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.
Following the death of the previous patriarch in 2013, the position remained unfilled until February 2017, as controversy swirled over his potential replacement. The top ecclesiastical body, the Sangha Council, had nominated the most senior monk, Somdet Chuang — as per tradition — in January 2016, yet the leader of the ruling junta, Prayuth Chan-o-cha blocked the nomination. Alongside existing concerns over Somdet Chuang’s lavish lifestyle and tax evasion, Prayuth resisted his nomination due to his links to the controversial Dhammakaya sect.
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 leaders have equated worldly success with holiness. Specifically, the sect preaches that monetary donations to the group confer blessings and holiness to donors, and in recent years 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 Chuang’s efforts to shield the Dhammakaya leader from investigation is in it itself not a direct threat to the military regime; however, what is are 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; who was also ousted, in 2006. With Thaksin in exile, the military has been working hard to eradicate the Shinawatra clan’s influence once and for all, including efforts to force US$985 million in compensation from Yingluck personally for her government’s policies. On January 26th, Yingluck, who faces court proceedings for dereliction of duty in a rice price subsidy scheme, stated that this would leave her unable to pay the fine in her lifetime and her family destitute.
The Dhammakaya sect has 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 used the threat 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 is believed to have ties to top generals and helped organize the chaotic street protests against Yingluck in 2014.
New royal powers
Since the military fears the potential ascension of a Dhammakaya adherent, or even a supporter such as Somdet Chuang, 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 recently led them to remove the council from the selection process altogether, instead giving the king the power of nomination. The amendment actually returns powers to the king, yet is nevertheless a major development. The amendment was passed in under an hour in the appointed assembly by 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 Chuang’s appointment would have also been an upset since he belongs to the Mahanikai denomination.
Under the new system implemented in February, King Rama X unilaterally appointed Somdej Phra Maha Muniwang as the 20th patriarch, breaking with the tradition of appointing the most senior monk to the position. While the new patriarch, at 89, is no novice, he is only the third most senior monk: the new rules theoretically allow any monk to be appointed to the position.
This is a power play by the military, as Prayuth sent the king five nominees for him to choose from. This allows the military to filter out potential critics and Thaksin supporters behind the veil of the king’s powers.
One step forward, two steps back
This arrangement appears to leave the military in a dominant position. However, the junta is unlikely to have it all its own way. While the new arrangement prevents any Dhammakaya candidates making it onto the shortlist, it does let the monarch pick someone who best serves royal interests. Somdej is the abbot of Wat Ratchabopht, a temple closely associated with the royal family.
Given the advanced age of the appointees, the issue of succession is likely to come up again in the coming years. This gripping saga is far from over.