BANGKOK — Affording privilege to Buddhism contradicts the principle of equal religious freedom, a UN envoy on freedom of religion said in Bangkok recently.
State promotion of one religion is discriminatory as it suppresses other beliefs, Ahmed Shaheed said in a interview on Aug. 20, following an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
“It is contrary to equal rights for all religions. Because parents have a right to raise their children with any religion, which means you can’t have texts for [only] one religion. For school, it cannot teach them one religion,” Shaheed said about Buddhism being a mandatory subject in all schools.
Recently, the Education Ministry selected 13 committee members to develop only Buddhist teaching in education institutions. This new policy was officially announced on May 16.
Pathompong Bodhiprasiddhinand, director of Nanasamvara Centre for Buddhist Studies, said Thursday that it is important to teach Buddhism at Thailand’s schools and universities.
Pathompong said Buddhism has been part of the cultural heritage since the beginning.
“Without learning Buddhism deeply, how can a Thai touch deep into the heart of his or her own cultural heritage, which Thais have very much been proud of for many centuries?” he said.
He also believes Buddhist teachings are more consistent with empirical modern science than Christianity because they “promote critical or rational thinking and there is no … dogmatic teaching in Buddhism at all.”
He also believes that teaching Buddhism will reduce crime.
Still, the Buddhist education policy doesn’t account for the kingdom’s religious diversity, particularly in the majority Muslim south, which Shaheed expressed concern about. There were about 3 million Muslims in the 2015 census and nearly 800,000 Christians.
Pathompong said that the situation in the Deep South should be treated separately.
The government has been mindful of driving a wedge issue on religion and has resisted calls to legally enshrine Buddhism as the national religion, most recently in 2016.
But state promotion of Buddhism is pervasive. Every January on Children’s Day, young Thais sing a song instructing them to “first have religious faith.”
Shaheed said such promotion is tantamount to propaganda because “people are free to identify what they believe or don’t believe,” adding that religious freedom includes “the freedom not to have belief.”