Buddhist party seeks platform in Thai election
By Martin Lowe

A pro-Buddhist party is contesting the Thai election on March 24, the first poll since a military coup displaced the last government in 2014.

The Pandin Dharma Party claims the religion needs protection, despite it being followed by around 90 percent of the population.

Some fear the move could mark the beginning of theological division in a country traditionally tolerant of religious differences.

The party's leaders say Buddhist radio and TV stations have been shut down by Thailand's military government, monks have been arrested on minor charges and laws passed to weaken Buddhism's ability to run its affairs.

It also claims too much support is given to minority Muslim communities in the south of the country, at the expense of the Buddhist majority.

A Buddhist conference in Bangkok. /CGTN Photo

A Buddhist conference in Bangkok. /CGTN Photo

"The problem is government interference," said Korn Medee, a former monk and leader of the party.

"The government is more powerful than the people. Even though most people in Thailand are Buddhists, only about 10 percent are strong believers. In other countries Buddhism has already been weakened by government pressure."

The party says Buddhism is central to Thai society but has little formal influence. It wants Buddhism to be adopted as the state religion.

Korn Medee, leader of the Pandin Dharma Party. /CGTN Photo

Korn Medee, leader of the Pandin Dharma Party. /CGTN Photo

Campaigning at a market outside the Thai capital Bangkok, party candidate Sirima Sarakul said: "We are dedicated to protecting Buddhism."

"I believe people who love Buddhism would want us to take this stand. When I talk to people during the campaign, they say 'please protect our religion'."

The party is campaigning for the independence of Buddhism to be protected by legislation, shielding it from what it sees as any outside interference.

Islamic groups in Thailand say any party that seeks to divide communities would be a concern, particularly if it provided a stage for anti-Muslim feeling.

"Before it was just a bunch of personal animosities against Islam expressed online but now these scattered movements are becoming more defined," said Zakee Pitakumpol, deputy secretary to Sheikhul Islam, Thailand's Islamic spiritual leader.

Supporters of the Pandin Dharma Party campaigning at a market outside Bangkok. /CGTN Photo

Supporters of the Pandin Dharma Party campaigning at a market outside Bangkok. /CGTN Photo

The Pandin Dharma Party is contesting 145 out of 350 individual MP seats and does not expect great success.

"Even if we don't get any seats then at least now we have a platform," said Mr. Medee.

Some believe the move could signal the first steps towards the establishment of a Buddhist nationalist movement, similar to those in Myanmar and Sri Lanka but previously not seen in Thailand.

A total of 81 parties will contest the election.

The three frontrunners are Pheu Thai, which is linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Democrat Party and Phalang Pracharat, a proxy party for continued military rule.

(Top image: A Buddhist conference in Bangkok. /CGTN Photo)