead to religious discrimination because the draft Constitution had already stipulated that all religions in the kingdom are protected. The additional clause would only praise Buddhism since it has been practiced by the majority of Thai people in the country (The Bangkok Post, 1997).
Reactions from the public were mixed. In general the people at large seemed to agree with the good attribution of having Buddhism as a national religion because they believed that Buddhism would protect and give merit to all people regardless of their religious or racial denominations. Interestingly for this group of people, Buddhism is clearly separated from politics and the worldly practice. Those who opposed the idea of Buddhism as a national religion were skeptical about the abuse of power by the government and the bureaucracy. For them make Buddhism a national religion amounted to giving the government the
authority to regulate non-Buddhist citizens, a practice which could lead to discrimination and abuses of power by government officials. The Constitution was passed without any change or addition to the religious sections. Looking back it is clear that at that time the political reform movement led by leading senior citizens and intellectuals was overwhelmingly supported by a majority of the population. The rationale and force of secular and democratic Constitution was real and stronger than the argument for a symbolic unity of the nation.
But the 2007 Constitution which also was a product of the coup on 19 September 2006 was a different story. Again the nationalist monks came out to demand that Buddhism as a national religion must be written into the Constitution. This time they did not win outright but they did not lose the struggle either. The Constitution allows for a section saying that the state and government must support Buddhism and Buddhist organizations and their activities by providing financial assistance. It was by far the great compromise. This time the country yielded to the force and rationale of a demand for symbolic unity of the nation. Thai political authority thus has transformed from ritual sovereignty to ritual democracy.
Drawing from the origin and development of Thai Buddhist political discourse, we may surmise that the predominant political value and reality in the Thai government and administration is an idea of power in which the core of the polity has always been the ruler who personifies the unity of society. The ruler thus is a central symbol of power. Traditionally this power has not been directed or assigned to effectively administer the state or the bureaucracy. Its main aim is to diffuse and prevent any attempt of destabilizing the state power and the center. The inability of the ruler to really monopolize the power of the realm consequently led to the growth and development of the ritualistic practice of power of the state. The ruling power thus has been retooled to be absolute with the help of Buddhist scripture. Modern Thai political discourse therefore embodies all ingredients of elite political structure and excludes all the others from the traditional political realm.
The introduction of democratic form of government and politics was and is met with resistance and opposition from elite of all variants since the Revolution of 1932. This is mainly because democracy tries to challenge the traditional idea of power and legitimation, from merit and charisma of the ruler to the abstract theory of constitutionalism and separation of power which ultimately lead to the decline of the unity of the state and the wholeness of the nation. Ironically, while the elite and army tore down one constitution after the other, they continue blaming the demise of constitutions in Thai politics upon their enemies whose ideas and inspirations come from foreign elements and places. The persistence of the idea of power-merit in Thai political thinking is in essence destabilizing to the concept and practice of democracy, making it a corrupt and inefficient system whose political leaders are immoral persons like thugs and greedy opportunists. In short democratic leaders are not charismatic leaders like the traditional trope of dhamrma raja.
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