Buddhists helping anti-Thaksin movement

BANGKOK, Thailand – In the morning, they pray and collect alms. At night, they march and shout for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resign. Clearly these aren’t your ordinary tranquil Thai Buddhists.

In fact, they are members of the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect, and have dubbed themselves the “Dharma Army,” in reference to the teachings of the Buddha that promote virtue. It’s a jarring name to people who associate Buddhism with pacifism.

“It is our duty to Lord Buddha to oust the greedy and sinful Thaksin,” says their charismatic and outspoken leader, Phra Bodhirak.

The group’s members have joined the growing demonstrations to force Thaksin – whom they accuse of corruption and abuse of power – to step down.

A senior member of the sect, former Bangkok Governor Chamlong Srimuang, is one of the leaders of what have become nearly daily anti-Thaksin protests. He last played such a role in 1992, when pro-democracy demonstrators forced out a military-backed government.

Santi Asoke is not shy about flexing its political muscle, in the streets as well as at the ballot box. The group was in the vanguard of the 1992 demonstrations, and last year turned out in force to demonstrate against a beer company’s plans to list on the Thai stock exchange – alcohol being anathema to a virtuous Buddhist.

Once loosely affiliated with a political party founded by Chamlong, the group has now formed its own party known as “Pua Fa Din,” or “For Our Land.”

About 2,000 members of Santi Asoke are a steady presence at the anti-Thaksin rallies, which attract tens of thousands of people. Most wear the traditional blue Thai farmer’s shirt called “mohom,” symbolizing their devotion to simplicity.

There is a strong tradition in some schools of Buddhism – in India and Vietnam, for example – to engage in organized social and political struggle. But Thai Buddhism generally reflects the country’s easygoing nature, which is respectful of authority and generally avoids confrontation.

Even so, Santi Asoke’s street marches are peaceful and disciplined. The group prepared for a recent street action by viewing a video about the struggle of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian’s national independence hero and apostle of nonviolence.

Members of the group – which operates several vegetarian restaurants around the country – man field kitchens at the site in Bangkok where protesters are encamped between rallies.

For all its discipline, however, Santi Asoke has always marched to the beat of a different drum. It never formally registered with the government’s Department of Religious Affairs, and has been at odds since its founding in the 1970s with the Sangha Council, the country’s ruling body for monks.

Sect founder Bodhirak was a TV presenter and songwriter named Mongkol Rakpong before becoming a monk in 1970, and three years later established his own Buddhist center, emphasizing self-reliance, simplicity and hard work. Today there are about 30 Santi Asoke communities throughout the country serving more than 10,000 adherents.

Some people find the group’s loudly proclaimed tenets of self-sacrifice dogmatic and self-righteous. Its implicit message – that the mainstream Buddhist clergy don’t live up to the religion’s ideals – has also earned it enemies, and resulted in Bodhirak’s arrest and expulsion from Thailand’s formal Buddhist religious structure in 1989.

For the public at large, Chamlong – a fit, 70-year-old former army major general who is Bodhirak’s most prominent disciple – embodies the sect. His presence lends the anti-Thaksin protests both a moral authority and a steely backbone, gained from his military experience.

Chamlong served in Vietnam and Laos when Thailand supported the United States during the Vietnam War. The experience heightened his political and social awareness.

Rising on the political tide with several like-minded classmates, he became secretary general to then-Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. He made his name in 1981 when, as a matter of Buddhist principle, he resigned to protest a bill to legalize abortion.

Four years later, Chamlong resigned his army commission to run for governor of Bangkok, and easily won two consecutive terms. Trading on his virtuous image, he founded a political party, “Palang Dharma” – “The Power of Dharma” – but found that his popularity was not easily transferable. But among the party’s early leaders was Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications magnate then just beginning to test Thailand’s political waters.

Chamlong’s profile became international in 1992 when he galvanized protests against the military-backed government by going on a hunger strike for about two weeks, then staying on the front lines until he was arrested.

The protests were eventually successful, but in the post-1992 euphoria Chamlong’s virtue no longer seemed like such a novelty. He faded from the public scene, devoting himself to Santi Asoke and grass-roots projects in agriculture and political education, as well as advising Thaksin informally until publicly breaking with him a month ago.

His army meanwhile marches on, with Chamlong leading its ranks.

AP reporters Sutin Wannabovorn and Grant Peck contributed to this story.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via The Mercury News, USA
Mar. 13, 2006
Rungrawee C. Pinyorat
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 13, 2006.
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