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Buddhist Ethics and Thailand’s Politics
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Thailand is a nation that has failed in its attempt to institute institutions of democracy. The main reason is the fact that all of Thailand’s post monarch history is scarred with various scenarios of coups d’e´tat against the previous military regime. The occurrence of coups d’e´tat is a really common event that Thai elite have come to accept it as the general order of life. Since 1932 when the monarchy was overthrown as a result of the people’s revolution, there have been a total of 19 coups in Thailand, 14 of which occurred after the Second World War. Questions have been asked regarding where this spirit originates from. Some scholars have suggested that religion and particularly the majority Buddhism has a great role to play it. In this paper, I shall be looking at the intricacies of this issue and come up with a possible solution to the question; is Buddhism to blame? To begin with, the history of the politics and coups of Thailand is important to understand. The first coup d’e´tat occurred in 1932 and was a peaceful one which was conducted by the elite who were dissatisfied about the ruling principles of the monarchy then. However, in their search for democracy, the military remained loyal to the monarchy and has time and again overthrown the democratic government only to reinstate the monarchy. Even during the Japanese occupation of Thailand during the Second World War, the monarch was kept safe and shortly after the war, the elected Prime Minister was overthrown by the military to be replaced by the monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This extreme frequency of military overthrowing has led Thailand to be given its own special class above a coup state as its extreme rate and frequency of coups is beyond that of ordinary coup states such as Fiji (Harvey, 2000). In the past decade, it has been the general consensus that Thailand has slowly been solidifying its state as a democratic state mainly through its consistent elections. However, it was still a surprise t many people when the eighteenth coup finally occurred. In view of this, Suchit notes as recorded in the book ‘Why democracy struggles’ by Nicholas Farrelly:
The coup, which ended a decade- long parliamentary democracy, came as a surprise to most politicians, political observers and academicians… The growing strength of parliamentary democracy in the past decade had convinced a number of people that Thai politics had reached a level of sophistication that made a coup a thing of the past. (Suchit 1992, 131).
The 19th coup occurred in 2006 with the ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. By then, people had already taking to the streets expressing their displeasure with him. It was not long before rumors of a coup sufficed and later on a bloodless coup later took on in Thailand to oust the Prime Minister. Basically, every coup in every part of the world has its causes that explain its origins and need. For many of these, the causes can be said to be justified and to be beneficial to the citizens while for others, they are the result of power hungry military officials. However, the Thailand situation is unique based on the frequency of the modern coups. In total, there have been 19 successful coups in the last 82 years in the history of Thailand (In Emmanuel, 2013). The reason for this tolerance of many coups is baffling but scholars are now suggesting that it may be due to the values embedded deep within the people. One major source of values that people believe in anywhere in the world is the religion the people practice. In Thailand, Buddhism is the major religion and perhaps it could be possible that the values of the religion are playing a role in the recurrence of these coups d’etat. According to Alex de Tocqueville, he argued that democracy and Christianity in America are closely connected. Could this be a similar scenario playing out in Thailand with Buddhism playing a crucial role in Thai politics? To understand the possibility of this being the reality, we must first of all understand the concept of Buddhist ethics and their role in the life of a Buddhist. Buddhist ethics are principles that assist one to live a life that leads to causing help rather than harm to other beings. In view of this, Buddhism has a core ethical code that is known as the five precepts. Buddhism understands that life is a complex process and to achieve absolute perfection s difficult as we are bound to slip up at some point. With this in mind, the precepts should not be regarded as commandments rather they should be taken to be guidelines on training in proper living. I will quote from Keown Daimen’s book, ‘Buddhist Ethics, A Very Short Introduction” on the 5 precepts.
This is the most widely known list of precepts in Buddhism, comparable in influence to the Ten Commandments of Christianity. The Five Precepts are undertaken as voluntary commitments in the ceremony of ‘going for refuge’ when a person becomes a Buddhist.
The 5 precepts are as follows: 1. Undertake the precept to refrain from harming living creatures. 2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking what has not been given. 3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual immorality. 4. I undertake the precept to refrain from speaking falsely. 5. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking intoxicants.
With this already clarified, we shall first look at why it is possible Buddhism has been the root cause to these coups based on the 5 precepts. Many religions around the world believe that authority is given by the Supreme Being and this is synonymic also with Buddhism. As a result, it is natural to assume that the Thai believed the monarchy had been installed by God and that also explains why the monarchy was never completely abolished with the coming of the revolution. The monarchy was only stripped off some of its power which was handed over to elected leaders while the monarchy still had an influence in the ruling of the country. The military however, had sworn their allegiance to the monarch as their true leader and this possibly explains why there have been several coups when constitutional leaders gained excessive power that they could use to completely oust the monarchy (Jackson, 1989). The people have also been seen to turn to the monarchy whenever they have had enough of the excesses of the elected constitutional leaders. This shows that the Buddhists accept their rightful ruler regardless of the circumstances and those who attempt to take over their positions are have an improbable possibility of staying within power. However, inasmuch as people are looking to cite Buddhism as a probable cause, it is just as improbable a cause as its possibility of being one. Taking into consideration the 4th precept, it is unlikely that anyone devout Buddhist would dare speak falsely against the authority in order to gain power for their self (Jackson, 1989). Also, in accordance with the 1st precept, the probability of one coveting power that was not granted to them in the first place by the Supreme Being is minimal. The Buddhists also do not cause harm to living beings as stated by the 1st precept. Most military coups and revolutions all over the world are scenes of major bloodshed as both sides of the conflict attempt to seize power for their self. Even though Thailand has experienced some bloodless coups, probably due to the compliance of the other parties, it is unlikely that a Buddhist nation should recklessly involve itself in unnecessary bloodshed. In conclusion, religion has been here with us for millennia as a tool to provide guidance to our endeavors here in our lifetime. Consequently, many events are justified based on religious events irrespective of whether they are good or bad. In my opinion, I find it unfair that Buddhism should take the blame for what a few greedy people desire which is power. There are many other Buddhist majority nations in the world that have not had an experience of a military coup and as such it is fair to exonerate the religion from the blame that has befallen it. I would therefore urge scholars to look into other possible and even more likely causes for the undemocratic state Thailand has always been.

References
Harvey, P. (2000). An introduction to Buddhist ethics: Foundations, values and issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
In Emmanuel, S. M. (2013). A companion to Buddhist philosophy.
Jackson, P. A. (1989). Buddhism, legitimating, and conflict: the political functions of urban Thai Buddhism. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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