Political significance of Buddhism and the constitutional and legal status of the Buddhist sangha in Thailand

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Author: Vladislav Tolstykh

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2023-4-122-146

Keywords: comparative law; constitutionalism; Southeast Asia; Buddhism; Theravada; sangha; monastic law; religious organizations


The article discusses the features of Thai Buddhism, specifics of the religious legitimation of political power in Thailand, the history of relations between the Thai state and the Buddhist sangha, the constitutional and legal status of the latter, legal mechanisms for resolving conflicts that arise between the sangha and the state, the dynamics of development of Thai constitutionalism, and the reform of the sangha initiated by the military government after the 2014 coup. As a result of the systematic efforts of the monarchs of the Chakri dynasty and their entourage, the Thai sangha was placed under the direct control of the crown and its hierarchy was in fact fused with the state. There were several attempts of resistance in the 20th century but they all failed. The subordinate position of the sangha is designed to legitimize the monarchy and at the same time to eliminate potential threats from the sangha itself. Moreover, by consolidating elites, it helps to overcome external challenges (e.g., the threat of colonization that Thailand faced in the second half of the 19th century). In fact, there is a symbiosis between two types of legitimization – a traditional one and a charismatic one, where the latter is subordinated to the former. As a result, the sangha plays the role of a passive (disenfranchised) ally of the monarchy, Buddhist values have no serious influence on political processes, and Western economic models are quite organically integrated into Thai society. At present, however, this symbiosis poses a number of problems. First, it hinders the development of the sangha and Buddhist doctrine, which have difficulties in confronting alternative movements. Secondly, it undermines the authority of the monarchy itself, which is associated with archaic methods of governance and a corrupt and backward sangha hierarchy. Thirdly, it creates an alienation between the sangha and a large part of society, which perceives the sangha as an institution of the state rather than an independent force. Like other countries of the Theravada tradition, Thailand is the scene of a struggle between a conservative ideology, which assumes the rule of “good people”, and a democratic ideology, borrowed from the West. Both ideologies resonate in Thai society but have been discredited by elites pursuing their own selfish interests. Neither constitutional law nor political Buddhism has been able to offer a sustainable model of political power that takes into account both paradigms. The tensions inherent in Thai domestic politics are therefore likely to persist, at least in the short term.

About the author: Vladislav Tolstykh – Doctor of Sciences in Law, Professor, Department of International Law, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; Chief Researcher, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Tolstykh V. (2023) Politicheskoe znachenie buddizma i konstitutsionno-pravovoy status buddistskoy sangkhi v Tailande [Political significance of Buddhism and the constitutional and legal status of the Buddhist sangha in Thailand]. Sravnitel’noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 122–146. (In Russian).


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