On March 24, 2019, Thais are going to the polls to elect a new government for the first time since 2014. Prior elections were disrupted by protests that led eventually to a coup in May of that year. The military government that has ruled Thailand since then has dangled the possibility of the return to democracy several times after forcing through a new constitution in 2017, but this time it seems to be for real: the current king, Rama X, authorized the election via royal decree and the junta has allowed political parties to campaign (as long as they are not too critical of the military government).
Perhaps because of the highly compressed schedule, the election has already been marked by drama. At the start of the campaign, one of the parties put forward a member of the royal family, the older sister of the current king, as their candidate to be prime minister. This seemed like a brilliant ploy: members of the royal family are precluded from participating in electoral politics (either by campaigning or holding office), but she lost her title in 1972 when she married an American, so she is almost royal but perhaps not quite. It is also unclear whether in the event of her election as prime minister she would have been protected by the country’s powerful lese-majeste laws, which criminalize speech deemed critical of the king and his family. However, the king stated in a formal decree that it would be “inappropriate” for a member of the family to run for office, including his sister. This act reinforced the idea that the royal family, while central to the Thai nation—indeed one of the “pillars” (sathāban) of the Thai nation—is to be “above politics” and “in the center.” The king and the royal family remain formally and officially outside of electoral politics and public criticism, protected by lese-majeste laws that can be manipulated by both the junta and others to silence discussion about the proper role of the royal family in Thai society. The state has weaponized the ambiguous line between allowed and disallowed speech to create and control a zone of public silence amidst the cacophonies of the Thai election.
Elections do many things, but one thing they are supposed to do is make a people’s opinion known. One group of important actors within Thailand who cannot express their sovereign will is the Buddhist monks. Like most Thai citizens, monks are no doubt closely following the developments of the election in newspapers or on Facebook. However, unlike most Thai citizens, monks are precluded from voting. (The political scientist Tomas Larsson has noted that there are likely more than three hundred thousand Thai monastics who are thus disenfranchised.) Indeed, the current constitution, like the many constitutions before it, states that “Buddhist monks, Buddhist novices, ascetics and priests” are prohibited from exercising the right to vote (Chapter VII, Article 96). Although most Thais, lay and monastic, that I have interviewed since 2013 do not seem to know why this is the case, they understand it is at least in part because Buddhism, like the royal family, is thought to be “above politics” (this is the language that Thais use in describing both the royal family and Buddhist monks), and that the overt politicization of the religion is to be avoided. In this, Thai monks are similar to those of Myanmar, who are also disenfranchised, but different from the monks of Sri Lanka who not only have the right to vote but have their own political party.
This disenfranchisement extends beyond voting. Monks are not explicitly forbidden from speaking publicly; to the contrary, they are told by the Supreme Sangha Council, the organization responsible for governing monks, that they have all the rights to speech that other Thais do. However, they are also told by the same organization (or they have told me) that they are supposed to be calm and calming, “in the center” and “above politics.” This means that with rare exceptions, the monks of Thailand do not speak publicly about electoral politics or the government more broadly, even when the state impinges on Buddhist institutions.
The Status of Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism is not quite the official religion of Thailand, but it has featured centrally in discourses of Thai nationalism since the start of the twentieth century. These discourses focus on the “three pillars” that support the country: nation (chāt), religion (sāsanā), and king (phramahākasat). Buddhist actors and institutions are thus highly visible in Thai society and most Thai men say it is their responsibility to ordain as a monk for at least a short period of time in their life. Yet this tripartite formulation remains ambiguous. Sāsanā has its origin as a Buddhist term, but it does not necessarily refer to Buddhism, which means that Muslims and Christians can also be Thai citizens and support these three pillars. But informally and implicitly, the discourse of Thainess (khwam ben thai) is deeply entangled with Buddhism. As a result, non-Buddhists can face challenges to the fullness of their national belonging. While Thai Muslims have not faced anything like the kind of Islamophobia present in Myanmar or Sri Lanka, there are ongoing anxieties about Muslims among many Buddhists in Thailand, as well as occasional conflicts, beyond the insurgency in the South.
The not-quite-official-religion status of Buddhism is even more evident in the Thai constitution. Thailand has (in)famously had many different constitutions, the result of the many coups the country has experienced since the one that ended the absolute monarchy in 1932. (When the May 2014 coup took place, I was in Bangkok interviewing monks about their status as citizens. Many of my interlocutors told me that this was just “Thai-style democracy.”) In every iteration of the constitution, the king is required to be a Buddhist and the state is required to patronize and protect Buddhism, as well as other religions. The primacy of Buddhism, among other religions, is similar to that of other Theravada Buddhist countries, such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, the 2017 constitution, which was written largely out of sight of the public and was forced through by referendum without public discussion, had new language highlighting the state’s right to protect Buddhism as it saw fit. In addition to “promoting . . . dharmic principles of Theravada Buddhism for the development of mind and wisdom development,” the state “shall have measures and mechanisms to prevent Buddhism from being undermined in any form” (Section 67). Long responsible for “patronizing and protecting” Buddhism, the language of this most recent constitution gives the state the responsibility to punish those who threaten Buddhism, without spelling out just what “undermining” might mean.
In the absence of clarity, the military government that has ruled Thailand since 2014 has engaged in a series of high-profile actions against prominent monks or temples. In 2016, they emptied out the “Tiger Temple” for engaging in an illegal tiger breeding program. In 2017, the government’s Department of Special Investigations unsuccessfully sought to locate the abbot of Wat Dhammakāya, a broadly though not universally popular “prosperity gospel” movement in Thailand. (Images of Dhammakāya followers blocking police from entering the temple played out in the Thai press for several weeks). This was done because of longstanding concerns that the abbot, if not the institution itself, has been involved in both financial improprieties and fostering unorthodox teaching. Then in May 2018, the police arrested five very senior members of the sangha, including three members of the Supreme Sangha Council, for embezzlement. These acts were done in the name of rooting out corruption in the sangha, a laudable goal no doubt. However, at the same time the state (and perhaps the palace) also forced through the changes to the Sangha Act in 2016 and 2018, giving the king a much greater role in the appointment of the Supreme Patriarch and the Supreme Sangha Council, potentially a significant consolidation of power.
Moreover, many of the monks who have been the targets of the state’s anticorruption efforts are seen as “red,” i.e., supporters of the governments of Thaksin Shinawatra, a democratically-elected prime minister overthrown in a 2006 coup, and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, also democratically elected and removed from power in the coup of 2014. The need to allegedly protect and purify Buddhism is a trope through which the junta attacks its enemies (perhaps because of a coup-induced lack of political legitimacy). The junta, in other words, advances certain interests through a discourse of anticorruption.
The Impropriety of Politics
Monks are not always silent or silenced. They talk on Facebook, sometimes violently, as in the case of a monk, Phra Aphichart, who called for mosques to be burned down for every Buddhist killed by insurgents in Southern Thailand. Sometimes they protest, as when monks have advocated for making Buddhism the official religion of Thailand. Yet it is only on certain topics that Thai monks can easily or are willing to speak publicly—matters having to do with protecting Buddhism, for example. When I have interviewed monks in the last six years about their status as citizens they tell me they can speak about political matters publicly, but usually do not. Among the most common reasons monks give me is that they think monks should be “calming” and that their lay followers will not feel comfortable with their language, and will feel that it is “inappropriate” (the same term used by the king to “suggest” that his sister not stand for election).
Discouraging monks from speaking publicly is part of “religion-making from above” in Thailand. The Thai state has long had an interest in domesticating the sangha, the monastic community. Indeed, the original Sangha Act was promulgated at the start of the twentieth century by the government in Bangkok in no small measure to centralize the sangha and incorporate the regions of the country into a unified nation-state, as argued by Kamala Tiyavanich, among others. While this ecclesiastical law does not specifically forbid monks from “playing politics” (len gān-meuang) (unlike the constitutions), it is clear to most monks that they should not engage in politics, at least explicitly. In interviews, they tell me that monks do not vote and only express a desire to vote when pressed; they keep clear boundaries between conversations inside the temple and outside the temple; or they say they do not need to vote because they can influence their followers “indirectly.” To be clear, some monks are not interested in politics at all, whether in regard to elections, the management of the nation-state or the micro-politics of life in temple communities. Those that are, though, have developed strategies to avoid being accused of being too interested in topics that are “not appropriate” for monks. In this way, they avoid scrutiny by the laity or the state.
Yet, these strategies may not always be sufficient. In July 2018 I was talking with a monk who is a friend of many years about the changes to the Sangha Act forced through by the government. It was dusk, and we were alone in the main worship hall of his temple. There was no one around as several fans blew on us, alleviating the heat and obscuring our speech. When I tried to get him to tell me who it was that had been behind the changes, he refused to say, regardless of the privacy. “Thai people know but they won’t say.” As I tried to get him to tell me who was behind the arrest of the monks he said, “I can’t say. They will come and take me away.” As he said this, he playfully put his outer robe over his head, to hide himself from any prying ears or eyes. He was joking, but not really.
The state has taken for itself the right and responsibility to protect Buddhism, much as the laws of lese-majeste presumably protect the monarchy. Yet unlike the king who has the capacity to decree what is and is not appropriate, the monks of Thailand, also pillars of the nation, do not. Instead they are generally silent, unwilling or unable to speak.