Buddhist monks at Wat Talom monastery in Bangkok. (Photo: YouTube)
Thai immigration police have arrested more than two dozen Cambodian migrants at a Buddhist temple where they had allegedly been pretending to be monks to avoid being caught and deported.
The 27 Cambodian nationals entered Thailand illegally and joined the Wat Talom monastery in Bangkok while disguising themselves as Buddhist monks, according to authorities.
“We received a tip-off that the temple had several hundred monks living in a crowded space that could become a hotspot for Covid-19,” said Lt. Gen. Sompong Chingduang, chief of the immigration police.
“People also reported that some monks from this temple were selling food they received from the public in the morning to merchants at nearby markets for reselling.”
The monastery’s abbot was questioned by police after it was found that the monks’ living quarters at the temple had been divided into two separate areas with local monks staying upstairs and the foreigners staying downstairs. Some of the migrants bedded down in space under the temple’s crematorium.
In all, there were more than 200 foreigners who were staying at the temple from various nations.
“Officers found that 181 migrant monks from Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh had proper documentation, but the 27 [Cambodians] had neither entry papers nor ID cards stating they are monks,” Sompong said.
The men were ordered to take off their robes before they were detained and charged with illegal entry. They are also facing charges of impersonating Buddhist monks, which is a crime in Thailand.
The temple’s abbot is facing the prospect of charges over providing shelter to migrants staying illegally in Thailand.
The incident came on the heels of a stepped-up crackdown on illegal migrants in Thailand in the wake of a second wave of Covid-19 infections in the country.
Thai authorities have blamed migrants from Myanmar for triggering the second outbreak by saying they brought the virus into the country while sneaking across the porous Thai-Myanmar border.
The epicenter of the outbreak has been Samut Sakhon, a province near Bangkok known for its seafood industry, which employs large numbers of migrant workers from Myanmar for grueling work.
In recent weeks, thousands of migrant workers in the province have tested positive for Covid-19. Several hundred have recovered and returned to their workplaces.
At the same time, severe economic downturns in Thailand’s poorer neighbors have caused numerous migrant workers to try and return to Thailand in search of work despite the country’s borders being closed to all entrants unless they undergo strict disease mitigation measures including a two-week quarantine.
People smugglers have been bringing migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia into Thailand at a steady pace, at times with help from corrupt officials, according to observers and media reports.