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Thailand’s constitutional changes and Buddhism

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Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law

5 Fellows Road

The Australian National University, Acton 2601

Australia

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The Thai state is known for its long and deep entanglement with Buddhism. Buddhism provided guidance, constraints, as well as legitimacy for traditional Siamese kings, who returned the favor in the form of special treatment and subsidies to the Thai Buddhist order. Buddhism, together with the nation and the monarchy, became one of the trilogy of Thainess. The 1932 democratic revolution did not end this intimate relationship. Instead, modern leaders still very much rely on religious legitimacy so they have to try to balance between the idea of a liberal secular state and the traditional idea of a good Buddhist ruler. Constitution drafters guarantee religious freedom to all Thais, yet recognize the superior status of Buddhism. Thus, Buddhism significantly helps shape Thailand’s legal and political arrangement. The arrangement had worked well until 1997, when constitutional changes began to disrupt this delicate balance.

Since then, the secular state idea has retreated and the conservative fundamentalism seemed to be on the rise. Interestingly, the policy shift coincided with Thailand’s political struggle, which ended in the 2014 coup d’etat. The latest coup marked the beginning of the so-called “good people” politics, in which Buddhist morals played a more critical role than ever. This paper will examine the changes in Thailand’s constitutions since 1997 concerning models of state-religion relationship. It aims to explain the reasons behind such changes as well as discuss their implication on Thailand’s attempt to restore and consolidate democracy.

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University. His research interests are constitutional development in Thailand, public accountability, administrative law, as well as Buddhism and law. He is also a regular contributor on Thailand’s democratic process and Buddhist politics in New Mandala, among other blogs. He graduated from Chulalongkorn University before earning his LL.M. at Yale Law School. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol Law School.

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Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law

5 Fellows Road

The Australian National University, Acton 2601

Australia

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