Will Buddhism become Thailand's state religion?

As the Thai King's health appears to worsen, some activists are pushing for the Thai constitution to enshrine another national symbol: Buddhism. 

Jorge Silva/ Reuters
Buddhist monks collect alms in a village outside Nong Khai, Thailand, in September. Some Buddhist groups are pushing for the next Thai Constitution to declare Buddhism the state religion.

As a junta-appointed committee attempts to craft Thailand's 20th constitution in less than a century, Buddhist activists are pushing to add something unprecedented: a state religion.

Theravada Buddhism shapes life in Thailand so much that it might be mistaken for the official faith: By law, the King must be Buddhist, and he outfits the country's famous Emerald Buddha in a new seasonal costume three times each year on the grounds of the Grand Palace. Western tourists flocking to Bangkok would be hard-pressed to envision Thailand without its temples, monks collecting alms, and pictures of the King, which dot everything from currency to busy roadways.

But even though roughly 95 percent of the country practices Buddhism, it has never been proclaimed "official," despite enjoying some legal protections. Previous attempts to toughen up penalties for "offending" or "contaminating" the religion have ended in failure and protests.

Korn Meedee, the secretary of a committee that promotes such measures, told the Bangkok Post that, without protections, Buddhism was "in decline."

"We want to eradicate non-pure forms of Buddhism," Mr. Korn said, rejecting the idea that other faiths would be harmed by inscribing Buddhism even more firmly into law. 

Buddhist advocate Phra Narupchai Apinunto told the Post that Buddhists in southern Thailand requested such laws to protect them from Muslim insurgents. 

As John Butt, a religion professor at Payap University in Chiang Mai, explained to PBS, Buddhism still enjoys a privileged, widespread role in Thai life, making Thailand perhaps "the central Buddhist country in the world."

But he also suggested that temples' roles are changing, maintaining a religious role but losing some of their power as community centers. In 2012, The New York Times reported that the number of monks was plummeting. 

Despite the decline, some are wary of further linking Buddhism with state power.

As Myanmar transitions to democracy, its own hardline Buddhist monks have been accused of inciting the violent ethnic hatred that has restricted the country's Muslim Rohingya minority to squalid camps and sent thousands fleeing overseas. Ma Ba Tha, a political group, argues that Buddhism needs "protection" from Islam, despite the fact that Buddhists make up 90 percent of Myanmar's population.

Some worry that an official Thai religion would further consolidate political power that is already concentrated in the hands of the ruling junta, which took power amid chaotic protests in 2014, and the royal palace, which has little nominal power but holds immense sway in Thai politics. 

"The state will be able to use [Buddhism] as a tool to create a sense of sacredness for itself in the same way as the lèse majesté law is used," Buddhist scholar Vichak Panich told the Post. 

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has held power for almost 70 years, is protected by some of the world's toughest anti-defamation laws, which regularly send critics to jail. Agence France-Presse has reported that lèse majesté charges have soared since the military coup. 

But the King, age 87, is said to have suffered ill health for years, prompting many prayers for his recovery, but few open discussions about what a post-Bhumibol Thailand might look like. 

Contemplating a future without their national symbol, the King, may motivate ruling politicians to turn to another Thai emblem: Buddhism. 

"His death will shake Thailand like nothing has in its modern history, and the Thai military wants to be firmly in charge when that happens. It is that simple," the National Interest summarized earlier this month. 

Increasing worries is the Crown Prince, whose reputation pales besides his beloved father's carefully-created image as a hardworking, sacrosanct national unifier

"Reverence for the king was once the only thing that this fractured country could agree on," the Times's Thomas Fuller noted, but a small republic movement seems to be building as activists anticipate a world without King Bhumibol. 

A September New York Times article about the King's ongoing health issues and the anxiety they cause amid the country's recent history of political protests, coups, and do-overs was deemed too sensitive to publish in Thailand, according to The Boston Globe. 

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