The Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) on Friday rejected recognition of Buddhism as the national religion in the new constitution by a 66-9 vote following five hours of intense deliberations.
The decision upset protesting monks and lay Buddhists, who vowed to launch a campaign to reject the junta-sponsored draft charter.
"They are already our enemies," one monk, who asked not to be identified, said minutes after the CDA voted at 3.15pm.
"We won't endorse this draft charter. We will have to wait until August to see if we are successful," said another monk, who also withheld his name.
The CDA's decision means Article 2 of the General Provisions chapter of the charter defines Thailand as a democratically ruled country with the King as the head of state, without any mention of Buddhism as the state religion.
As consolation, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) earlier amended Article 78 to state that "the state shall provide patronage and protection to Buddhism, which is the religion wherein most people profess, and other faiths...."
The CDA on Friday also voted to include a clause to recognise homosexuals and transsexual individuals and assure they would "enjoy equal rights".
The assembly noted however that such recognition would not lead to sanctioning "homosexual consummation".
CDA members who favoured Buddhism as the state religion tried to request a secret vote on the clause, but could not muster the necessary support for the motion.
The debate on state religion began with CDC chairman Prasong Soonsiri telling the assembly why his committee felt Buddhism should not be recognised as the national religion in the charter.
He cited possible repercussions on inter-religious harmony and argued that making Buddhism the national religion would make no difference as to whether it flourished or declined in the Kingdom.
"Nobody should have privilege over another person [due to their religious background]," Prasong told the assembly. "Thailand doesn't rely on Buddhism as the basis of its law and to recognise Buddhism [as national religion] would be against a democratic system."
More than a dozen speakers for both sides took turns trying to convince their fellow CDA members from 10am until 3pm.
Decho Suwannanond said there should be no cause for worry as many other countries recognised one religion or another as the national religion. He cited Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Burma as examples of countries with Buddhism as the national religion.
Kiattichai Pongpanich countered that Thailand would suffer greater inter-religious violence of the kind witnessed in Sri Lanka and even Burma, where Buddhist and Christian Karen were at odds with one another.
"It will enable religious fanatics to try to 'cleanse' society and make it 'pure' by dismantling aspects of globalisation. What will happen then?" Kiattichai asked. "Today is the day to decide clearly."
Proponents didn't give up, however, and argued that there was no concrete evidence that recognising Buddhism as the national religion in a country where 95 per cent of the population regarded themselves as Buddhists would lead to religious rifts.
Pichian Amnajvoraprasert even urged CDA members to vote for the Buddhism clause as a means to earn religious "merit".
After failing to achieve a consensus, CDA member Chirmsak Pinthong changed tactics. He alleged that a general had invited batches of CDA members for meetings, only to show them videos of Buddhist monks being killed in the deep South.
"We were then told that we must help make Buddhism the national religion," Chirmsak said.
He also alleged that some people had threatened not to vote for him if he ran for office in future if he did not support them on the issue.
In the evening, the debate on the number and ratio of elected and appointed senators was revived in the assembly. Some members proposed increasing the number of senators from 150 to 160, and the number of those elected at the provincial level from 76 to 120 to reflect the population differences between various provinces.
Karun Sai-ngam interrupted the discussion with the warning that it was not in the CDA's mandate to revisit issues that had already been approved by the assembly.
The CDA also agreed to amend Article 186 to require Parliament's approval for any government agreement with a foreign country that would have "wide" economic and social impact "within 60 days", and for the government to make the proposed agreement public before signing it.
The conditions were added because Parliament would not be able to deliberate on all the related issues.
Meanwhile, Natee Theerarojnapong, president of the Gay Political Group of Thailand, burst into tears on being told that the CDA had agreed to recognise the rights of gays and lesbians by stating in Article 30 of the charter that differences in "sexual identity" could not be grounds for discrimination.
"This is what we have fought for for decades," he said.
Natee said he believed that Sutthirat Simsiriwong's case had prompted the assembly to recognise gay rights [page 2].
"His case was concrete evidence that discrimination against gays does exist in this country," he said.
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Monks curse drafters
Supporters of the proposed constitutional clause recognising Buddhism as the state religion have quit rallying and their hunger strike but will discuss future action against the constitution draft later.
After the Constitution Drafting Assembly agreed not to put the clause in the charter draft on Friday, 500 members of the Buddhist Network of Thailand protesting in front of Parliament toppled a replica of a gigantic alms bowl, blocking the gate to the compound.
They also toppled a replica of the Constitution in the same manner and then chanted curses aimed at the CDA majority for voting against the idea.
Parliament security officers closed the gate immediately, leaving only a door with strict control over who could enter. The atmosphere was tense, and traffic in front of the Parliament became congested.
Phra Maha Boontueng Chutintharo, a monk who led the protest, said the CDA was "virtually blind". He said the protesters would boycott the CDA members who had voted against the clause, not allow them to enter monasteries or conduct any religious ceremonies for them "even when they are dead" because they were people of no religion.
He said the protesters would go home and discuss future measures and would rally again on Friday, July 6, when the assembly is scheduled to vote on the whole draft charter.
Samarn Sri-ngarm, another protest leader, said they would keep on pushing for the clause and would not give up.
They were not fighting against people or the law, but against the Constitution draft, which was "written from the wrong viewpoint".