With newspaper reports of errant monks being disrobed for drug, alcohol or sex offenses an almost weekly occurrence (See: Sex, Drugs and Graft Rock Sangha in Thailand), Buddhism in Thailand seems to be in a state of disarray when measured against the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
However, while Thais have been sickened at the sight of the battered bodies of young children killed in grenade and automatic weapons attacks on anti-government protesters, there has been significantly less public outrage at a senior Buddhist monk commanding one of the protest rally sites.
The sight of monks participating in political rallies in Thailand is not a new one. Monks participated in the 2006 anti-government protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), aka the ‘yellow-shirts”, against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while (presumably) others supported the 2010 protests by United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), aka the “red-shirts”, against the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva.
However, when “People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (PDRC) leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced his grand plan to “Shutdown Bangkok” (See: Bangkok Shutdown Fails to Cripple Thai Capital) by establishing stages at ten locations across Bangkok, the sight of a monk leading the protesters and establishing a rally stage blocking the main government complex at Chaeng Wattana only served to illustrate how far down the rabbit hole some Buddhist monks in Thailand have fallen.
In the six weeks since then the behavior of 56-year-old Buddha Issara, abbot of Wat Or Noi in the central Thailand province of Nakhon Pathom, has sunk to increasingly depraved levels with photos of him interrogating undercover police who were caught intelligence gathering at his rally site and who were dragged before him after being beaten by his “guards” widely circulated.
Just days after this he led hundreds of his supporters and attempted to check into a hotel owned by the Shinawatra family where ten rooms had been booked in his name and a deposit of Bt4,200 (about US$129) paid.
When the hotel refused to honour his booking fearful the affect the presence of protesters would have on their business he refused to leave until he was compensated for the inconvenience and what he claimed were costs incurred by farmers in getting to the hotel from up-country.
Surrounded by his “guards”, some wearing bulletproof vests, he received Bt120,000 ($3,680) compensation which he was photographed counting (The Vinaya-pitika, the disciplinary code laid down by the Buddha for monks and nuns, disallows monks from touching or handling money) and which he said would be paid to farmers for wasted diesel and other costs.
However, even this was not enough for the monk to withdraw his intimidating mob of protesters from the hotel and it was not until a police colonel overseeing negotiations “donated” an amount equivalent to the booking fee that Buddha Issara agreed to return to his protest rally site.
The following day in response to print and television reports of the hotel incident the monk led his supporters to the office of Voice TV, a satellite news television station owned by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s three children, where he demanded station executives apologise over a commentators claims that the protesting farmers were not “real farmers”.
Threatening to besiege the station until an apology was made and protesting farmers were allowed to air their grievances live on air, the monk eventually departed after Voice TV broadcast the station news director’s apology, along with a merit making ceremony where the monk was presented with garlands of flowers, candles and incense.
Prior to the protesters arriving at the television station a notice posted on Buddha Issara’s official Facebook page alongside his photo accused the station of defaming the protesting farmers.
“[You] get money from ads, hundreds of million a year. Can you give some to farmers who are distressed? You get tax dollars from advertisings, if [you] have any heart, [you] will donate to farmers who are in great trouble. We will then be happy. We are not snatching [your] assets, but farmers accept donations. If u have faith then you should have sympathy for them”, the posting read.
It was also protesters led by Buddha Issara who engaged in a pitched two-hour handgun and automatic weapons street gun battle with pro-democracy red-shirt supporters in the outer Bangkok suburb of Laksi on February 1, just one day before the 2014 Thailand general election, which saw six people shot, including two journalists, and a 71-year-old bystander paralyzed after being shot in the neck.
While one would expect that such actions by a senior member of a mainstream religion that preaches wisdom, ethical conduct, and moderation would result in rapid and strict disciplinary action, almost nothing has been done to curb the ongoing sordid behavior of Buddha Issara.
Despite several arrest warrants and summonses having been issued for offences including insurrection Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism (Nob), which regulates the behaviour of monks, appears virtually powerless to act.
Director general of the Nob, Nopparat Benjawatananun, said joining a political protest is a breach of Buddhist discipline and he has written to authorities responsible for Buddha Issara’s home temple telling them to control him, but there appears little they can do and the monk has not replied to letters sent to him by the Nob.
“The Abbot Council has concluded Buddha Issara has broken the rules of the Sangha Supreme Council, but a monk can only be defrocked and ejected after he has been arrested and denied bail.
“Once he is arrested the Nakhon Pathom sangha council can defrock him, but it is up to the police to arrest him first”, Mr Benjawatananun said.
For his part the bad-boy Buddhist monk remains unrepentant, claiming the Thailand Constitution protects his right to assemble and the Nob has no authority to take action against him.
However, Sathien Wipornmaha, secretary of the Buddhist Association of Thailand (Bat), an non-government organisation (NGO), said that while monks have feelings like everyone else, sangha regulations prevent political expression and Buddha Issara’s leading of protest rallies “destroys the image of Buddhism”.
About the Web
- Controversial monk at vanguard of Thai street protests (thestar.com.my)
- Thailand looks to arrest Buddhist monk for insurrection (washingtonpost.com)