Tomas Larsson received a PhD in Government from Cornell University in 2007. His award-winning dissertation was revised and published by Cornell University Press (Land and loyalty: Security and the development of property rights in Thailand, 2012). For the past 10 years, he has taught Southeast Asian and comparative politics to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Cambridge. His recent research has focused on the politics of GMOs, on Buddhism and politics, and on state formation in Southeast Asia. From 1990 to 2000, he worked as a journalist based in Thailand.
Royal succession and the politics of religious purification in contemporary Thailand
Since the 2014 military coup in Thailand, ruling political elites have been engaged in a variety of initiatives aimed at reforming the relationship between the Thai state and the Buddhist sangha. These efforts have been dramatically intensified in the wake of the passing of King Bhumiphon (Rama IX) in October 2016 and the subsequent ascension to the throne by his son, Vajiralongkorn (Rama X). Through a variety of means and in a number of different arenas, the military-dominated state—and the new king—have asserted their power and control over the ecclesiastical realm. The related developments may be viewed as part of a conservative backlash against more “liberal” approaches to religion-state relations that had been initiated in the 1990s. More specifically, they constitute attempts to generate religious legitimacy for the military junta and, more significantly, the new king by “purifying” religion in ways that re-enact pre-modern scripts of righteous Buddhist kingship. Paradoxically, this is done, in part, by seeking to introduce quintessentially modern standards of “good governance” and transparency into the administration of the Sangha and its (extensive) material assets. This research project seeks to assess whether the reform efforts of the new reign signify a more fundamental transformation of sangha-state relations, with implications for both religious and other liberties in Thailand.