The Wheel of Karma
The IHT reports that Thailand is considering making Buddhism the state religion in a move fraught with implication for the largely Muslim southern provinces. The pressure on the Thai government is coming, at least in part, from the grassroots:
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. ...
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.
Not so long ago religion was a litmus test for national loyalty in Europe. Ironically, the drive to establish Buddhism as Thailand's religion is also driven by a desire to assert a national identity.
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."
It is amazing how little the present world resembles that imagined by those who argued that multilaterism and multiculturalism would rule the 21st century. That the world would eventually resemble a larger version of that harbinger of the future, the European Union. Just twenty years ago it seemed that boundaries and nationalities would disappear. But after September 11 the Department of Homeland Security's first priority was to toughen airport controls. Some may have hoped at first, that these measures were only temporary. Unfortunately the initial restrictions were only the first of many subsequent developments. Concern over immigration became on the key drivers of the recent French elections. One of the hottest domestic political issues in the United States today concerns the construction of barrier fence on the land borders. If Edward Grey were alive today, he might have a different version of his sad prediction on the eve of the Great War. 'The doors are closing all over the world. We shall not see them opened again in our lifetime.' Efforts to establish a state religion in Thailand, whatever its legal force, are one more reminder that we may not be at the End of History so much as the prelude to a Clash of Civilizations. The problem is whether we can still avoid the danger without acknowledging its imminence. The sooner we waken, the sooner we can salvage some chance of heading off a smash.