BANGKOK: In a step that could sharpen divisions in its increasingly violent, largely Muslim southern provinces, Thailand appears ready for the first time to make Buddhism the state religion in a new constitution.
Under pressure from masses of orange-robed monks who have rallied in the streets and distracted by other political challenges, the country’s military-backed government is going along with a notion that has made little headway in the past.
The movement comes at a time of increased divisions and political tension in Thailand as the government seeks to pass a constitution, hold a parliamentary election and return the country to democracy by the end of the year.
The junta seized power in a nonviolent coup Sept. 19, ousting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was abroad.
At the moment, the political focus is on a court ruling scheduled for Wednesday on whether to disband Thailand’s two major political parties on charges of electoral fraud a year ago.
Such a ruling could touch off a backlash, and the military is preparing for possible street demonstrations including a plan by backers of Thaksin to march 99 elephants into Bangkok.
More than 90 percent of Thais are Buddhist, and Thailand is already, in effect, a Buddhist state, its rituals, monarchy and national identity closely tied to the religion. It also has a reputation for tolerance and inclusiveness, qualities that have become strained under the pressure of political crisis.
The constitutional provision would be largely symbolic, without legal weight or substantive effect on religious practices in Thailand. But analysts said it would be dangerously divisive at a moment when Buddhists and Muslims are confronting each other in the south more directly and violently than ever.
“It’s going to make the situation in southern Thailand a hell of a lot worse,” said Zachary Abuza, a specialist on terrorism who has closely studied the situation in the south.
Already, more than 2,000 people have died since 2004 in a separatist conflict in which Muslims and Buddhists increasingly see one another as the enemy.
“It’s going to play into the hands of the militants, and it’s going to feed the disenchantment of even moderate Muslims who already feel marginalized,” Abuza said.
Most of the country’s Muslim minority lives in the three southern provinces that until a century ago were an independent sultanante. Discontent and some level of violence have been a constant in a region that feels neglected and mistreated by a distant, culturally alien government.
Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University in the southern province of Pattani, said tensions and suspicion had been growing between Muslims and Buddhists as tit-for-tat attacks spread in recent months.
“It will be more difficult for the Thai state to solve the situation in the south if they have this kind of thing in the constitution,” said Srisompob, who is Buddhist.
The current draft of the constitution does not name Buddhism the state religion but says all religions will be protected. After thousands of monks massed in Bangkok last month demanding its inclusion, the leader of the governing junta, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, said, “If a stipulation in the charter to this effect would lead to peace in the country, then it would be better to include it.”
In what some analysts said was an attempt to avoid further confrontation as the government faces pressure from many directions, the appointed prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, also said he would not object to its inclusion.
Beginning during Thaksin’s administration, analysts say, Thailand has become increasingly divided between rich and poor, rural and urban, democratic reformers and conservatives, established elites and their challengers from within the Thaksin camp.
The campaign by militant Buddhists grows out of these divisions while playing into a nationalist approach that both sides of the political divide have used as a banner, said Surin Pitsuwan, a longtime politician who comes from the south.
“I think a sense of identity and sometimes a raw and naked nationalism have often become features of the new politics,” he said. “This is certainly part and parcel of that.”
As temples have been bombed, monks beheaded and Buddhist teachers and residents murdered in the south, Buddhism and nationalism have become intertwined. Some Buddhist leaders warn that the religion itself is under attack from what they see as an alien religion.
“Buddhism is increasingly coming under threat,” said Thongchai Kuasakul, head of the Buddhists’ Network of Thailand, who led the biggest march last month, referring to the violence in the south.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Bangkok Post, wrote recently, “This national religion campaign is taking place amid widespread paranoia within the clergy against Islam.”
She said leaflets had been distributed calling Islam a threat to Thai Buddhism.
Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator and expert on the south, said the greatest threat, though, comes from a politicized Buddhist hierarchy that could lead to greater confrontation and violence.
“My feeling is that this is similar to Sri Lanka,” he said. “They succeeded in Sri Lanka in making Buddhism the national religion and look at where Sri Lanka is – it’s a total civil war.”
Ammar Siamwalla, a leading economist in Bangkok who is a Muslim, noted that Buddhism, unlike Islam, is not a political religion and that it presents no equivalent to the Islamic laws instituted in some Muslim countries.
Given this lack of substance, he said, the entire debate seems pointless.
“I’m amazed that a 2,500-year-old religion has to obtain legitimacy in a document which will last probably, on the basis of past form, 10 years or less,” he said, referring to the constant rewriting of constitutions in Thailand.
“Our constitution is the least respected document in the country,” he said. “It’s been torn up too many times to be so obsessive about.”