Extremism of all kinds is dangerous, but religious extremism has been a most reliable motivator for people to rape, pillage and slaughter in the name of one god or another.
While international headlines are no stranger to such extremism, we are less familiar with it in Thailand.
But perhaps that is threatening to change, according to recent reports by Khaosod English.
Buddhist scholars have warned of a rising Islamophobia, which isn’t only restricted to the predominantly Muslim-Malay Deep South, but also occurring in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. A Buddhist group called the Assembly of Buddhists for National Security has petitioned to deny a request by local Muslims to convert a home into a mosque. They reasoned that this could lead to terrorism (There are currently six mosques in Khon Kaen).
French journalist Arnaud Dubus’s recent book “Buddhism and Politics in Thailand” cited calls by Buddhist extremists to burn down mosques in the Deep South, where soldiers ordain as monks, with an alms bowl in one hand and rifle in the other.
Meanwhile, in the nearly two-decade long war for autonomy in the Deep South, Human Rights Watch has reported Buddhist monks and school teachers assassinated by separatists. While local Muslims are targeted to be beaten, killed or “made to disappear” by the authorities.
Now, there is a call to make Buddhism Thailand’s official national religion.
Buddhism has long been the kingdom’s unofficial national religion, with the tri-colors of the flag representing red as the nation (people), white as the religion (Buddhism) and blue as the king. The tradition of the Thai monarchy is also steeped in Theravada Buddhist traditions. As well, according to the 2015 census, Buddhism counts 94.50 percent of the kingdom’s population, followed by Islam at 4.29 percent and Christianity at 1.17 percent.
Why then, in a country where Buddhism dominates almost completely, would there be a need to call for Buddhist extremism or have it as the official national religion?
Religion is a powerful tool that can unite a people into a cohesive unit with a single purpose, whether to create wonderful achievements that are a credit to humanity, or to commit terrible atrocities. History is riddled with evidence of both.
During times of trouble, when society is torn apart and people are desperate, religion can serve as a rallying cry, giving meaning to life and purpose to fight on. Unfortunately, this often includes raping, pillaging and slaughtering. We see this in war-torn nations in the Middle East and the internal turmoil plaguing Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Atrocities are not the exclusive pastime of any one religion. All have committed them. This is evident enough to underscore the point that religion itself is not evil, but a convenient tool for men seeking to commit evil.
Religion is like a gun: It can kill or save lives. But it can do neither on its own. That prerogative belongs to the finger pulling the trigger. So, fear not the religion, fear the men cloaked in religion.
Thailand is not Syria, nor Myanmar. But we are a nation besieged by conflict and distrust, angers and disappointment. The conditions ripe for radicalization and extremism, whether in the name of religion, nationalism or a cult of personality.
Thailand is no stranger to hyper-nationalism and hardcore cults of personality.
Religion-wise, Buddhist monks have been active on both sides of Thailand’s political conflict since the beginning. They’ve appeared onstage to deliver blessings and incite insurrection at pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, Redshirt rallies.Then there’s the infamous Phra Buddha Isara, who led anti-Shinawatra mobs to assault government facilities.
Religion is a potent force, for if people believe it’s on their side, then goodness must be on their side, and their words and deeds, therefore, blessedly righteous. How could one such do wrong? The raping, pillaging and slaughtering are but necessary evils, acceptable collateral damage. After all, people do this in the name of the Buddha, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Krishna, Jupiter or – my personal favorite – Odin. Even better, Better still, do this, and paradise awaits.
Dangle such incentives in front of the angry and the scorned, and it’s like a lollipop in the face of a fat kid low on sugar.
Making Buddhism the national religion is simply a convenient excuse for the state to claim that its actions – just or not – are done in the name of the Lord Buddha, so how can the state be wrong?
See how Article 112 is used for the model.
Then it’s simply a matter of picking a scapegoat. Religious minority? Ethnic minority? Political opposition? The usual suspects.