Thailand

Thailand's saffron scandals undermine trust in Buddhism

Latest murder by a monk highlights the hidebound conservatism and conspiracy of silence that prevails at Thai monasteries

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Updated: September 02, 2021 05:33 AM GMT

Buddhist monks queue to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Wat Si Sudaram Worawihan in Thai capital Bangkok on July 30. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Not a week, it seems, passes without yet another case of a Buddhist monk in Thailand turning out to be a bad apple, but murder by a clergyman has been relatively rare.

Then came the news on Aug. 16, mentioned almost in passing by a national daily newspaper, that a Buddhist monk had just shot and killed an elderly man with a shotgun.

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The murder took place at a meditation retreat run by a 41-year-old monk in a rural area of the central province of Phitsanulok. The victim was a 67-year-old man who owned land adjacent to the meditation retreat and had reportedly been involved in a long-running argument with the monk.

One local woman who witnessed the murder told police that she had seen the monk arguing angrily with the man before the shooting. The monk, who surrendered to police, did not deny killing the man and even re-enacted the shooting for officers.

Gun violence is commonplace in Thailand where illegally held firearms proliferate. Yet when the murderer is a monk, the crime especially rankles Thai Buddhists. The reason is that monks are widely assumed in the Buddhist nation to be paragons of virtuous conduct according to rigorous ethical tenets laid down by the religion's founder, the Buddha.

Yet virtuous many saffron-robed clergymen clearly are not. Numerous men of the cloth have been found in recent years to commit serious crimes, including the occasional murder.

After the woman got out of the badly damaged vehicle and tried to run away, the monk gave chase and hacked her to death

In one high-profile case last year, the 59-year-old abbot of a monastery in the northeastern province of Buriram was arrested after he killed a heavily pregnant woman with a machete.

Before the murder, the monk drove his minivan head-on into a pickup truck traveling from the opposite direction down a country road and driven by a municipal official, who was in the vehicle with his 36-year-old wife.

After the woman got out of the badly damaged vehicle and tried to run away, the monk gave chase and hacked her to death.

The senior clergyman had been having an affair with the woman, who threatened to expose the relationship unless he gave her money, according to police. The monk decided to silence the woman by murdering her.

Brutal killings such as these invariably cause shock and outrage, yet it is more common criminal deeds by many Buddhist monks that truly undermine trust in men of the cloth in Thailand.

An especially widespread problem at Thailand's Buddhist monasteries is the molestation of children, according to observers. By preying on innocent and defenseless youngsters, many Buddhist monks betray not only the core tenets of their faith but common human decency as well. 

Type 'monks rape novices' into a search engine and the ugly reality will hit you in the face. The system is sick. Seriously sick, observed Sanitsuda Ekachai, a prominent journalist and social commentator. Yet the clergy keeps turning a blind eye to these heinous crimes which are happening right under their noses to protect their image.

In one especially lurid case that made headlines in recent years, a monk at a temple in Kanchanaburi province, near Bangkok, was found to have enslaved and sexually abused a 13-year-old novice repeatedly. The monk would have carried on with the abuse if the boy hadn't mustered up the courage to tell his parents about it.

In another shocking case, a 52-year-old abbot of a monastery in Buriram was found to have raped a teenage girl repeatedly for several years until the crime came to light when the girl became pregnant. The girl, who kept silent about the years-long abuse out of fear and shame, was just 13 when the monk began sexually molesting her, according to her parents.

The abbot performed deeds that are too cruel for Buddhists to accept, the girl's mother lamented.

Any criticisms or calls for reform are not tolerated and those who dare to voice dissent are subject to punishment, even ostracism

Critics of the highly hierarchical community of Buddhist monks known as the Sangha often blame a hidebound conservatism and a conspiracy of silence for the culture of impunity that prevails at many Thai monasteries and enables monks to commit crimes.

Thailand's Buddhist clergy has now become an autocracy with a feudal hierarchy that commands total submission from junior members. Any criticisms or calls for reform are not tolerated and those who dare to voice dissent are subject to punishment, even ostracism, Sanitsuda observed.

Two years ago a prominent Thai monk examined around 100 news stories about monks committing crimes and found that most of the perpetrators were senior clergymen. Many of the criminally inclined clergymen were abbots.

This finding indicates that the more senior monks with criminal tendencies are, the more they seem to feel entitled to do as they please without much fear of repercussions.

The clergy should follow the Buddha's example by embracing compassion, Sanitsuda suggested.

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