In a surprise move, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved an amendment to the 1992 Sangha Act, which regulates the appointment of the supreme patriarch of Thai Buddhism.
In three straight readings that took less than an hour, NLA members
yesterday voted to restore the ancient tradition that grants the king
the right to appoint the religious leader.
The figure of the supreme patriarch (phra sangkharat, or Sangha king
in Thai) was created in 1872 by Rama I, the first king of the ruling
As the head of Thailand’s Buddhism, the supreme patriarch promotes
religion and leads the Supreme Sangha Council (SSC), whose official task
is to supervise the country’s Buddhist monks (about 200,000) and
novices (about 70,000), ensuring that they observe the Buddha’s
teachings, i.e. the prescribed rituals, and do not violate the rules
established by the Council.
Proposed on Tuesday (27 December), the amendment was approved yesterday by 182 votes in favour and six abstentions.
Under the new law, the king can now appoint the new supreme
patriarch, whilst the prime minister countersign the decision.
Previously, the prime minister nominated the Buddhist leader "with the
SSC’s consent" and the monarch appointed him.
According to the old law, the patriarch was the senior monk with the title Somdet Phra Rajagana.
With this change masterminded by the current government, Somdet Phra
Maha Ratchamangalacharn, nominated by the SSC last January as the
official candidate, is not likely to get the post.
Under the new law,
seven other senior monks will be in the running.
Phra Methithammajarn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection
Centre of Thailand, cried foul Thursday over the quick passage of the
amendment, saying the move was unusual.
He said that the NLA's meeting was supposed to brief the government's
representative, not vote. "Our group will discuss the next move but we
have to tread carefully. The situation is volatile," he said.
But NLA member Somchai Sawaengkarn said the amendment is not intended
to block Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn as critics claim. Instead,
it will eliminate the seniority rule.
Some Buddhist scholars welcome the new law, as a way to break the
impasse over the nomination of 20th supreme patriarch after the death of
Somdet Phra Yannasangwon two years ago.