12/30/2016, 15.26
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Assembly’s surprise move gives the king the power to appoint supreme patriarch of Buddhism

An amendment to the 1992 Sangha Act is approved, weakening Buddhist council proposal. For two years, Thailand has failed to name a new supreme patriarch.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In a surprise move, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved an amendment to the 1992 Sangha Act, which regulates the appointment of the supreme patriarch of Thai Buddhism.

In three straight readings that took less than an hour, NLA members yesterday voted to restore the ancient tradition that grants the king the right to appoint the religious leader.

The figure of the supreme patriarch (phra sangkharat, or Sangha king in Thai) was created in 1872 by Rama I, the first king of the ruling dynasty.

As the head of Thailand’s Buddhism, the supreme patriarch promotes religion and leads the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC), whose official task is to supervise the country’s Buddhist monks (about 200,000) and novices (about 70,000), ensuring that they observe the Buddha’s teachings, i.e. the prescribed rituals, and do not violate the rules established by the Council.

Proposed on Tuesday (27 December), the amendment was approved yesterday by 182 votes in favour and six abstentions.

Under the new law, the king can now appoint the new supreme patriarch, whilst the prime minister countersign the decision. Previously, the prime minister nominated the Buddhist leader "with the SSC’s consent" and the monarch appointed him.

According to the old law, the patriarch was the senior monk with the title Somdet Phra Rajagana. With this change masterminded by the current government, Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, nominated by the SSC last January as the official candidate, is not likely to get the post. Under the new law, seven other senior monks will be in the running.

Phra Methithammajarn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, cried foul Thursday over the quick passage of the amendment, saying the move was unusual.

He said that the NLA's meeting was supposed to brief the government's representative, not vote. "Our group will discuss the next move but we have to tread carefully. The situation is volatile," he said.

But NLA member Somchai Sawaengkarn said the amendment is not intended to block Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn as critics claim. Instead, it will eliminate the seniority rule.

Some Buddhist scholars welcome the new law, as a way to break the impasse over the nomination of 20th supreme patriarch after the death of Somdet Phra Yannasangwon two years ago.

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