Major Changes to Thai Buddhist Sangha Organization

I wrote the following in an attempt to clarify my own understanding of what is going on in Today’s Thai Buddhism news. If I have made errors of fact, I would appreciate sourced corrections. If I have made errors of characterization, I would appreciate constructive and mutually respectful engagement. I have have made basic errors of political orientation, consider that you and I may merely have different approaches, and that such a disagreement is unlikely to be resolved on the internet.

EDIT: Since I am attempting to learn here on my own (I’m not a scholar of Thai Buddhism, remember, but usually hang out across the border in Cambodia. I also don’t speak Thai), I was aware I was going to make mistakes. Hence the note above. However, I made a big error. I confused Phra Buddha Issara another monk. Issara is definitely not the Red Shirt monk. If I were on social media, I’d have ended that last sentence with a “, lmfao.” Ah well. Thank to Erick White for the note correcting me, and keep them coming. Other corrections will go into the comments.

Big news about organized Buddhism in Thailand today. A reform to the Sangha Act of 1962 has just passed, in the fact of opposition from the Sangha itself. Despite promises from the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand (BPCT), which is supported by and supports the Sangha Supreme Council, to fight the reform, it passed today.

The sole change to the Sangha Act of 1962 is that the King now has the sole and total authority to appoint a Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, taking power away from the Sangha Supreme Council, the senior monks’ body.

What weakened opposition to this reform act? It’s a bit surprising that opposition was so defanged, considering the formal opposition to it by central Buddhist monastic institutions. Opposition to the reform may have been blunted, however, and received less public support that usual, for the following reasons:

  1. Fewer people than usual might have been willing to defend the sangha in this situation, given Dhammakaya’s controversy, and it’s perceived connection to recent sangha corruption scandals.
  2. The crisis of Somdet Chuang’s nomination to the Supreme Patriarchate deepened when the current head of state, Prayut Chan O-Cha, who has led the post-2014 coup government in Thailandrefused to refer the nomination.
  3. The current uncertainty and fear over the future of the monarchy, after King Bhumibol (Posth.: Rama IX)’s death and the confused and erratic elevation of his son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, to the position.

What is a Sangha Act?

Ever since the beginning of the modern Thai nation-state, the administrative and hierarchical relationship between the institutions of monarchy, sangha (the Buddhist order), and nation has been tense, and subject to various projects of reconfiguration (The relationship between Kings and Monks is one of the most central and contested relationships in Buddhist civilizational history, and goes back at least to the model of Indian emperor Asoka and Buddhism.

Because of the legitimating force of laws in the current global sphere, modern Sangha reform projects have most effectively been via national laws, especially via Sangha Acts. An excerpt from Dr Michael Jerryson’s book, “Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand“, explains the situation clearly:

Perhaps the most comprehensive State appropriation and centralization of Thai Buddhism cam under the umbrella of “Sangha Acts.” In the last century there have been three Sangha Acts–the Sangha Acts of 1902, 1941, and 1962-with amendments to the 1962 version occurring in 1992 and 2004. Each Sangha Act altered the structure of the Thai sangha and enabled the current administration to commission Buddhist monks for national programs and policies. (61)

This Sangha Act

The particular Sangha Act that was reformed this week was the 1962 Act created under Prime Minister Sarit. This act profoundly reshaped social views of the sangha, and wed those views to new state agendas. Jerryson quotes Stanley Tambiah on the 1964 program associated with this program of revival (quoted in Jerryson, 61-62):

Finally, it is clear that other monks explicitly or implicitly conceive the thammathud program as having the objectives of reducing regional grievances (particularly of the northeast), of stemming communism, and of mobilizing loyalty to the king and the nation and by extension to the government through the agency of religion.

The conflict began most proximately (we’ll point out below how this is a new wrinkle in an old fabric) in the possible elevation of Somdet Chuang Varapuñño to the position of Supreme Patriarch (Honorary name: Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn; henceforth Somdet Chuang or Chuang). Somdet Chuang is the most senior (highest ranked) monk in Thailand, and was previously appointed to a position that is considered the position that feeds into the Supreme Patriarchate. He’s also very controversial, for multiple reasons.

Many people believe that Somdet Chuang is deeply corrupt. He has been accused of tax evasion, because of a Mercedes-Benz registered in his name. Those who believe he is guilty assume this is indication of massive financial holdings acquired via corruption.

He is, or is assumed to be, too-closely connected to the very popular but still controversial Dhammakaya Buddhist movement, and especially the Wat Dhammakaya temple, whose abbot Dhammachayo, is under investigation for massive financial corruption. The temple is extremely popular among some Bangkok elites, and engages in controversial fundraising methods which have resulted in major criticism from mainstream Thai Buddhists, who sometimes disparagingly refer to the Dhammakaya as a ‘cult‘ by its critics, make fun of the ‘Flying Saucer’ shaped construction of buildings at the temple, and compared (also as a criticism) to the Christian ‘Prosperity Gospel‘ churches.

Background: Red v. Yellow in Thailand.

All of this is bound up with the political power struggles of the last few decades, especially in the struggle between the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts. Here’s a characterization so brief it’s probably vulgar:

A corrupt Thai state elected a corrupt Thai businessman named Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister in 2001. He used his new power to financially benefit himself and his family. Frankly, that wasn’t a problem for most people. The real problem is that he was from the North of Thailand, and was aware of and somewhat interested in issues of rural reform and well-being that went beyond the capital city. The worst problem was that he started engaging in reforms that targeted those issues.

He was accused of corruption, lese majeste (still a crime in Thailand, if you can believe it), and other things (probably guilty of a few of them), and in 2006, a coup took place while he was abroad. He remained abroad. After a return to a civilian government, the new party supported by Thaksin in 2007 (and seen as a stand in for him) also won a landslide, which some understood as a rebuke of the coup-makers.

The 2007 victory began the most recent recognizable iteration of this crisis: the Red Shirts versus the Yellow Shirts. The “Red Shirts” are pro-rural, pro-working class, and pro-democratic. The “Yellow Shirts,” in contrast, are primarily made of up Bangkok-based professionals and elites, oppose rural reform, and are reflexively and wholly pro-monarchical. The Yellow Shirts, in other words, represent the elite and ruling class factions of Thailand, concentrated in the capital city.

Yellow Shirts generally see themselves as holding up the value and prosperity of pre-1997 economic crash Thailand, a prosperity rooted in an economic situation that no longer exists. They often blame Thaksin, and people or parties considered to stand in for him, a cause of Thailand’s economic and political difficulties since the 1997 crash. Without a solid reference for ongoing prosperity, the Yellow Shirts have focused most of their energies on nationalist crisis politics, especially ‘protecting the monarchy,’ promoting coups, nationalist conflicts with neighbors, and more.

After the initial 2007 Red Shirt victory, the Yellow Shirts threw everything they could find at the new Prime Minister, successfully ousting him in 2008 (for the crime of having appeared on a cooking show). His replacement was prevented from getting to his offices by Yellow Shirt protesters. At the end of 2008, the Thai judiciary dissolved the ruling political party in what some call a ‘judicial coup,’ allowing a different party to gain power.

Protests were tactics of politics, and in many ways, replaced politics, for much of the next two years. Yellow Shirts shut down Bangkok’s airport with an occupation and Red Shirts occupied areas of the city. Police crackdowns of one Red Shirt protest resulted in 87 deaths and almost 1400 injured. While most systematic violence was directed against the Red Shirts, violence against Yellow Shirts, including an apparent attempted political assassination, also took place.

Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected to PM in 2011, in a victory seen as a further rebuke of the anti-democratic Yellow Shirts. She remained in office until she was ousted in 2014 in connection with a rice-pledging corruption scheme. As with Thaksin’s ouster, however, it is clear that while the corruption was real and serious, corruption was a legitimating motive for the Yellow Shirts instead of a real issue for them. Yellow Shirt protesters had been increasingly demanded the ouster of “the Thaksin regime” since 2013. She dissolved parliament and called early elections. Before the elections could be called, however, in 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that she should step down, again posing the power of the Thai judiciary against the Red Shirts.

The choice of stepping down or staying in place was denied Yingluck, however, by a coup in 2014 led by General Prayut Chan O-cha, who became the Prime Minister after the coup. Since 2014, Thailand has been led by this coup government, which is indebted to and strongly aligned with the Royal faction in general (not true of all military factions), and supportive of the Yellow Shirts specifically.

So, these seem to be the basic factions, most of them divided amongst themselves:

  1. The MonarchyUndivided. Powerful. Requires others to get things done. ailing for decades under the rule of the beloved but ill and reclusive King Bhumibol, now suffering after his death and the elevation of his much dislike son, Prince Vajirakorn. Unbelievably wealthy.
  2. The “Nation” – An ‘imagined community.’ Not real, and hence capable of being divided and unified at the same time. Not really a group of people. Instead, a symbolic token of ‘the people’ that is used in political rhetoric.
  3. The MilitaryDivided. Powerful. The Royal faction dominates. Composed of a divided group of powerful factions, representing royal factions, bourgeois elites, and rural military factions. Prayuth is part of the royal faction.
  4. The SanghaDivided. Powerful. In genuine contest between factions. The institution of Buddhist monks in Thailand. Heavily divided politically, though not always by sect, temple, or doctrine. As often, political divisions among monks are based on age and family status or wealth. However, individual temples are often autocratically run by abbots, and therefore become identified with the political positions of the abbot.
  5. Bangkok ElitesDivided. Powerful. Royal faction dominates. Socially liberal on many behavioral issues, socially reactionary when it comes to the monarchy, economically regressive and protectionist of Bangkok interests, the Bangkok elites often confuse liberals in other countries like the United States, who resemble them almost identically except for the lack of an American monarchy. Some Bangkok professionals and elites deviate from the reflexive “Yellow Shirt” position, just as a few contemporary wealthy suburbs in the USA tend to vote democrat.
  6. Bangkok Working ClassUndivided. Only powerful when exceptionally organized, or in the streets. These folks are red shirts. There is little unusual about the Bangkok working class, except for the specificity of its ethnic composition. They tend to be resolutely democratic and to believe that the current distribution of wealth is unfair.
  7. Rural ElitesDivided. Powerful. Political Outsiders. Like most elite classes, the rural elites tend to prefer the company and alliance of other elite groups. However, the Bangkok elites have refused most attempts to create a bourgeois network of capitalism in the country, instead favoring a Bangkok-centered focus. Thaksin Shinawatra is the pre-eminent example of a rural elite, though his extreme wealth and prestige do not make him representative of this class.
  8. Rural Working ClassUndivided. Powerfully motivated by Red Shirt causes, but loyal to the monarchy. Only powerful when exceptionally organized, or in the streets. Farmers and workers. Most significant beneficiaries of Thaksin-initiated reforms, especially the new health plan. Strongly Red Shirt, but also strongly pro-royal, denting some of their enthusiasm.

Note that ‘divided’ and ‘undivided’ are merely markers for what will never be a perfect case: there will never be a person, let alone a faction of people, that is truly undivided. In this short piece, undivided and divided refer to the faction’s ability to act in a manner that pursues the faction’s interests or stated goals in an effective manner. Thus, undivided refers less to their ‘feelings’ or ‘thoughts’ or ‘ideologies,’ and more to their public presentation of unity, effective use of state or popular power to accomplish goals, and ability to effectively defend other members of the faction. [Thanks to Erick White for prompting this clarification.]

Is this a proxy war for Red v. Yellow?

In some ways, the answer is obviously yes, it is a proxy war. The conflicts between the Red and Yellow factions has taken the field of monastic administration. A allegedly corrupt, wealthy monk associated with a new religious movement and many Bangkok elites, was about to take the position of Supreme Patriarch. The major complaint however, seems to be that the abbot of Wat Dhammakaya Temple, with which Somdet Chuang is supposed to be closely affiliated, is supposed by many Yellow Shirts to be a haven of pro-Thaksin traitors to the nation.

As Somdet Chuang, via his connections to Wat Dhammakaya, is seen as a proxy for the Red Shirt movement within Buddhism, some of his most significant opposition from within the sangha comes from monks such as Ven. Buddha Issara, with much stronger and open affinity with  Monarchical Absolutism, perhaps even beyond the norm that exists among Yellow Shirts. Issara frequently appeared on stage with anti-government (Yellow Shirt) protesters, and has maintained a profile as an activist monk concerned with political and economic corruption. Issara is Chuang’s greatest monastic critic.

It is Ven. Buddha Issara’s calls for investigation of the Sangha Supreme Council’s members for economic corruption, including specifically Somdet Chuang, that have been used as pretexts (legitimate or not) to stall the confirmation of Somdet Chuang as Supreme Patriarch.

If it’s a proxy war, are the Red Shirts Losing?

As often happens historically, it is possible to see specific events and personalities as occupying merely a location on an enormous tidal wave of change. From this god’s eye view, this conflict looks like an important but not decisive struggle between various forces of modernization and reaction in Thailand. Of course, ‘modernization’ itself is merely a code for a set of contests and concerns that have been created and exacerbated by the rise of modern capitalism and the nation-state. The forces of reaction have won a battle and returned absolute control of the head of the Buddha sangha to the  monarchy. But they have done so at a moment when the monarchy is particularly vulnerable – after the death of beloved king Bhumibol and during the elevation of dislike prince Vajirakorn. The monarchy gains some control, but is indebted to factions of the military for this increased power.




Buddha Relics Stolen, Recovered. Implications?


Then-King NORODOM Sihanouk holding the koṭṭha (urn) containing the Buddha’s relics

Back on December 9-10, 2013, in the midst of ongoing conflicts between the CNRP and the CPP over the disputed elections, and separate but connected mass garment worker strikes, physical relics of the Buddha, supposed to contain hair, bone, and ashes of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, were stolen. Yesterday, February 6, 2014, police claimed to have recovered these relics in Takeo province. Before proceeding to links and discussion, it might be useful to discuss the concept of relics in general. More after the jump:

Continue reading


Excisions, #1

As I go through the process of pruning my book manuscript in order to deliver to the publisher, I will occasionally post a few sections that I had to cut, but which for reasons obvious, obscure, or inane I have decided to somehow preserve.

Today’s excision is a note about the ways in which scholars of Theravada Buddhism have talked about ‘syncretism’ in Buddhism in Southeast Asia:

Kitiarsa offers an excellent review of the literature on the ‘problem’ of Southeast Asian Buddhism (Kitiarsa 2012). Instead of syncretism, Kitiarsa describes Thai Buddhism as a ‘vigorous hybrid,’ a genetic metaphor, and adds in the notion that it is the widespread commodification of everyday life, and the transformation of perceived needs, that drives modernizing religious difference (Kitiarsa 2012, 2, 31-33, 19). Peter Skilling has also adopted the word hybrid, though in a linguistic mode, specifically to avoid the notion of ‘syncretic,’ emphasizing the creative agency involved in the creation of such hybrids (Skilling 2007, 208 n.2). While I prefer the linguistic metaphor to the genetic one, both appear to suffer from the assumption that we might somehow access an originally pure and non-hybridized tradition.

Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2012. Mediums, monks, and amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Skilling, Peter, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, and Santi Pakdeekham, eds. 2012. How Theravada is Theravada?: Exploring Buddhist identities. Bangkok: Silkworm Books.


LTO Cambodia: Wat Bo: Scenes of daily life

You really need to head over to LTO Cambodia: Wat Bo: Scenes of daily life, to examine the closeup images of Wat Bo’s mural of olden-days, everyday Cambodian life (colonial period, about 100 years old, at monks’ estimation).  There are a lot of images, and LTO is a fine photographer. But what really makes this collection of photos wonderful is his description and surmises about what is going on, all done with reports to what the local monks had told him, and his own thoughts.  I’ll reblog one image to get you over there:


The Rohingya, Buddhism, and anti-Muslim sentiment

I’ve been constantly checking my twitter feed lately. #RohingyaNOW Why? Because it’s almost the only place I can find news about what appears to be a straight-up genocidal attempt by some Burmese fascists. I’m not using that word metaphorically or rhetorically; I believe they qualify as fascists under most standard definitions of the word. These people are attempting to provoke a mass movement to expel or murder all non-Burmese and non-Buddhists from the country. Facing its own long-running Muslim minority problems in the South, Buddhist Thailand is doing its bit, too. Long the cooperative beneficiary of human trafficking from Burma into Thailand, security forces from both Thailand and Burma have attacked boats full of Muslim refugees fleeing the violence, sometimes drowning all those on board, other times pushing them away from Thailand’s coastlines, refusing them the obligatory offerings to refugees under International Law.

I do not have time at the moment for an extensive commentary on these issues, but want to add my voice to those who are pleading with the media, the United Nations, and others, to increase coverage, stand up for the victims of communal violence, and begin a process of restoration for victims of genocidal violence. A few points:

1. These are indeed “Burmese Buddhist Fascists.” They are opposed, apparently, first to the Rohingya, an ethnic minority and Muslim group largely in Western Burma.  The fascists consider them illegal immigrants, though they have been in the area for many generations. They are not opposed to the Rohingya solely for reasons of ethnic difference, either: they are explicitly opposed to Muslims in general. Moreover, much of the most vocal leadership, and according to pictures from the most recent riots and murders, much of the on-the-ground leadership, is by Buddhist monks. Here’s Buddhist monk Wirathu, founder of the newly-formed Buddhist Fascist group “969”, sermonizing against Muslims and encouraging a financial boycott of Muslim enterprises, while stoking fears of a Muslim takeover of Burma. It’s chilling:

Additionally, while the violence against Burma’s Rohingya and Muslims existed prior to the recent steps toward democratization indicated by the new participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in politics (so lambasted in the monk’s speech, above), it seems to have worsened significantly since then. I do not have enough knowledge of the situation first-hand to confirm this, and am basing my perception here on discussions I had with various people who study Burma (both Burmese and non-Burmese) recently. If correct, it would be interesting to read Burma’s current case against the recent work of sociologist Michael Mann, Democracy’s Dark Side: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. In that book, Mann (whose companion volume on Fascists is also compelling) argues that sudden democratization, mediated by a number of other necessary preconditions, can actually drive ethnic cleansing. I don’t necessarily endorse his views in either book, though I have found much of them compelling and very “good to think with.”

Regardless, Aung San Suu Kyi has been almost completely silent about the multi-year attack on Burmese Muslims. Some reports point out the great overlap between the primary sources of her political support (Buddhist monks) and the primary sources of these anti-Muslim fascists (Buddhist monks), such as this article, headlined, Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Saffron Monks” Stalk Streets With Machetes – Mass Slaughtering Refugees.

2. This is a political conflict about ethnicity and religion, not a religious conflict that has become political. This is a key distinction. When it is presented as ‘ethnic violence,’ or ‘communal violence,’ in the international media, or by UN officers, we imagine different lines than may actually exist.  Watch the following video, which covers the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Meiktila on March 22. You’ll see two Burmese Buddhist laypeople interviewed. Continue reading


Link Dump for October 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post anything here; on the other hand, my book writing is going well. Here are some things that I wanted to post here, with very little commentary.  Just getting caught up:

General Academic, and Religious Studies, Links

Ever curious about what the Religious Studies Book Review is really for? What it’s supposed to accomplish? Or, how to write one? Here’s the first third of a good essay on the topic! The Nature and Function of the Religious Studies Book Review (Part 1 of 3): Writing the Book Review

This excellent visualization of the relative isolation of various academic departments. Hint: anthro is very isolated!

As the financing and operation of the higher education industry becomes an increasingly heated topic, expect more radical discussions, or even (as here, pretty conservative discussions of radical topics) like this – “Do Faculty Strikes Work?” – in places like Inside Higher Ed.

Here’s a nice piece on “New Religious Movements” as an interpretive category. Good to read, for those interested in religion and innovation.

Good advice for the adoption of a ‘Five Year Plan’ strategy (with important distancing rhetoric from the USSR and the PRC!) for academic careers, from Kerim Friedman over at Savage Minds.

This brutal quote about Gender and Success in the Academy, from Kate Clancy’s excellent “The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar”:

To be clear, it’s not that academia weeds out the weak. The research on attrition for women and people of color indicates it’s not that women who leave are not confident, or are weak, but that they know their self-worth and have decided they’d rather take their toys to another sandbox where they’ll actually be appreciated.
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.

Buddhism Links

Those following the fascinating development of Ven. Luon Savath, Khmer Buddhist monk currently promoting “Engaged Buddhism” in Cambodia and receiving a lot of negative pressure from authorities as a result, will be interested to know that Ven. Savath has his own page, and hosts live and recorded lectures there.

Prof. Bryan Cuevas, whose work on death and the afterlife in Buddhism is the subject of a new book by him, is interviewed in an hour-long interview on the great site, New Books in Buddhist Studies!

General Funereal Studies

A good critique of the interminably stupid iGrief masquerading as compassion in the world, with the passing of Steve Jobs. I certainly wish the man no ill, and do not begrudge him compassion, but am more than a little disturbed at the hagiographical saint-making going on here, when videos like this one, below, are almost completely ignored.

A gorgeous HDR photo of a Japanese cemetery should be seen by all (from the astonishingly wonderful “Stuck in Customs“)

A small burial site found in Northern Vietnam, changing the way we think about pre-history.

Arch West, the inventor of Doritos, passed. Doritos were sprinkled on his grave. Rest in Powdery Flavor, Arch.

The great Khmer language scholar Khin Sok, also recently passed. The world of Khmer studies is considerably poorer for his passing. Rest In Peace, Lokkru.

Some Random Stuff

For my upcoming “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class, a book I’d like to read: “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice.”

And, a lovely piece from on “love, duty, and marriage in a Thai novel,” on the novelist Siburapha’s “Behind the Painting,” originally published in 1938, and translated into English by David Smyth.