Thai Gov’t to Legislate State-controlled Buddhism, Targets Gay-Trans Monks

[Editor; Wow, this is bad.]

Thailand’s military government, which seized control of the country in a coup last May, has taken a special interest in Thai Buddhism and the moral authority its institutions command. After settling into power and naming itself the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta immediately set off on a paternalistic mission to rid Thailand of corruption, immorality, and anything deemed “un-Thai” (like underboobs, for example). Since Buddhism makes up such an integral part of the agreed upon definition of “Thai-ness,” junta leaders quickly set their sights on religious reform, installing a special panel to focus on the “protection of Buddhism” within their National Reform Council (NRC).

“We are under a military autocracy (again), which attempts to utilize and enforce ‘Thai’ values in order to bolster its moral superiority and compensate for its lack of legitimacy,” said Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political blogger and journalist. “And one core feature of these ‘true Thai values’ to many conservatives and nationalists is Theravada Buddhism—despite it not being an official national religion.”

At the end of last year, the junta sponsored the Bill to Patronize and Protect Buddhism, a reflection of its desire to return to a very traditional form of Thai society—one in which free speech is limited, sexuality is quelled, and Theravada Buddhism in its most traditional form (and only that form) is protected by law. The bill would appoint a committee to monitor temple spending and dole out legal punishments, including jail time, for monks caught breaking the rules of the monastery. Jointly written by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), a small gerontocracy of high-ranking monks with deep ties to the government, and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), the bill is currently under consideration by the Thai Council of State, the government’s legal advisory board.

“Religion and politics have never been properly separated in Thailand, because Buddhism still plays a big role in the lives of most Thai people and that’s what they base their moral compass on,” noted Saiyasombut, who added that handing over moral authority to big stakeholders like Thai politicians and military leaders could be “disastrous.”

Venerable Shine Waradhammo, a Thai Buddhist monk, scholar, and writer, agreed. “It’s dangerous,” he told me. “This bill gives laymen the power to control everything about Buddhism.”

One article of the current draft of the bill proposes jail terms for “sexually deviant” monks, as well as those who ordain them, if they cause “harm and disgrace” to Buddhism. Ostensibly an attempt to weed out sexual abusers and pedophiles from the monasteries, the article tacitly authorizes discrimination against Thailand’s many gay and transgender monks. Its vague terms blur the line between crimes against Buddhism and crimes against humanity, leaving nonconforming monks vulnerable to punishment simply for acting feminine or seeming homosexual.

Until now, Thai Buddhism has generally mirrored Thai culture in its relatively tolerant “live and let live” mindset regarding LGBT individuals. Many high-level monks within the sangha system are said to be gay, and a popular Thai talk show that last year interviewed two homosexual monks who formerly identified as “ladyboys” espoused a mostly positive message of acceptance. Though there are certainly exceptions, the general consensus has been that as long as monks operate within the rules of the monastery and uphold the precepts, including celibacy, it shouldn’t matter what their sexual proclivities were prior to ordination.


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