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Thailand's octogenarian intellectual rages on

Buddhist nonviolent activist Sulak Sivaraksa finds hope in student protests

Thai activist and intellectual Sulak Sivaraksa speaks at a demonstration in Bangkok in November 2020 calling on King Maha Vajiralongkorn to cede control of a royal fortune valued in the tens of billions. Although he has been charged four times under Thailand’s lese majeste law, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy, Sulak remains defiant.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Sulak Sivaraksa, who was born in 1932, the same year as the fall of Thailand's absolute monarchy, is Thailand's most controversial public intellectual. A household name in Thailand, he is relatively unknown in the West despite being one of the most prominent Buddhist advocates of social justice through nonviolence.

A prolific writer, he has published more than 100 books in both Thai and English. He is also viewed as the father of Thai nongovernmental organizations, and has been a mentor for many young Thai thinkers, artists and political activists.

At the ripe old age of 88, Sulak has actively thrown his support behind the youth protest movement that started in September 2020 to challenge the military-backed government and the monarchy. He has frequently appeared at protests and has helped generate campaigns on social media to criticize Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Although he has been charged four times under Thailand's infamous lese majeste law, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy, Sulak remains defiant. Appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in June 2020, he criticized the monarchy, tapping the floor with a walking stick that once belonged to Pridi Phanomyoung, co-author of the 1932 constitution that established a constitutional monarchy. "With this stick," Sulak said, "I cannot go wrong."

The government has tried to suppress the Ratsadon (The People) movement by arresting many of its student leaders, and indicting nearly 100 people on charges of insulting the monarchy and other crimes. Political analysts think the protest movement is a spent force, but Sulak disagrees.

Top: Members of the Ratsadon pro-democracy group give a three-finger salute at a February rally in Bangkok protesting the country's harsh lese majeste law. Bottom: Pro-democracy protesters break through a police cordon during a march demanding monarchy reforms, in Bangkok in February.

"I am encouraged that so many young people are becoming politically active," he says. "The previous yuppie generation was politically apathetic. Their education was very materialistically oriented. As a result, young people failed to develop a sense of idealism.

"I am happy to see that the young generation today are more idealistic and concerned about fighting for social justice. I do not think the protest movement is already a spent force. The more people the government arrests, the more people come out to join the protest."

He added that the outcome of the protests remains uncertain. "I don't think the powers that be have weathered the firestorm or groundswell of criticism. But if they are willing to listen and change the system will survive."

Sulak speaks at a rally in Bangkok in November 2020. "I am happy to see that the young generation today are more idealistic and concerned about fighting for social justice," says the veteran activist. "I do not think the protest movement is already a spent force." 

Sulak's public endorsement of the Ratsadon movement is the latest chapter in an eventful life. Although he attended a Roman Catholic boys' school he grew up a Buddhist. From early childhood he was tutored by his nanny to live by the Buddhist ethical code. At 12, he was ordained as a junior monk at the Wat Thong Noppakun temple.

By the time he departed Thailand to study literature and history in the U.K. at the University of Wales, later gaining a law degree, he was already a sophisticated and discriminating Buddhist intellectual. Friends note that he "selected what he wanted from the West and rejected that which did not suit him."

When he returned to Bangkok in 1962, Sulak's first job was at the U.S.-funded Social Science Association Press, where he helped to improve the standards of Thai textbooks. Although he found his work inspiring, it did not fully satisfy his intellectual needs. In 1963, he became the founding editor of The Social Science Review, widely seen as Thailand's first intellectual journal.

Sulak attended a Roman Catholic boys’ school, but he grew up a Buddhist and was ordained as a junior monk at age 12. (Courtesy of Sulak Sivaraksa) 

Modeled after Encounter, a literary magazine founded in 1953 in the U.K., it was funded by the U.S.-based Asia Foundation. "At first he never guessed that his six-year term as the editor would become one of the greatest achievements of his life," noted author Matteo Pistono in his recent biography "Roar: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism."

The Review became the intellectual voice of the country, and was instrumental in awakening political awareness among Thai students, which eventually led to the overthrow of a military dictatorship in 1973.

"Roar" can be read as a stirring biography of Sulak. But its secondary theme is the rise of Engaged Buddhism, which Sulak founded as a new politico-religious movement in Thailand in the early 1970s. Pistono skillfully weaves into Sulak's life story the doctrinal issues of Buddhism, the heroes and martyrs of the Engaged Buddhism movement, its methodology and organizational forms, and the formative events and critical battles in its development and consolidation.

The Dalai Lama wrote the forward for Sulak's 1992 book "Seeds of Peace" and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the preface. 

Sulak was an intellectual and writer before he became a social and political activist. Among his early comrades-in-arms was a brilliant student leader from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University named Komol Keemthong. Komol and his girlfriend were killed by communist guerillas while they were helping Thai peasants in a remote village in southern Thailand in 1971. Komol's tragic death had a profound impact on Sulak and encouraged him to become an active campaigner for social justice. The student revolution in October 1973 was a catalyst in Sulak's transformation from writer to activist.

Sulak began his Buddhist activism against the backdrop of social and political unrest in the 1970s, when Thailand was greatly affected by the Vietnam War and the fall of Indochina to communist armies. During the Cold War, U.S. and international organizations provided generous funding for academic research, charities, development projects, religious institutions and social work training. Among the funders were the U.S. government, private foundations and NGOs, and U.N.-affiliated organizations.

The U.S. government funds were largely dispensed through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, whose affiliate, the Center for International Private Enterprise, provided $6.7 million in the mid-1980s to promote the development of provincial chambers of commerce as agents of a free market and democratic political system in Thailand. Many NGOs and opposition groups in Thailand were also funded by NED and private foundations.

The availability of foreign funding enabled Sulak to launch several foundations, charities and NGOs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This laid the foundation for the expansion of political activism in the 21st century and created a robust and highly connected civil society establishment that has served as a countervailing power to the central government.

Sulak believed that Thailand needed heroes to inspire supporters to fight for the movement's ideals. After the murder of Komol, he helped to create a foundation to honor the late student activist as a hero of the people. He received the support of Sanya Dhammasakti, a judge and politician who was then president of the Buddhist Association of Thailand, and Puey Ungpakorn, the former governor of the Bank of Thailand, to establish the Komol Keemthong Foundation.

Building on the foundation, a decade later Sulak established the Wongsanit Ashram, set in a farming community on the outskirts of Bangkok. Organized in the spirit of a rural commune, the ashram (religious community) provided a venue for educators and social activists to conduct programs in grassroots leadership, intermediate technology construction methods, civil disobedience and the empowerment of marginalized communities. In 1986, Sulak founded the Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute in honor of Puey, who was living in exile in the U.K. after fleeing Thailand following a military coup and a massacre of students at Bangkok's Thammasat University in October 1976.

SPDI held seminars on civil rights and democracy, conducted training in nonviolent social action, and produced training materials in Thai, Burmese and English for programs on rural development and appropriate technology and ways to counter American-inspired consumerism.

Sulak heads to a court in Bangkok in 2017 following another run-in with the law after offending the monarchy.   © Reuters

SPDI training sessions for monks and lay activists from neighboring Myanmar took place at the Wongsanit Ashram and emphasized the techniques of civil disobedience that had been developed by two leading American proponents of nonviolent action, Gene Sharp and George Lakey. The training was reflected in the disciplined civil obedience actions in Myanmar during the country's "Saffron Revolution" protests against military rule in October 2007.

In 1989 Sulak founded the most important organization in his network, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. INEB was to achieve the widest global reach of any of Sulak's endeavors. It embodied a transnational Buddhist movement based on friendship among its patrons, including the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.

INEB has served as a platform to support human rights and social justice during the Tibetan struggle for autonomous rule in China, the quest for self-determination by the Chittagong hill tribes in Bangladesh, and the Dalits' protest against caste discrimination in India. As the spiritual leader of a transnational sociopolitical Buddhist movement, Sulak had become a recognizable global figure in humanitarian causes.

Thai monk Phra Paisal Visalo, third from left, represents the International Network of Engaged Buddhists at the launch of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in Oslo in June 2017.   © Reuters

At home, the Engaged Buddhists movement was influential in promoting democracy. Following a military coup by Gen. Suchinda Krayprayoon in 1992, the group joined in street protests that ended a short-lived military government. With the restoration of civilian rule, the movement resumed its social activist role, while the SPDI served as the liaison for The Assembly of the Poor, a grassroots organization in the 1990s that became a leading voice for marginalized communities.

When the Thai Rak Thai party, led by telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, came to power in the 2001 election, Sulak initially supported the new government. But dissatisfaction with Thaksin led many Engaged Buddhists to form a united front with The People's Alliance for Democracy to oppose the government.

Under the tripartite leadership of Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul; Chamlong Srimuang, a former governor of Bangkok and leader of the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect; and Phipob Dongchai, a prominent leader of the Engaged Buddhist Movement, the PAD alliance was a major player in the political crisis that precipitated the 2006 military coup that toppled the Thaksin government. When Thaksin-affiliated political parties won the 2007 general elections, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, the PAD again took to the streets.

Deploying the civil disobedience techniques that were taught at Wongsanit Ashram, the PAD joined the Yellow Shirt royalist militants to become the disciplined phalanx in clashes with the security forces and the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters, culminating in the seizure of Thailand's Don Mueng and Suvarnaphumi airports in 2008. The continuing breakdown of social order during the Yingluck government precipitated another military coup in 2014, which installed Prayuth, the current prime minister.

Street protests against the army-backed government appeared to die down under a combination of a display of military might, COVID-19 lockdown measures and the declaration of martial law. But public resistance to the government reemerged in September 2020, when protests led by university student leaders were staged. The students captured the imagination of the nation as they confronted the heavily armed security forces in what amounted to a David-and-Goliath standoff.

Asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Thailand, Sulak replied with typical subtlety: "I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future. I am hopeful!

He added: "In a struggle or battle one cannot be pessimistic because it will dampen morale. On the other hand false optimism is unconvincing because it is deceitful. In the midst of struggle the general must not be unduly optimistic or pessimistic. He must emanate hope."

Jeffery Sng is a Thailand-based writer and co-author of "A History of the Thai-Chinese" and "The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace."

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