Overlapping rivalries have created a 'Game of Thrones-esque' contest for control of top positions in the Buddhist hierarchy, with money, the military and the monarchy all playing a role.
Buddhism in Thailand is becoming increasingly politicized, as a rivalry between the military and the powerful Shinawatra family is mirrored in ecclesiastical matters, with supporters of both factions vying for control. While the military has sought to counter pro-Shinawatra elements in the clergy, Thailand’s new monarch, King Rama X, not only has ties to the Shinawatras but his own growing rivalry with the military.
Following the death of the previous patriarch in 2013, Thailand’s highest religious position remained unfilled until February 2017, as controversy swirled around the potential replacement. The top ecclesiastical body, the Songha Council, had (as per tradition) nominated the most senior monk, Somdet Chuang in January 2016; however, the leader of the ruling junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha blocked Somdet’s nomination. Alongside existing concerns over Somdet’s lavish lifestyle and tax evasion, Prayuth blocked his nomination due to his links to the controversial Dhammakaya sect.
Monks as warriors in proxy-war
Branded heretics and subversives by many adherents of the two main (Mahanikai and Thammayut) branches of Thai Buddhism, the Dhammakaya sect has nevertheless enjoyed growing power and influence. In a manner akin to how wealthy televangelists in the West fleece the faithful, Dhammakaya has equated worldly success with holiness.
Specifically, the sect not only acts along similar lines as televangelists, it has also taken a note out of Rome’s indulgences play-book. The sect preaches that monetary donations to the group confer blessings and holiness on donors, and has amassed a substantial following in the wake of Thailand’s boom years and the rise of the nouveau riche.
The wealthy sect has capitalized on its growing clout, modern marketing tactics and its considerable finances to obtain a foothold on the Sangha council. Consequently, “the Sangha Council has become a syndicate of [the] power plays among monks [sic], according to Buddhist scholar Mano Laohavanich. The sect’s influence on the council combined with Somdet’s efforts to shield the Dhammakaya leader from investigation is in it itself not a direct threat to the military regime; however, what is is the sect’s connections to the powerful Shinawatra family.
Thailand’s military government came to power following the 2014 coup against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra - himself also ousted by the military in 2006. With Thaksin in exile, the military has been working hard to eradicate the Shinawatra’s influence once and for all, including efforts to force $985 million in compensation from Yingluck personally for her government’s policies.
On January 26th 2017, Yingluck stated that she would be unable to pay the fine in her lifetime and that her family would left destitute. This fine is a way for the military to try to bankrupt the Shinawatra family so they cannot use their wealth to fund a comeback in the future.
Shinawatra-military rivalry has defined Thai politics for two decades
Throughout the 20th century the military has repeatedly (19 times since 1932) intervened in Thai politics to 'save' the country from messy democratic governments. Successful interventions have often occurred following popular unrest, and always with the consent of the monarchy, for whom stability is paramount. Conversely, during the 1973 democracy movement the King sided with the public, seeking to oust the country's heavy-handed military rulers.
Since the 1970s, Thailand has seen the emergence of a proto-democracy intermingled with growing modernization and intermittent military regimes, with the King always at the centre of affairs. By the 1990s, Thailand's democratic credentials were slowly improving, following successive elections. However, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis plunged the economy into crisis, forcing the incumbent government to deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and accede to its accompanying demands.
During the 2001 election, the government's handling of the crisis caused serious debate, with the challenger Thaksin Shinawatra running on a populist platform. Thaksin won the election and the story of Thai politics for the following seventeen years has been one of tensions between the Shinawatra family, cosmopolitan elites, and elements of the military-monarchy establishment.
While Thaksin was able to turn the Thai economy around, he remains loathed by many due to allegations of corruption, money laundering, extra-judicial killings and other nefarious acts. In addition to its hold on political power, the Shinawatra family have made billions by controlling the Shin Corporation, one of Thailand major telecommunications firms. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006, with at least the implicit consent of King Bhumibol, and went into self-imposed exile in 2008. Significant anti-Shinwatra sentiment also stems from the family's populist policies, notably the rice-buying program. This program buys rice from farmers at above market prices, ensuring rural support, but is extremely expensive and riddled with corruption.
Protests against the Yingluck government during 2013-2014 led to dozens of deaths, with the military eventually stepping in to oust Yingluck. The military sided with the urban population and elites who had protested against Yingluck's government, wanting an end to Shinawatra political dominance. Following the coup, the King appointing General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha as leader on May 26th 2014.
Royal assent is crucial to any Thai government and the King's actions provided a stamp of legitimacy to the new military order. While she was briefly seized, Yingluck left the country and joins her brother in exile. Nevertheless, Yingluck remains under investigation by an anti-corruption body over aforementioned rice-buying program.
In the months following the coup, the junta government (the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) appointed current and ex-military officials to the majority (116 of 200) of seats in the interim legislature. The junta also purged allies of Yingluck from government. Crucially, the King approved of these appointments, and selected army chief Prayuth Chan-O-Cha as interim leader.
Religious appointment's another front in rivalry
The problem for the military is that that while the Shinawatra family has been ousted, it still has power bases within the country. For instance, Shinawatra-controlled political groups have sponsored the Dhammakaya sect since the 1990s. Moreover, the sect’s head monk proclaimed Thaksin as the ideal Buddhist, citing his billions as evidence of his virtuous past lives. The Dhammakaya sect has also played a direct role in Thai power politics, having threatened to send its 100,000 novice monks to act as human shields for pro-Thaksin Red Shirt demonstrators in 2010.
More recently, the sect uses the threats of inciting pro-Shinawatra protests and working on behalf of Thaksin as weapons against the government, thus deterring investigations into its internal workings and finances.
Conversely, the military has its own orange-robed supporters, notably the firebrand Phra Buddha Isara. The abbot has ties to top generals and helped organize the chaotic street protests against Prime Minister Yingluck in 2014.
King granted (sort of) new powers
Since the military fears the potential ascension of a Dhammakaya adherent, or even supporter such as Somdet to the position of supreme patriarch, the junta has moved to block the appointment of a successor. The military’s concerns about the loyalties of the Sangha Council led them to remove the council from the selection process altogether, instead giving the king the power of nomination. The amendment actually returns powers previously held by the monarch to the king, yet nevertheless remains a major development. The amendment was passed in under an hour in the appointed assembly by a vote to 182 to zero: the Sangha Council was not consulted.
The monarchy and religious orders in Thailand have long drawn legitimacy from each other, indeed, the prominent Thammayut denomination was founded by a Thai king, and has produced every supreme patriarch since 1965: Somdet’s appointment would have also been an upset since he belongs to the Mahanikai denomination.
Under this new system, King Rama X appointed Somdej Phra Maha Muniwang as the 20th patriarch. What makes this appointment important is that it breaks with the tradition of appointing the most senior monk to the position. While Somdej, at 89 is no novice, he is only the third most senior monk: the new rules theoretically allows any monk to be appointed to the position.
This is a power play by the military, as Chan-o-cha sent the king five nominees, with the monarch making the final selection. This allows the military to filter out potential critics and Shinawatra supporters, while using the King as a foil. The government could not take on final arbitration powers itself without inciting mass protests, so by returning powers to king Chan-o-cha hopes to use the monarch as a middle man.
One step forward, two steps back
This arrangement appears to leave the military in a dominant position; however, the new monarch, who has indicated he wishes to play a more active role in politics could undermine the military’s plans. While the military has successfully contained pro-Shinawatra elements in the clergy, its has empowered another one of Thaksin’s supporters: Rama X himself. The king is known to be friends with Thaksin and has the power to pardon him. Moreover, the monarch is already embroiled in his own growing rivalry with the military, as seen by the face off over the junta’s proposed constitution.
This leaves the military in a tricky situation. While the new arrangement prevents any Dhammakaya candidates making it onto the shortlist, it does let the monarch pick someone who best serves his interests. Somdej’s appointment proves just this, as he is the abbot of Wat Ratchabopht, a temple closely associated with the royal family. The appointment of the supreme patriarch has the potential to become a proxy war between the military and monarchy, with the new king using Somdej to consolidate his rule.
The new king’s connections to the Shinawatras also gives the Dhammakaya sect room to manoeuvrer. Specifically, the powerful pro-Thaksin sect could align itself with the monarchy, with the latter gaining royal protection, while using its marketing machine and wealth to bolster the monarchy, thus gaining legitimacy despite its outsider status, given the reverence which many Thais feel for the monarchy.
Given the advanced age of the appointees, the issue of succession is likely to be raised again in the coming years. In trying to vanquish one opponent, the junta government appears to have simply empowered another.
An abridged version of this article was originally published by Asia Times
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.