Pillars gone missing?

27 01 2014

Despite all that has been written in the last decade, there are still some dopey stories that reflect on Thailand’s politics that make it into the international media. Eureka Street is usually a useful online magazine, but we wonder about and article by Paul Kay, who is said to be “an Australian journalist with a masters in theology, has spent the past several months in Thailand.”

We wonder because it is cliched and remarkably poorly informed about politics. PPT doesn’t reproduce it all, but here’s some bits that caught the collective eye:

It’s often said in Thailand that the three pillars of Thai society are Buddhism, the monarchy and the nation, or political system. In recent months I’ve witnessed many noisy anti-government protests in Bangkok where political groups have been very visible. But amid the turmoil, Buddhism and the monarchy are notably absent.

Well, it is said that these are the three “pillars” as part of an anti-democratic and royalist mantra that goes back to the 1920s. At one time, under the People’s Party, constitution was added to the other three. The royalists with the rightist military got rid of that.

We can only think that Mr. Kay is blind if he does not see either monarchy or Buddhism in the current mix.

On the monarchy he says this:

The low profile of the monarchy is easily explained. Absolute rule of the king ended in 1932, and since then Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy. The king does not comment on day to day affairs of the country.

Mr. Kay, where have you been? What haven’t you been reading? This is the kind of blathered tripe that usually comes from palace propagandists when trying to defend an “image” from “attacks” from those who speak the truth about the monarchy, like The King Never Smiles.

On Buddhism he states: “The absence of Buddhism is more puzzling.”

Well, it would be if it was absent. As he himself points out:

Well known 58-year-old Luang Pu Buddha Issara, abbot of Or Noi Temple just west of Bangkok, was appointed to oversee one of the seven main anti-government protest sites designed to shut down the capital. Another Buddhist group supporting the protestors is Santi Asoke, the so-called Dhamma Army, led by monk Phra Bodhirak. Begun in the 1970s, this is a small ascetic splinter group of socially engaged Buddhists.

On the government side, many point to the wealthy Dhammakaya sect’s support for the Shinawatra clan. Begun in the 1970s, the centre of this sect’s activities is an enormous futuristic shrine just north of Bangkok whose huge dome is encrusted with thousands of gold Buddha statues.

That seems like clear involvement to PPT, and a few monks were often out in support of red shirts when they demonstrated. Several very highly-ranked monks supported the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Earlier, in the 1970s, right-wing monks encouraged violence against “communists.” Buddhists have been quite zealous in some activities in the South. And the Buddhist hierarchy has long been part of the “establishment,” as put in place by General Sarit Thanarat in the early 1960s (and TKNS has a bit on that process).

In this context, Buddhism in Thailand seems socially-embedded, reflecting the broader conflicts in the country. It  is hardly “absent,” and this means we should probably speak of Buddhists rather than Buddhism.