And the winner is — Thai Buddhism

And the winner is — Thai Buddhism

A Buddhist monk walks as Thai army personnel wait in a queue to cast their ballots at a polling station during the general election in Bangkok on May 14. (Photo: AFP)
A Buddhist monk walks as Thai army personnel wait in a queue to cast their ballots at a polling station during the general election in Bangkok on May 14. (Photo: AFP)

Having followed Thai politics rather closely since the 1960s, I suggest that the best explanation for the results of the recent May 14 election is Thai Buddhism.

Here I associate the deep structure of Thai Buddhism with the teachings of the Buddha himself on the Dharma or the Middle Way. Not everyone, however, can provide balance and moderation in their living.

Those who do so reliably can provide stability and sustainability for others who, in turn, respect their charisma and take them for personal patrons. Among Thai, this form of personal charisma is often called baramee.

Those with baramee have willing and loyal followers; those with such followers win elections.

In the May 14 election, the hua na "bossism" of Thaksin Shinawatra, represented by his daughter, lost support. Being a "boss" may attract dependent clients, but it does not amount to genuine baramee.

So too did the paternalistic hierarchy of the military/bureaucratic complex revolving around the central government lose appeal.

That social structure depends on submissive feelings of grengchai in relation to organisational seniors and social patrons and mentors.

The Move Forward Party rallied individuals who have left behind the grengchai culture of their parents to more robustly assert self-validation and self-expression vis-à-vis their elders and those holding institutional positions of elevated social and economic status.

But the map of which party won which constituencies reveal another truth: localism is powerful. Patron/client networks, and reciprocal phi/nong (senior/junior) alliances in local communities delivered votes for those they trust and depend on. These local interpersonal allegiances resonate with a baramee culture.

The most important result of the elections is to give Thailand a fragmented collection of parties and factions with no one in charge. This diversity of power centres, some tiny and others substantial, requires coalitions and alliances for government to function.

The coalition-building process and the constant need to keep all members of a coalition willing partners with one another require tact and deft deal-making skills to sustain an equilibrium of balanced contributions and rewards.

Equilibrium and balance are the essence of the Middle Way, as taught by the Buddha in his early sermons. To keep the balance and to constantly generate equilibrium -- avoiding narrow-minded passions -- takes enlightenment.

This approach was recommended by the late HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great in his sufficiency economy philosophy.

Using the English word "sufficiency" to express a Buddhist insight has perplexed me. Too often, "sufficiency" is taken to mean only "sufficient" or partial, adequate, less than optimal.

The Buddha's approach, I think, was more subtle and mindful of life's complexities. The epicentre of "sufficiency" from the Buddha's standpoint was sustaining a balanced equilibrium in all that we think and do. This approach is now most needed in Thai politics going forward.

Each of the five elements of what has been named the Sufficiency Economy Principles engenders balance and sustains equilibrium. Moderation recalls Aristotle's advice to avoid extremes and the high risk of self-centred conceits. Being reasonable is to use due care in weighing the consequences of one's actions, including one's words. Keeping oneself resilient as an active agent permits adjustments as the vicissitudes of life come and go. Having knowledge adequate to the situation permits making good decisions. Having a moral compass prevents selfish excesses and draws others into supportive relationships.

The Buddha's teaching also permeates the Thosapit Rachathamma, or the 10 principles of just governance from the perspective of Dharma.

A political system of coalitions and alliances, with give and take between and among those holding office, needs this kind of governance.

The 10 principles of the Thosapit Rachathamma are:

Dana is giving in a beneficial way. This is a form of fiduciary behaviour where we seek how to make life better for others.

Sila is not breaking norms -- both legal and moral. It is being ethical and of good conduct. It is avoidance of dominion and oppression and exploitation and corruption. It is the essence of governance.

Pariccaga is putting service before self. It goes beyond giving in taking into consideration the greater good of the whole, the common good. It is the ultimate in agency where we give of ourselves to further a greater good.

Ajjava is loyalty, truthfulness, and honesty. It is the virtue that makes possible the loyalty demanded of every fiduciary as well as the self-confidence to disclose material information to markets.

Maddava is avoidance of arrogance, being gracious, and being open to persuasion. It is not being a hua na -- a "big boss" -- being narrow-minded; only giving orders to underlings and not accepting their advice and counsel.

Tapa is diligence. This is the virtue necessary for taking due care in carrying out our fiduciary duties. It is avoidance of negligence or just going along for the ride, or just showing up to put in an appearance. Negligence of duty is the enemy of good governance.

Akkodha is avoidance of anger and self-centred passion. To be angry or self-centred and emotionally vindictive diverts us away from duty, from listening, from wise action. It is putting our worst sense of self in the place of service and collegiality.

Avihimsa is living peacefully without doing harm. It is not disturbing the equilibrium around us. It is another form of service that supports the common good.

Khanti is patience and perseverance. Again, it is a virtue of self-control where we are not overbearing and domineering, allowing others to evolve according to their good and bad qualities. I consider this virtue more individual than corporate. One can be too patient in the face of failure and abuse of power on the part of others.

Finally, avirodha is acting energetically on behalf of ethics and the law. It is taking personal responsibility for seeking that justice is done, that wrong is disciplined, that good is rewarded. It is fundamental to practising good governance.

As the teachings of the Buddha are universal and directed at individuals no matter their station in life, the Thosapit Rachathamma can be taken up by enthusiastic Move Forward followers and every other Thai.

If the Thosapit Rachathamma, a Thai Buddhist best practices manual for governance, can inspire all those elected to office, Thailand will be the better for it.

Stephen B. Young is a 1963 graduate of the International School of Bangkok, is Global Executive Director for the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism. He has taught corporate social responsibility as a visiting professor at the Sasin School of Management. In 1966 he discovered the Bronze Age culture of Ban Chiang.

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