Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
17 July 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Monks, generals and karma

Buddhism and politics

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Throughout history, rulers and rebels alike have used religion to justify their actions. Despite its peaceful image, Buddhism, the majority religion of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, can also be turned to political purposes.

The repressive Thai and Burmese states use Buddhism to legitimise their rule. The Burmese generals claim that they are good Buddhists. But the population, including Buddhist monks, can rise up against them. The Laotian communists of the “Pathet Lao” movement can use Buddhism to justify socialism and the ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

The Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and karma (or kam in Thai) are aimed at instilling fatalism in the population. You are born poor or disabled because of what you did in a past life. Kings and millionaires are superior to ordinary people; men are above women. If you are very naughty, you may come back as an animal “longer than it is tall”. These attitudes encourage people to accept their fate and not seek to overthrow bad rulers, given that these rulers will surely have to pay, via kam, for what they have done.

Buddhism is also concerned with ending suffering, or took. Took is more than just suffering. The Buddhist trinity of truth (trilak) states that change is always present. Nothing remains the same and change comes from the contradiction of took or suffering.

For the ruling elites, this concept is used to teach the masses that they should look to their personal lives. They should not bother with material or bodily desires and jealousies, as they are never desires for anything permanent. Let the rich remain rich. The Buddhist ruling against killing is used to ban abortion and denounce violent acts against the state.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Yet Buddhism, like all other religions, is never “pure”. It must be understood not from texts alone, but from how people practise and interpret it. So, for the oppressed, the struggle to end suffering or took is justified. The rich should renounce their material wealth, or even be made to do so, in order that the poor can survive. Kam doesn’t have to be about the next or past life. It can be here and now. If there is a revolt that overthrows a bad ruler, that is the ruler’s kam.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a lecturer in politics at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

Topics in this article :