11/04/2015, 00.00
THAILAND

Bangkok: monks leading a Buddhist extremist movement for a confessional state

Inspired by fundamentalist groups in neighbouring Myanmar, Thai Buddhists want to incorporate Buddhism as state religion in Thailand’s new constitution. Ethnocentrism and fears of Muslim encroachment are behind the demand. Since 2004, sectarian clashes in the south of the country have claimed 6,500 lives.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A campaign by Thai Buddhist monks to have the country’s ruling military junta include Buddhism as the kingdom’s state religion has been boosted by Buddhist extremism in neighbouring Myanmar.

Thailand and Myanmar are both overwhelmingly Buddhist. Religious violence and hatred have increased in the latter in the past few years.

Taking advantage of anti-Islamic sentiments, the Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha Buddhist movement has promoted sectarian laws in order to segregate and persecute the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, which it views as a threat. Since 2012, sectarian violence has caused the death of 300 people and the displacement of an additional 140,000.

"What happened in Myanmar confirms our suspicions that Buddhism is threatened by various subtle means," said Thai campaigner Banjob Bannaruji, who chairs the Committee to Promote Buddhism as the State Religion.

Thai Buddhists, he added, have tried for decades to get religious laws like those in Myanmar, but without success.

Since a military junta took over in 2014, Thailand has been waiting for a new constitution, which must be approved by a referendum.

In September, the  National Reform Council rejected (as undemocratic) a first draft, requiring a rewrite that could delay elections to 2016.

A previous attempt to include Buddhism as the state religion in the 2007 constitution, written after an earlier military coup, went nowhere.

However, campaigners stand a better chance this time round, said Ekachai Chainuvati, a constitutional law expert at Siam University in Bangkok.

Adopting Buddhism as a state religion could give the constitution greater popular appeal and improve its chances of passing a referendum, he said.

Amorn Wanichwiwatana, spokesman for the Constitution Drafting Committee, said he could not comment on the likelihood of the idea being adopted. "But we have to listen to every suggestion," he added.

Thailand has about 350,000 monks. Many Buddhists fear the rise of Muslims. The latter are the majority in four southern provinces, where violence has caused the death of 6,500 people since 2004.

For every monk killed "a mosque should be burned, starting from the northern part of Thailand southwards", wrote Aphichat Promjan, a monk in Wat Benjamabophit (a famous Bangkok temple) on Facebook on 29 October.

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