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The junta cabinet has approved a bill on religion which can be used to prosecute, with jail terms, people who propagate ‘incorrect’ versions of Buddhist doctrines or cause harm to Buddhism. The bill also posts jail terms specifically for homosexual monks.
In recent decades, although Theravada Buddhism, the prominent Buddhist sect in mainland Southeast Asia, remains the most popular faith in Thailand, followed by about 90 per cent of Thais, the conventional practices and doctrines of Buddhism and the institutions which promote it have lost their ability to attract followers. This religious gap is filled with Buddhist cults which have managed to attract hundreds of thousands of followers, such as the Santi Asoke, a Buddhist sect which promotes simplistic communal lifestyles whose founder was disrobed by Thailand’s Buddhist monastic authorities in 1989, and Dhammakaya, a controversial commercialised version of Buddhism which has attracted billions of baht in donations from its followers. Viewing these developments as threats, prominent Buddhist institutions have come up with the legal mechanisms to control Buddhist practices and regain power.
Since 2006, the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), known in Thai as ‘Mahathera Samakhom’, the governing body of Thai Buddhist clergy, and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the secular office under the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for promoting Buddhism, have unsuccessfully tried to propose a ‘Bill to Patronise and Protect Buddhism’, written by the two organizations. The draft bill was rejected under previous military and civilian governments, who recommended that the contents of the bill should merely be included in monastic rules, but not apply to the general public. However, in August 2014, the junta cabinet, which sees Buddhism as a part of the Thai identity, has approved the bill and is preparing to submit it to the National Legislative Assembly. It is now under consideration of the Council of State.
Pointing to the importance of Buddhism to the nation, the draft bill says “Buddhism is one of the pillars of the Thai nation and is the religion that most Thai people adhere to. Therefore, Buddhists should be united in patronising and protecting Buddhism to make it prosper and enhance Buddhist principles and ethics to develop the quality of one’s life.” In addition to these vague sentiments, however, the bill will allow the SSC and the government to punish anyone deemed to threaten a narrowly defined version of Buddhism promoted by the authorities.
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