Thailand: Culture War - Economics And Critiques Of 'Prosperity Religions'


Dr Peter A. Jackson

Since late 1998 one of the hottest news stories in Thailand has been a controversy surrounding claims that the popular Dhammakaya Buddhist movement, based just north of Bangkok, is engaged in massive financial fraud and promoted unorthodox, even heretical, religious teachings. The proceedings of a swathe of inquiries into the monastery's affairs, including investigations by the police, national security bodies, the Thai parliament and the administration of the Buddhist monkhood, have been reported daily by the press and media. The Dhammakaya controversy represents much more than a religious debate. The concerns reflect fundamental disagreements about how to respond to the economic crisis and plan the country's future social and economic directions.

Thailand's decade-long boom and spectacular economic collapse after July 1997 impacted on all aspects of social and cultural life. Thai Buddhism, long considered a pillar of national identity and social cohesion, was not immune to the market-driven turmoil. During the boom a range of movements that linked ancient religious symbols to economic success became immensely popular. These "prosperity religions" included the worship of the spirit of King Chulalongkorn, fifth king of the ruling Chakri dynasty, and movements centred on Buddhist monks believed to possess magical powers to bless commercial undertakings. Dhammakaya is one of these Thai prosperity religions, adopting a direct marketing approach based on the Amway model to promote its teachings among Bangkok's middle classes. The monastery's abbot states that his aggressive approach to promoting religion arose from frustration over "the poor marketing of the world's greatest product," namely Buddhism.

Despite the mass popularity of Dhammakaya, sections of the Thai intelligentsia have denounced it as "commercialised Buddhism", calling it a perversion of spirituality that diverts followers from the Buddhist ideal of a moral life aiming for nirvana, or salvation from suffering. Academics, journalists and members of the ruling Democrat Party have linked "commercialised Buddhism" with the excesses of the boom years that must be rooted out for Thailand to emerge from its current crisis. Sutichai Yoon, editor of the influential "The Nation" newspaper, speaks for many educated Thais when he says that during the boom Thailand "lost its soul in a vain attempt to become an economic tiger." Commentators like Sutichai believe that declining social values manifested in corruption, cronyism and nepotism precipitated the economic crisis, and to position itself for recovery, Thai society must be reformed morally as well as politically, legally and financially. As the source of what most Thais see as their distinctive value system, Buddhism has been turned to for moral solutions and the Thai response to the crisis has taken on a strong religious flavour. Talk of Buddhist values is regularly included in technical discussions of financial and monetary policy, bureaucratic reform and political democratisation.

The Dhammakaya controversy is far from being resolved. In mid-May, in an historically unprecedented move, several academic members of the prestigious Royal Institute called on the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist monkhood to resign for inaction and complicity in supporting the movement, an historically unprecedented move.

WATCHPOINT: The Thai "culture war" between populist, wealth-focussed religiosity and Buddhist intellectual critics of "materialist excess" continues to influence debates about national social and economic policy.


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