Thailand: Buddhism, Thaksin and Bangkok’s Challenges

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April 26, 2007 18 25  GMT

Summary

Two thousand monks descended on Thailand’s parliament building April 25
— accompanied by nine elephants — and demanded that Thailand’s
proposed constitution make Buddhism the Southeast Asian nation’s state
religion. While the demand itself does not pose a fundamental long-term
challenge to the government, the highly organized nature of the
religious protests does. The government sees Buddhist activists as a
real threat since they offer former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
an opportunity to bolster his influence over Thai politics from abroad.

Analysis

Two thousand monks demonstrated April 25 at Thailand’s parliament building — along with nine elephants — to demand that Thailand’s draft constitution, officially released April 19, make Buddhism the nation’s official religion.

The government sees Buddhists as a real threat because former Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could make use of them to reassert
influence over Thai politics. The demand thus adds to the multiple challenges the government faces.

The country’s previous 10 constitutions have not recognized Buddhism,
practiced by 58 million or so inhabitants, as the state religion. The
emergence of Buddhism as a key sticking issue in Thai politics might
seem strange to outside observers, but it plays a key role.

Under Thaksin’s rule, many Buddhist temples and sects became highly
politicized and were bought off by the former prime minister’s Thai Rak
Thai party (TRT). Hence, suspicions that more might be going on than
meets the eye were raised by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont on April
25. With Thaksin’s support base and personal wealth still intact,
Surayud fears — not without justification — that Thaksin is directly
behind the monks’ well-organized action.

The government sees the demand to make Buddhism the official religion
as a double-pronged threat. First, it sees an anti-government
demonstration designed by Thaksin to undermine the government’s plan
for a new constitution under the guise of a religiously motivated
movement. Second, the government cannot crack down on Buddhist
believers in a country in which 90 percent of citizens practice
Buddhism, unlike its crackdown on Muslim militants in Thailand’s south.

To date, no clauses in the draft constitution have provoked the massive
unrest feared by the government. This is not to say that potentially
explosive clauses will not be appended later to the vaguely worded
constitution. Opposition groups, some of which are backed by former TRT
players, that are badly in need of an issue to gain support have
already started to champion the monks’ cause. If similar rallies
continue, the Constitution Drafting Assembly probably will recommend
Buddhism become Thailand’s state religion — thus pre-empting protests
from reaching the critical mass needed to topple the government.

To address the threat of Thaksin’s return, the government has launched
an active campaign to persuade members of the deposed prime minister’s
traditional northeastern base not to descend on Bangkok for protests.
The government has done so via economic assistance for poor farmers and
a trip by Surayud to meet the northeasterners in person — though the
farmers remain skeptical. It has also leveled corruption charges and
financial penalties against Thaksin’s family and is taking steps to
prevent the ex-prime minister from re-entering Thailand.

The government also has been talking up the threat of violence posed by
rallies as a reason to boost security forces in Bangkok. And rumors are
circulating of a government attempt to buy off key anti-government
players and groups with money and promises of future leadership roles.
The relatively subdued reaction to the constitution thus far indicates
these efforts have worked.

It is too early to tell whether relative calm over the draft
constitution will persist. Overall, opinion polls generally show the
public wants the government to succeed, bloodshed to be avoided and
elected government to return. Government critics have complained,
however, that the draft harks back to previous periods of military
rule, reversing the progress made after democracy returned to Thailand.

Set against recent memories of Thaksin’s checkered rule,
the public might be more accepting of the draft, however. Meanwhile,
Thaksin will continue to run his public relations machine and exercise
political influence from abroad — all the while reiterating his lack
of ambition to return to politics while undermining the government. If
he does return, it will not be until the fall, in the final countdown
to December’s elections, after which army chief Gen. Sonthi
Boonyaratglin is scheduled to retire. Until then, rallies, elephants
and the odd bombing will continue to play a role in Thai politics.

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