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.