Volume 4, Issue 2, 2016
Buddhism, Blasphemy, and Violence
The Sukhothai Incident
Buddhist Heritage, Mormon Missionaries, and Religious Desecration in Thailand
In 1972, two Mormon missionaries were arrested in Thailand on charges that they had insulted Buddhism. Photographic evidence of their offensive behavior appeared in national newspapers, and for weeks the press debated the meaning and significance of their crime. This article examines the media’s reaction to the “Sukhothai Incident,” and situates the controversy within the larger context of Thai anxieties regarding the influence of ‘Americanization’ on local culture. It argues that Thai elites used the incident to promote pre-existing nationalist narratives that warned against the destructive influences of Western materialism, Christianity, and neo-colonialism. Reaction to the case became a touchstone that separated true defenders of “Thai-ness” from those “outside the religion.” The incident illustrates how ruling factions perceived that the American presence, not just Communism, threatened to undermine traditional symbols of authority.