A Buddhist monk gives the three-fingered salute during an anti-government demonstration outside the Salaya campus of Mahidol University in Bangkok on Nov. 5. (Photo: AFP)
The Supreme Sangha Council of Thailand has ordered all Buddhist monks to refrain from participating in student-led pro-democracy demonstrations against the government and to stop expressing political opinions in public.
The governing body of Thailand’s Buddhist monks, who number around 300,000 and live in nearly 40,000 temples around the predominantly Buddhist nation, issued the order on Nov. 11, ostensibly with the aim of ensuring that monks stay away from politics.
“The Supreme Sangha Council made resolutions to prohibit monks and novices from involvement in politics, including joining protests and expressing political opinions,” a spokesman for the government’s National Office of Buddhism said.
Monks have not been a visibly large presence in the frequent pro-democracy demonstrations of recent months, which have come to pose a direct challenge to the military-allied government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta head who overthrew an elected government in 2014.
However, young men dressed in saffron robes have been spotted in the crowds at pro-democracy rallies and their images have been shared widely on social media.
The country’s grassroots pro-democracy movement, which is composed mostly of students who stage regular lighthearted flash rallies around Bangkok and elsewhere, seeks to force Prayut from office and wants a rewrite of the country’s military-drafted charter.
Controversially, the protesters also want to have new constitutional limits imposed on the royal family, which has long been portrayed officially as an inviolate pillar of the Thai nation alongside Buddhism as its dominant religion.
Despite the newly issued order, some monks appear to have remained defiant and will continue to openly support the pro-democracy movement.
“I will continue to join the protests to let them know that this [decree] is not right and inconsistent with the voices of most monks,” a 21-year-old was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Buddhist monks have had a noticeable presence in Thailand’s decades-long divide between the conservative establishment and protest movements that seek democratic change in a nation that has seen over a dozen military coups since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.
In 2014, Phra Buddha Issara, a prominent activist monk whose lay name is Suwit Thongprasert, played a significant role in the rowdy and at times violent street protests staged by Thais with deep royalist sympathies against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the country’s first female prime minister who was elected in a landslide victory in 2011.
The protests against Yingluck’s administration culminated in a military coup in May that year. Prayut seized the reins of government, which he continues to retain after parliamentary elections last year that independent observers labeled unfair and only partially free.
Suwit, who is 71, has since been defrocked over charges that he engaged in extortion, the theft of firearms and the forging of a royal emblem on amulets he offered for sale during the protests of 2014.
In 2018, he was arrested at his temple during a dawn raid by police, but he remains free and active in the pro-establishment movement.
In late October, Suwit made headlines when King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida walked up to him and addressed him briefly as he was in a crowd of royalists gathered at Bangkok’s Royal Palace to show support for the monarchy in the face of calls for sweeping reform of the institution from pro-democracy protesters.
The gesture was interpreted as a sign of encouragement to Thai Buddhists to rally to the side of the royalist establishment in Thailand’s deepening political divide.