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By William J. Klausner

As hierarchical and authoritarian structures are increasingly the focus of public mistrust, skepticism and challenge, it is not surprising that such a traditionally sacrosanct institution as the Sangha (brotherhood of Buddhist monks and novices) is being subjected to critical examination and even censure. A more individualistic and egalitarian citizenry is no longer so passive and ready to accpet, without question, the authoritarian patterns of governance whether within the sphere of politics or religion. Demands are escalating within the urhan community for greater accountability and transparency in the administration of the Sangha as well as in the corridors of parliamentary democracy. This trend has been accelerated with regard to the Buddhist Sangha by a series of highly publicized infractions of the religious rules of discipline, as well as secular laws, by well-known and previously highly respected monks. The disciplinary violations and legal infractions have involved flouting the vow of celibacy, rape, theft, fraud, misappropriation of funds, gambling, drug abuse, black magic, and even murder. Lack of reverence and respect for the monkhood has followed, as has a concomitant receptivity to more stringent legal controls over monks and their behavior. Pressure for reform of the State laws governing the Sangha have often come from the same individuals and groups which have been in the forefront of efforts to reform the political system to make it more democratic in both from and substance.

The present administration of the Sangha is highly centralized, and its authoritarian structure, symbolized by the gerontocracy of the Maha Thera Samakhom (Council of Elders), is reminiscent of and mirrors the dictatorial patterns of lay political governance in 1962 when the Sangha Administration Act was promulgated. Recently the level of criticism has escalated as have suggestions to circumscribe and restrict the existing absolutist powers of the Council of Elders and decentralize authority so as to make the administration of the Sangha more responsive, transparent and accountable. There have also been recommendations to control more closely entrance into the monkhood and to supervise clerical behavior after ordination through stricter screening procedures, the issuance of identity cards, and even the use of lie detector machines. Consideration has also been given to instituting legal mechanisms to supervise more closely and to control funds belonging to the temple and to individual monks. Certain charismatic monks, as well as temple foundations, have as much as hundreds of millions of Baht in their bank accounts. There is often minimal oversight and accountability concerning these vast sums. While some have praised certain monks for channeling such money into generous charitable and development-focused work in the building of hospitals, schools, and child health centers, others have sharply criticized monks aggrandizing and controlling such large amounts of cash. When the charismatic monk dies, personal bank and temple foundation accounts often are the subject of much conflict and tension. On another level, it is increasingly common, though clearly against ecclesiastical regulationss and discipline, for monks actively to seek out contributions. Not only will monks do so in temple sermons and on radio preaching programs but also even on house calls to the faithful. Monks sanctifying amulets,(11) Buddha images and holy water and presiding over rituals to prolong life, change one's luck and enhance one's power, whether personal, commercial or political, all have become big business. The commercial nature of the sale of sanctified amulets and Buddha images is not lessened by the linguistic euphemism labeling such transactions as "renting" rather than buying. Buddhism (Buddhasasana) has increasingly become just one more facet of a consumer-oriented society and is now often derisively labeled us "Buddhapanit" or "Buddhist Commercialism."

The laws governing the Sangha are outdated, having been framed at a time when a more dictatorial lay government was the norm and when the Sangha was less subject to public scrutiny as well as less prone to succumb to the pleasures and blandishments of a consumer-oriented society which was not yet fully matured. The law, at present, has not yet caught up with the new social reality of a public no longer prepared to give unquestioning loyalty to the Buddhist monkhood. Much as changing perceptions and expectations define new patterns of political behavior, so too do they characterize altered religious belief and practice. Without corresponding changes in the law which are responsive to these new convictions and behavior, there will be a public backlash. Dissatisfaction will manifest itself in increasingly confrontational terms, and pressure for reform will continue to escalate. Social and political disorder and unrest will follow. Once more, the lack of correspondence between the law and behavior, attitudes and expectations will have contributed to destabilizing Thai society.(12)

The disillusionment of the educated urban middle class with the Sangha establishment is not only a function of the lax discipline and materialistic orientation of the urban monkhood but also of the perceived irrelevancy of the established church's teachings. It is not surprising that in such an environment new sects would emerge which are specifically responsive to the spiritual needs and concerns of a growing urban middle class. The late monk philosopher, Buddhadasa, at his Suan Moke retreat; the university educated monk leaders at Wat Dhammakai; the ascetic and iconoclastic Phra Pothirak of the Santi Asoke movement--each, in their different ways, challenged the wisdom and authority of the conservative Sangha elite establishment. Middle class parishioners found sustenance in, and legitimization of, spiritually imbued, socially-conscious business activity, as well as of their democratic aspirations. The emphasis of these alternative doctrinal interpretations is on spiritual attainment and salvation for lay aspirants in this present life. It is of some interest to note that refuge is being sought not only in non-establishment Buddhist sects but also in cults such as those associated with Kuan Yin (Goddess of Compassion) and King Rama V. Unless the established Sangha responds to the needs, concerns and criticisms of this vibrant middle class community, both in reform of law and in practice, more and more religious breakaways will occur, and the solidarity and unity of the Sangha will erode.(13)

While our previous discussion has largely focused on the lack of conformity between statute law and accepted patterns of social, cultural. environmental and religious behavior, a similar imbalance, with coincident disruptive consequences, can also be observed in the political, technological and judicial spheres. The law is slow footed as well when faced with transitions in these latter areas.

Thailand has been moving, slowly but surely, towards a more democratic political system. This is particularly evident as the rural populace actively socks and demands the opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their lives. As noted above in discussing environmental protection, the NGO movement has been instrumental in fostering and facilitating such rural participation. In this context the NGO movement should be viewed as a constructive mechanism affording an obviously immature political system sufficient political space and time to mature. This movement provides a much needed safety-valve to channel the increasingly vocal expression of needs and concerns of the disadvantaged into the bureaucratic policy decision-making process. However, the government continues to view this NGO movement, as well as the rural protests it has supported, with some suspicion. The authorities have been slow to appreciate the value and viability of such rural expression and engagement.(14) Such suspicion is similarly felt by the burgeoning middle class business communities in Bangkok and provincial urban centers. Even the small number of civic-minded businessmen who, imbued with communal pride, have banded together to form civic groups dedicated to the democratic and environmentally sound development of their urban communities, such as the Bangkok Forum, Hat Yai Forum, Vieng Ping Council (Chiang Mai), Korat in the Next Decade and the Khon Kaen Forum, have shown little inclination to involve themselves in or cooperate with rural development-focused NGOs.

Minority and disadvantaged grours are seeking protection and equality under the law. Disadvantaged groups, including the blind and disabled, have become more vocal in demanding legally mandated specialized facilities to facilitate access to access to public transport and public buildings. Marginalized communities such as the hill tribes are, with the help of NGOs and academics, asserting their rights as citizens, e.g., seeking identity card, title to land, etc.

Thai governments have failed to provide the legal underpinnings to meaningful participatory democracy although tentative steps in this direction are being taken. Thus, there is yet no provision for legally mandated public hearing,(15) no Ombudsman,(16) no Freedom of Information Act,(17) no Administrative Court, no permanent independent electoral/Poll Watch Commission, no direct election of Senators or provincial Governors, no effective equality between the sexes, etc. As a consequence, there is increasing public pressure for such legal reform so as to achieve more equality, transparency and accountability in the political system. Until there is a better fit between law and political values and expectations, there will he constant tension, conflict and instability.

Part 5


(11) There are more than forty magazines dealing with the trade of amulets published every seven to ten days for a readership of millions, and the yearly sale of such amulets is estimated to be in the billions of Baht.

(12) For a perceptive analysis of the interaction of Buddhist and political institution in Thailand, see Peter Jackson, Buddhism, Legitimization and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore: ISEAS, 1989).

(13) Following this essay are three book reviews which explore various aspects of Thai Buddhism in transition.

(14) While farmers, laborers and other disadvantaged groups struggle in the trenches, business interests have the more placid ambiance of committee rooms in which to get their message across. As far back as 1981, when the Cabinet of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda approved the establishment of the Joint Public Private Consultative Committee (JPPCC), business organizations have had direct on-going access to government authorities through this mechanism. They have had no difficulty in getting their views heard on economic-related policy, regulations and legislation. This officially sanctioned lobbying channel is understandably resented by those less favored constituencies which are forced to resort to the confrontational tactics of protests and demonstrations to make their voices heard.

(15) A yet untried mechanism to subject state projects to a public hearing process was established by a regulation signed by the Prime Minister on 30 January 1996. A National Public Hearing Committee would, under the regulation, appoint a neutral committee to organize a hearing gather facts and make recommendations on those state projects which were deemed to have an adverse impact on the environment, culture, occupation or way of life of affected communities. To date this process has not been put into practice, and gaps and exceptions in the drafting may limit its effectiveness.

(16) In July 1996 an Ombudsman Bill was approved by the Government and forwarded to the Council of State prior to being tabled in Parliament. Under the bill the Ombudsman would be empowered to investigate alleged abuses of authority and power and dereliction of duty by state officials. However, there is no provision for the enforcement of recommendations or resolutions of the Ombudsman, and the bill is further emasculated by an article which allows the Ombudsman to halt an investigation if it is felt continuation of the probe would jeopardize national security, adversely affect foreign relations or cause damage to those concerned. It is unclear whether there will be duplication of work with Parliamentary House and Senate Committees and a yet-to-be-established Administrative Court.

(17) An Information Bill was recently passed in House of Representatives which guarantees certain limited public access to state information.

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