Nationalism, not Buddhism, is Thailand's true religion

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For the past month, Thai society has been in agreement that it’s only right to push the desperate Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people back out to sea and let fate take care of them.

On Monday, lighted candles and solemn prayers filled temples nationwide as devotees promised to follow the Buddha's path to celebrate Visakha Bucha Day. The world is perplexed. How could a country which prides itself as the hub of Buddhism be so cruel?

Every time Thailand hits world headlines — be it because of forced or child prostitution, slave labor, human trafficking or political violence — the world asks: how could a Buddhist country commit such crimes?

My first reaction is to label the question simplistic. Isn't it too easy to link one's professed faith with their actions? Besides, all religions, not only Buddhism, teach love and compassion. And look how people are killing each other in the name of religion.

It's also a major misunderstanding to think religious people cannot commit violence. The truth is, the more righteous people are, the more likely they are to choose violence as a way to eliminate what they see as sinful. The more religious fervor, the more violence. Examples abound, both here and abroad.

How many Thai Buddhists react to this question is interesting. Here are some reactions:

Why call us inhumane? We're already housing more than 100,000 displaced people fleeing wars from Myanmar. Now it's time for you to show your

humanity by taking in these boat people; Thailand has limited resources.  

We are kind; that's why we provide them with food and water to help them go where they really want to go because Thailand is not their destination. Isn't that enough?

We are kind, but we cannot shoulder the long-term social problems immigrants bring. 

Kindness or the lack of it is not the issue. The boat people influx is not of our making. It's the legacy of Western colonialism's divide-and-rule policy. The West must take responsibility. 

Why help people who can afford to pay human smugglers to make money overseas? 

We are kind, but Muslims are aggressive and have too many kids. They are national security threats who will aggravate problems in the deep South. 

We have compassion, but we cannot help everyone suffering in this world. When we cannot help, we must practice Buddhism by using the principle of ubekkha, or equanimity.

Of these responses, which are mere efforts to legitimize one's cold-heartedness, I find the last one the most exasperating. 

Fear fueled by prejudice often drives people to make cruel choices. Life is full of difficult dilemmas; we all know that. We may not agree with that choice, but we can understand it. But to say that your inhumanity is backed by the Buddha so that you can still feel good about yourself is, for me, hypocrisy and cruelty in the extreme. It's also an outright abuse of the Buddha's teachings.

To the question of why a Buddhist country is full of vices prohibited in Buddhism, may I offer an answer? It's because we are not really Buddhists. Our predominant creed is nationalism. Racist nationalism to be exact, since our "Thainess" is based on the myth of the pure Thai race. That's why it's so easy for many of us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of other ethnicities and races — be they migrant workers, boat people, or Malay Muslims in the restive South.

Another creed we extol is patriarchy and sexism. It's why the sex industry prospers, polygamy is culturally endorsed, violence against is women widespread, and gender prejudice is unquestioned.

Thai Theravada Buddhism, meanwhile, is fully operating under Thai nationalism and patriarchy. That's why the clergy is fiercely against female ordination and remains silent amid the boat people crisis. 

Buddhism may appear to be the dominant faith here, but widespread temple corruption has severely eroded public faith. The monkhood has been reduced to a social ladder for rural lads. Monks operate mainly as postmen, sending merit to our deceased relatives. Tucked in the comfortable cocoon of luxury and privilege, the feudal clergy has lost touch with the modern world and is too weak to provide a moral compass.

There's no need to look up the Buddhist canon to see if we're true to our faith. Look at how we treat those weaker than us; that is the true reflection of our hearts.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Source: (June 4, 2015)

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor at 
Bangkok Post.