Monks have friends in high places

opinion May 29, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

Accused of serious crimes including lese majeste, the former Phra Buddha Isara nevertheless gets an apology



It was dismaying to see Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, rush to apologise for an “impolite” temple raid in Nakhon Pathom in which a well-known Buddhist monk was arrested. Rare is the occasion when government leaders tell their subordinates in charge of upholding the law to be more polite to criminal suspects. Perhaps the generals of the military junta-led government should be extending their apologies to all suspects who are “rudely” arrested.

But, no, apparently the top brass felt particularly uneasy at the way Suvit Thongprasert was apprehended – by heavily armed commandos – which led to his jailing without bail. By religious dictates, the denial of bail meant the abbot of Wat Omoi, widely revered as Phra Buddha Isara, had to be immediately defrocked and resume his lay name. The difference between Suvit and so many other arrested persons is, of course, his close alliance with the generals.

The apology came only after the monk’s incensed followers condemned the police raid, and this group has been outspoken in its support for the junta and the 2014 coup. As Phra Buddha Isara, Suvit led street protests that year against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He and former Democrat Party deputy leader Suthep Thaugsuban set up the People’s Democratic Reform Committee to demand that she resign.

Buddhist monks certainly have the individual right to assume political stances, but this it is not a tradition in Buddhism, which in fact discourages such involvement. At the height of the anti-Yingluck rallies, Buddha Issara allegedly ordered demonstrators to attack two undercover Special Branch police officers and seize their pistols.

He has also reportedly confessed to using without permission the initials of Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit on amulets he had made to sell to the faithful. The use of amulets has little enough to do with true Buddhism, but usurping the honour of the monarchy for such dishonest purposes is utterly immoral.

At the same time that Phra Buddha Isara was being arrested last Thursday, the same fate was befalling five senior monks in raids on three Bangkok temples. All were similarly denied bail and defrocked. They and Suwit were given white robes to wear and placed in separate prison cells. 

Prayut, chastised by Suwit’s followers, who happen to be his allies, made the apology – but he didn’t explain why the arrest came now, four or more years after the alleged crimes were committed. And he wasn’t about to elaborate on why an apology was issued here but not in other criminal cases. Perhaps he has in mind higher standards and procedures for police operations.

No one will deny, though, that firm procedures are essential for the prosecution of monks. Nor will anyone argue that the Supreme Sangha Council and other authorities need to curb corruption and all misbehaviour in the ranks of monks. To have Buddha Issara and five other senior monks arrested and disrobed the same day is ample proof that Thai Buddhism is in dire trouble.

The military government has always trod carefully in its dealings with the monkhood, wishing to avoid controversy where possible. On this occasion, had the arrested monk not been Buddha Issara, perhaps Prayut and Prawit would have said nothing. By apologising, they were seen to bow to pressure from potential electoral supporters and at the same time undermine hope for religious reform.