Thailand's Buddhist nationalists are demanding that the new constitution give explicit recognition to Buddhism as the country's official religion.
Some 95% of Thailand's 64m people are followers of the Theravada school of Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Cambodia. Many of the rest are Muslims, concentrated in the southern provinces bordering Malaysia. According to an article in The Economist, a group of Buddhist monks have tried to persuade the constitution-drafters to strengthen the wording of the previous charter, which merely required the government to “patronise and protect Buddhism and other religions.” Having failed in this, they are now seeking to persuade their countrymen that the faith is under threat and needs greater state protection.
On April 25th, hundreds of orange-robed monks led by nine elephants, a traditional national symbol, marched across Bangkok. Outside parliament, they rallied overnight with other followers (minus the elephants) to support a constitutional clause that, as one monk put it, would “save Buddhism from destruction.” The group dispersed the next day, but vowed to return if their call was not heeded.
The turnout was under 4,000, well below the huge crowds the organisers had promised. But it still rattled a jittery junta that sees any big rally as a threat to its existence. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army chief (who is a Muslim), said he would not stand in the way of the proposal, a position echoed by the prime minister, General Surayud Chulanont. Their tacit support was a turnaround from the curt dismissal of the idea by the head of the drafting committee, Prasong Soonsiri, a retired spymaster. It may reflect a tactical need to defuse a campaign that is being supported by loyalists of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister they ousted.
One of General Surayud's security advisers has given warning that favouring Buddhism could further inflame the separatist insurgency in the Muslim-dominated south. Already, more than 2,000 Muslims and Buddhists have died and tens of thousands of Buddhists have fled their homes since the violence revived in 2004. Sectarian tensions have risen after recent attacks on mosques, some of which may have been in revenge for killings of Buddhists. Proponents of the state-religion clause argue, however, that the persecution of their brethren in the south is precisely why their campaign to safeguard the faith is vital.
Some Buddhist intellectuals disagree with both the campaign's ends and its means, which do not exactly reflect non-attachment to worldly affairs. If the faith is losing its way in modern Thailand, they say, the fault lies with a conservative clergy that has failed to update its teachings and expel misbehaving monks. Writing Buddhism into the constitution will not stop monks selling “magic” amulets or lottery predictions, for example.
Even those seeking official status concede that it is unlikely to revitalise Buddhism overnight. That is one reason why a similar campaign flopped when the last charter was written in 1997, and probably will again.
Nationalism and religion can be a toxic brew. Mettanando Bhikkhu, an Oxford-educated monk, worries that Thailand could go the way of war-torn Sri Lanka, whose hawkish clergy block any concessions to the Tamil rebels. In the 1970s, when Thailand was seen as the next domino to fall in South-East Asia, a prominent right-wing monk said it was fine to kill communists. As Thailand's southern insurgency worsens, the risk is that its Buddhists may again forget one of their precepts: that all life is sacred.