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A Buddhist Threat to Religious Freedom

ICC Note: This article highlights the problem of growing Buddhist nationalism in Thailand, citing the concerning example of how such a movement in Sri Lanka has caused a severe erosion of religious liberty.

By Doug Bandow

9/10/07 Thailand (FrontPageMagazine.com) – Thailand is a warm, welcoming society. A majority Buddhist nation, Thailand leaves religious minorities alone.

Yet Bangkok ‘s policy of religious tolerance is coming under pressure. The forces of Buddhist nationalism were active in the campaign over the new constitution.

A military coup last fall highlighted the authoritarian undercurrent to Thai politics. The junta’s nationalistic impulse eventually could turn against minority religious faiths.

Thailand ‘s dominant religion is Buddhism, but the state always has been secular. The last constitution, suspended by the military, required the government to “patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions.”

The military produced a more authoritarian document, recently endorsed by a reluctant electorate. Although the Constitution Drafting Assembly refused demands by Buddhist nationalists to make Buddhism Thailand ‘s official religion, the nationalists still campaigned against the proposal as a result.

Buddhist activists charge that their faith is at risk. A Muslim insurgency in south Thailand has fueled these fears, as Islamic fighters have targeted Buddhist monks and bombed Buddhist temples.

The military originally dismissed the idea of turning Buddhism into a state religion, but a minuscule march in Bangkok —by just 4,000 people—spooked the junta. The public mood had shifted against the regime and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra attempted to turn the Buddhist proposal to their advantage.

So army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that he wouldn’t block an amendment turning Buddhism into the state religion. He explained: “If a stipulation in the charter to this effect would lead to peace in the country, then it would be better to include it.”

The drafting committee decided against doing so, but once elections are held, the new parliament could take up the issue again. Even though unsuccessful, the Buddhist campaign itself made Muslims and Christians nervous.

Some Thai observers dismiss the controversy as without substance. There is no Buddhist equivalent to Islamic law, for instance, said Ammar Siamwalla, a Muslim economist from Bangkok .

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Some monks have warned their nation against following Sri Lanka , where Buddhist nationalists are politically influential. Former Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan makes a similar point: “They succeeded in Sri Lanka in making Buddhism the national religion and look at where Sri Lanka is—it’s a total civil war.”

After decolonization in 1948, the Buddhist Sinhalese majority enhanced its position at the expense of the largely Hindu Tamil minority. The Sri Lankan constitution provides Buddhism with the “foremost place” in Sri Lankan society.

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…Buddhist mobs, sometimes led by monks, have attacked Christian churches, ministers, and believers.

The Sri Lankan supreme court ruled that proselytizing was not a protected religious activity under the constitution. The jurists refused to recognize a Catholic medical group which, it declared, had provided an improper “allurement” (health care) to procure a conversion.

Some Buddhist nationalists want more. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party spearheaded a campaign to turn Buddhism into the official religion and advocated discrimination against minority faiths. JHU is a fusion of two Buddhist nationalist groups that had previously pushed for banning missionaries and punishing “unethical” conversions (of Buddhists, naturally)…[Go To Full Story]