Threads, Robes, and Alms-Rounds: Thai Buddhist Monks in the Recent Yellow Shirt vs. Red Shirt Conflict

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Memo #5

Jessica Main

Reports disseminated by Buddhist news aggregators suggest instances when Buddhist monks act along political “lines” while claiming political neutrality. The recent conflict in Thailand is no exception.

During the protests, monks appeared everywhere on the political spectrum. Some joined the rallies of the yellow shirts, and others, the red shirts. Yet, a number of factors discourage Thai monks from acting in overtly political ways. Not only does the law state that monks are not permitted to vote or run for office, but monastic regulations also forbid monks to participate in political rallies.

Some believe a political monk is inappropriate, and even dangerous to the public. Based on such expectations, Amnart Buasiri, Office of National Buddhism chief, called for monks in the red shirt rallies to be arrested. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also has clear expectations of Buddhist monks: building peace, sustainable development, and human rights.

In spite of resistance to political action by monks, religious action can draw lines. In quiet ways, these lines can surround and strengthen the position of a group of protesters, symbolically cut through the lines of security forces, or block passage for either side.

For example, a monk’s robe is a sacred object. When they are freshly laundered and strung on a clothesline, a line is created that is not easily brushed aside. More extremely, robes worn by human monks form a mobile line of human shields in front of a group of protesters.

Threads wound around participants during protection ceremonies create a link to the monks who chant Theravāda scriptures and the protection they offer. Protection ceremonies for protesters in contested spaces draw a line strengthening their political position. Lastly, although alms-rounds (a many-layered relationship of exchange between monks and lay people – which, at their simplest, trade sustenance for karmic merit) have featured in several articles as a picture or caption, there has been little analysis of the act. Political meaning can be read in the journeys of monks to contested areas of Bangkok for the purpose of accepting alms and also passing through security lines along the way.

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Links:

  • A monk joining a red shirt rally from the Bangkok Post, and rumors of monks taking up sharpened bamboo sticks from the Associated Free Press
  • See Danny Fisher’s blog interview with Erick D. White, “What’s Going On in Thailand?” Read the Bill Tarrant’s blog entry on Faithworld, Reuters. For more line drawing, check out the case at the Preah Vihear Temple (located along a disputed border between Cambodia and Thailand). Here, too, Buddhist monks, with their bodies, robes, alms-rounds, and ritual acts, claim territory for either the Thai or Cambodian side

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