Thailand’s saffron scandals undermine trust in Buddhism


Monk’s Latest Murder Highlights Hidden Conservatism and Conspiracy of Silence Prevailing in Thai Monasteries

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

Posted: Aug 17, 2021 05:28 GMT

Updated: September 02, 2021 05:33 GMT

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without another case of a Buddhist monk in Thailand turning out to be a bad apple, but murder by a clergy member has been relatively rare.

Then came the August 16 news, mentioned almost casually by a national daily, that a Buddhist monk had just shot and killed an old man with a shotgun.

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

A local woman who witnessed the murder told police she saw the monk argue angrily with the man before the shooting. The monk, who turned himself in to police, did not deny killing the man and even re-enacted the shooting for officers.

Gun violence is commonplace in Thailand where illegally owned firearms proliferate. However, when the murderer is a monk, the crime particularly irritates Thai Buddhists. This is because monks are widely regarded in the Buddhist nation as models of virtuous conduct according to rigorous ethical principles laid down by the religion’s founder, the Buddha.

Yet many virtuous clergymen in saffron robes are manifestly not. Many men in the stuff have been found in recent years to have committed serious crimes, including the occasional murder.

After the woman got out of the badly damaged vehicle and tried to flee, the monk chased her and killed her with an ax

In a high-profile case last year, the 59-year-old abbot of a monastery in Buriram province in the northeast of the country was arrested after killing a heavily pregnant woman with a machete.

Prior to the murder, the Monk drove his van head-on into an oncoming van on a country road and driven by a city 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 flee, the monk chased her and killed her with an ax.

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

Brutal murders like these invariably cause shock and outrage, but they are more common criminal acts committed by many Buddhist monks that truly undermine trust in cloth men in Thailand.

A particularly prevalent problem in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, according to observers, is child abuse. By preying on innocent and helpless young people, many Buddhist monks betray not only the fundamental tenets of their faith, but also common human decency.

“Type ‘rookie rapist monks’ into a search engine and the horrible 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 continue to turn a blind eye to these heinous crimes that are taking place under their noses to protect their image.”

In one particularly grim case that has grabbed headlines in recent years, a monk at a temple in Kanchanaburi province near Bangkok was found guilty of enslaving and sexually abusing a 13-year-old novice at several occasions. The monk would have continued the abuse if the boy had not worked up the courage to tell his parents.

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

“The abbot has committed acts too cruel to be accepted by Buddhists,” lamented the girl’s mother.

No criticism or call for reform is tolerated and those who dare to express their disagreement are liable to punishment or even ostracism.

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

The Thai Buddhist clergy “has now become an autocracy with a feudal hierarchy which commands the total submission of subordinate members. No criticism or call for reform is tolerated and those who dare to voice their disagreement are subject to punishment or even ostracism,” observed Sanitsuda.

Two years ago, a prominent Thai monk reviewed around 100 news reports of monks committing crimes and found that most of the perpetrators were clergy. Many crime-prone clerics were abbots.

This finding indicates that the older the senior monks with criminal tendencies, the more they seem to feel empowered to do whatever they want without much fear of repercussions.

“The clergy should follow the example of the Buddha in embracing compassion,” Sanitsuda suggested.

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