Church and State in Thailand

Yoneo Ishii Asian Survey, Vol. 8, No. 10,
Japanese Scholarship on Southeast Asia: Selected Studies (Oct., 1968), pp. 864-871

The state religion of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced from Ceylon and is distinguished from the Mahayana Buddhism of Japan, China, Tibet, Korea and Vietnam. Statistics show that 93.4% of the Thai are Buddhists. While anthropological surveys conducted in Thai farming villages during the past twenty years have consistently pointed to the central role the Buddhist temple plays as the pillar of Thai village life, too little research has so far been done on Buddhist institutions on the national level. It is hoped that this gap will be partially filled by the following discussion of the more important features in the history of the relationship between the Buddhist order and the state.

One of the characteristics of Theravada Buddhism is its dual structure of monks and laymen, each with distinct roles and functions. The monks, sometimes called banphachit, [1] are divided into two groups-the phikkhu, who observe the 227 precepts known as paatimook, and the saamaneen, or neen, who are in a preparatory stage to phikkhu and hold to only 10 precepts. The banphachit's order is called khanasong. The term banphachit, deriving from pabbajita in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada Buddhism, is a derivative of the verb pabbajati, meaning “to leave home and wander about as mendicant or to give up the world.” To know the etymology of this word is useful in order to understand the economically unproductive nature of the khanasong. The khanasong is a dependent group, which, giving up its own economic activities, cannot exist unless support is given by someone else.

In this respect it should be noted that a layman is called kharawaat or khruhat, meaning “householder”. “House” here symbolizes the earthly world as place of economic or pecuniary activities. The existence of khanasong, consisting of the banphachit, who practice austerities in order to attain enlightenment in an environment isolated from the earthly world, is only possible with the suport of the kharawaat. Those who tour Thailand will find yellow-robed monks quietly walking along the streets carrying their alms bowls early in the morning and being offered food by pious citizens. The observant tourist may think it strange that the monks show no gesture of gratitude for this food. But from the Thai point of view, it is rather the monks who are to be thanked


for accepting food, since the laymen “make merit” by offering food. Indeed, the khanasong is “a field of merit unsurpassed for the world-worthy of reverence, worthy of offerings, worthy of salutations with clasped hands.” [2]

Nowadays, offering food to the begging monks is becoming a mere symbolic function. This is especially noticeable in Bangkok, where the monks no longer collect a day's food by their early morning begging alone. Although the Thai people's voluntary of support - represented by the offering food to the monks - has brought about the present prosperity of Buddhism in Thailand, we cannot overlook the fact that the state's assistance, both material and moral, is contributing to the prosperity of Buddhism and the Buddhist order.

It is said that the two pillars that support the traditional Thai values are monarchy and Buddhism. Indeed, “the Buddhist way of life is an integral part of Thai national life.” [3] “Being a Thai” and “being a Buddhist” are almost synonymous. The Thai newspapers give major treatment to such news items as a Buddhist temple being built in a remote village of non-Buddhistic hill-peoples in northern Thailand, or to their youths being ordained in to the Buddhist monkhood. In such case, “Thai-ization” is pushed by conversion to Buddhism. It is understandable, therefore, that the role Buddhism has played in the unification of the Thai people is attracting the serious attention of the Thai leaders and officials.

Aside from the notorious violence the insane King Taksin (1767-1782) inflicted on rebellious monks, Thailand's monarchs have exercised peaceful control over the Buddhist order. The “purification” of the Buddhist order, which the first king of the reigning dynasty carried out, is seen in royal decrees found in the famous Law of Three Seals of 1805. The fact that a collation of the Tripitaka, Buddhism's basic scripture, was carried out by order of the same monarch should be interpreted in this context. Under the modernization of Thailand launched by King Mongkut (1851-1868) and almost completed during the eventful, 43-year reign of his son, Chulalongkon the Great, the successful modernization of the bureaucracy began in 1892 and has changed Thailand from a loosely ruled kingdom into a centralized modern state. It was not,therefore, by mere chance that the Buddhist Order Administration Act was enacted in 1902. Thailand's administrative organization was so developed by that time as to place the Buddhist Order under its control. This is clearly stated in the preamble of the Act:

Whereas the amendment of the law and the reformation of the administrative system of the State have brought about manifold developments and outstanding progress to the country, it is obvious that the religious affairs of the Buddhist Church are also of no less importance to the development and prosperity both of Buddhism and of the country


in that, systematically administered, they will serve to attract more people to the study and practice of Buddhism under the guidance of Bhikkhus [phikkhu], thereby leading them to the right mode of living in accordance with the Buddha's instruction. [4]

It is important to recognize that Article 15 of the Act stipulates:

“Every phikklu and saamaneen must be enlisted in a monastery.”

Because of this stipulation each monk is obliged to belong to a particular monastery and is no longer permitted to live as an independent religionist. The foundation was thus laid for a system in which the state placed the monks under its control.

The adoption of a system to give the monks an official status by state examinations helped to strengthen state control of the monks.This system, which aimed at deepening the monks' knowledge of Buddhism, enforced a sort of orthodoxy by banning free interpretations of the Buddhist doctrines which are liable to bring about schism within the Buddhist order. Thus, the Thai monks' understanding of Buddhism became stereotyped, and the monks' subjugation to the state was strengthened. King Wachirawut (1910-1925), a son of Chulalongkon the Great, made use of Buddhism as an instrument to enhance the spirit of nationalism. Wachirawut, who himself translated Shakespeare's plays into Thai and demonstrated his ability as a connoisseur of Western culture, was known as one of the first strong advocates of Thai nationalism. He adopted a Buddhist calendar and introduced the Buddhist prayers to be observed in various institutions such as governmental schools, the police, the army, and even the insane asylums. [5] These are interpreted as measures for checking the invasion of Western culture at the expense of traditional Thai culture.

As the result of the bloodless coup d'etat of June 1932 by the young military officers and civilian officials who had studied in France, Thailand's absolute monarchy collapsed and a new government was established on the principles of constitutional monarchy. Although this incident was significant in initiating a new period of democratic rule in Thai history, it did not bring about, despite its apparent progressiveness, the denial of the traditional value system which had long underlain Thai society. Buddhist values remained unchallenged throughout the revolution. However, the upheaval of monarchical government brought the Buddhist Church into a new political arena to which it had to adapt itself.

In the beginning the constitutionalist leaders showed little interest in Buddhism. They thought that Buddhism was only worthy of support as long as it constituted an adhesive force for achieving national unification. The apathetic attitude of the People's Assembly, when it was convoked in August 1934, on the proposal to construct 122 new temples may be inter preted as reflecting the above-mentioned stance of the government. [6]


On the other hand, the Buddhist order adapted itself at a remarkable speed to the policy of the new government, whose power became unchallengeable. In February 1935 a mission representing 2,000 monks of twelve provinces asked Premier Phrayaa Phahon “to bring government control of the Buddhist Church into line with the democratic regime.” [7] The Buddhist Order Act, which was legislated by Premier Phibunin 1941, was an experiment to introduce the Buddhist order to the principles of democracy, e.g., the idea of the separation of administration, legislature and judicature. The main features of the 1941 Act are as follows: [8]

  1. The head of khanasong is called somdet phra sangkharaat, or Supreme Patriarch, a life-long post to be appointed by the king. Created under this post were sangkhasaphaa or the Ecclesiastical Assembly; khana sangkha montrii or the Ecclesiastical Cabinet; and khana winaithon or Ecclesiastical Courts, corresponding to the legislature, the administration and the judiciary,respectively.

  2. The Ecclesiastical Assembly was composed of 45 life-term members to be appointed by the Supreme Patriarch after consideration of seniority and other factors of eligibility.

  3. The Ecclesiastical Cabinet comprised the sangkha naayok, corresponding to the Premier, and the sangkha montrii, or Ecclesiastical Ministers, all to be appointed by the Supreme Patriarch from among the members of the sangkha saphaa. The Ecclesiastical Cabinet consisted of four departments called ongkaan pokkhroong (administration), ongkaan sitksaa (education), ongkaan phoeiphae (propagation) and ongkaan saatha aranupakaan (public works).

  4. As for local ecclesiastical administration, the whole country was divided, parallel to civil administration, into nine phaak or regions and 71 changwat or provinces. Each province was further dividedinto amphoe or districts, these consisting of tambon or villages, each of which was comprised of muu baan or hamlets, the minimum administrative unit. Each region, province or district was controlled by an ecclesiastical committee headed by a chaos khana, or chairman, while a tambon with a minimum of five monasteries had a chaos khlana who supervised the monasteries in its territory. The abbot was called chao aawaat.

  5. The Ecclesiastical Courts consisted of khana winai thonchan diikaa, khana winai thonchan utthon and khana winai thonchan ton, corresponding to the supreme court, the courts of appeal and the courts of first instance, respectively.

The structure of the Buddhist Church based on the Buddhist Order Act of 1941 is shown below.



The democratic administrative organization introduced into the Buddhist Church seemed to work smoothly in its early stages. But crises arose due to the protracted disputes between the two nikaai or sects, even though they belonged to the same ecclesiastical order, Khana Song Thai (the Thai Buddhist order). The Mahaanikaai was the majority, controlling 92% of the temples in the country. But the minority, Thammayutikanikaai, controlled half the seats of the ecclesiastical executive councils, primarily because of its close association with the royal family and because of its reputation for disciplinary strictness. The perennial confrontation between the two factions was aggravated particularly by the Supreme Patriarch's death in 1958 and the necessity to appoint his successor. This almost developed into a secular issue through the circulation of irresponsible documents. The Buddhist Church's administrative setup was not so constituted as to invite strong leadership to cope with the situation, and the tensions continued. Marshal Sarit's successful coup detat of September 16, 1957, was more significant than any prior coups in that it resultedin the revival of despotic rule which had not existed in the preceding 25 years. Since the constitutional revolution in 1932, no government, even if it attained to power by coup,


openly aimed at absolutism. The Sarit government, which refused even lip service to democracy, was often branded as reactionary and anachronistic.

Marshal Sarit's greatest concern was national development (kaan phatthana apratheet). It seemed that Sarit entertained doubts about democracy as an effective means to achieve national development.

Sarit thought that the end would justify the means. Thanks to the prime minister's office, which was expanding at a rapid pace, his power became unprecedentedly strong with the coming into effect of the Provisional Constitution. Article 17 of the Constitution authorized the Prime Minister's prerogatives, and he carried out a variety of drastic policies for national development. Sarit thought that national integration to realize must be strengthened national development.

To attain this goal he planned to start with fostering the people's sentiment for national integration through the enhancement of traditional values as represented by the monarchy and Buddhism. Under the Sarit administration the King frequently visited friendly foreign countries in an effort to enhance the international prestige of Thailand. At the same time, this helped promote the people's respect for and trust in the King, contributing greatly to cementing national solidarity. Traditional ceremonies such as Raek Naa (First Ploughing) were revived for the same purpose.

For Sarit, who was trying to make the most of traditional Thai values to realize his political goal, the internal discord of the Buddhist Church and the Church's inability to rectify the situation seemed intolerable. On October28, 1960, Sarit issued a high-handed statement that the government was ready to intervene in the affairs of the Buddhist Church at its request to settle the dispute. [9] Finally, he decided to reform the ecclesiastical organization and establish a strong leadership in the Church. The role of the Buddhist Order Act of 1962, enacted at the end of 1962, can be fully understood only when viewed in this context. This law [10] consisted of 46 articles, including a few new regulations. Its most important characteristics were the outright denial of the idea of democracy, which had been the spirit of the previous law, and the creation of a centralized system under a Supreme Patriarch with strong authority. The reason for the enactment of the law is described in this note attached to the law:

The reason for enactment of this Act is that the administration of the Buddhist Church is not a matter to be based upon the principle of separation of powers for the sake of balance among them as is the case under the current law. Such a system is an obstacle to effective administration. It is therefore appropriate to amend the existing law so that the Supreme Patriarch, head of the ecclesiastical community, can command the order through the Council of Elders in accordance with both the civil law and the Buddhist disciplines, thereby promoting the progress and prosperity ofBuddhism. [11]


For comparison with the 1941 Act, here is a simplified chart of organization under the 1962 Act:


The Supreme Patriarch was given the authority to issue supreme patriarchical commands. The Ecclesiastical Assembly was abolished, and in its stead the maha atheerasam makhom or Council of Elders, with the Supreme Patriarch as presidentex-officio, was created as the Church's sole executive body. All members of the Council of Elders, including the high-ranking ex-officio members with the somdet grade, assumed their posts as assigned by the Supreme Patriarch. As for formal relations between the state and the Church, suffice it to say that the Director-General of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education became the Council of Elders' ex-officio Secretary-General. The local ecclesiastical administration


was placed under the control of the Supreme Patriarch. It should be pointed out here that regulations on monks' forcible return to secular life was inserted in the 1962 Act, enabling the Church to disrobe monks disobedient to the Church's control. The power of local abbots over the monks was also strengthened.

Thailand's Buddhist Church is an organization of monks who do not and engage in economic activities. Accordingly, it cannot be independent and its existence is made possible only by continuous donations and material assistance from outside. Although voluntary contributions to the Church on the part of laymen play an important role, the current prosperity of the Thai Buddhist Church no doubt depends largely on the material and moral support of the state.

The two pillars which support Thailand's traditional values are the monarchical system and Buddhism, especially the latter. The influence of Buddhism has often been employed by Thailand's political leaders to help strengthen national unity. For example, by enhancing traditional values Premier Sarit tried to achieve national integration and consolidate the foundation of national development. He was greatly concerned with the Buddhistic institutions, especially the Buddhist Church, as a means of national integration. He drastically reformed the organization of the Church, which had been weakened by sectarian conflict within the self-governing framework introduced by Phibun, and which had become unable to play its role as the upholder of traditional Thai values. Sarit scrapped the demoratic administrative setup and established a simple but powerful organization under the Supreme Patriarch. The Buddhist Order Act of 1962, the legal expression of Sarit's policy toward the Buddhist Church, turned a newleaf in the history of the relations between the Buddhist Church and the state.

YONEO ISHII is Professor of Thai History and Linguistics at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.


[1]The ordination of Buddhist monk is called banphachaa of “giving up the world.” Cf. Mahaamakut Raatchawitthayaalai, Upasombotwithii (Ordination Procedure) (16th ed.; Bangkok,1956), pp. 1 if. 864
[2]Sangyutta Nikaya,XL, 10.
[3]Government of Thailand, Thailand Official Year Book 1964 (Bangkok, 1965), p. 502.
[4]The Mahamakuta Educational Council, Acts on the Administration of the Buddhist Order of Sangkha (Bangkok, 1963), n.p.
[5]Virginia Thompson, Thailand, The New Siam (NewYork: Macmillan, 1941),p. 639.
[7]Ibid., p. 642.
[8]The Mahamakuta Educational Council, op.cit., pp. 23-29.
[9]Khana Ratthamontrii, Pramuan Sunthooraphotkhoong Choomphon Sarit Thanarat (A Collection of speeches by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat)(Bangkok,1964),pp. 260-261.
[10]The Mahamakuta Educational Council,op. cit.,pp.42-58.
[11]The writer's translation is based on the Thai text in phra raatcha Banyat Khana Song Pho. So. 2505. (Bangkok: Nitiweet,1965), pp. 11, n.