Most senior Thai monk draws controversy

Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn is the strongest candidate in the running for the highest post within Thailand's Buddhist clergy. But detractors say the 90-year-old abbot of Wat Pak Nam in Bangkok is too close to a large, controversial temple cal
Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn is the strongest candidate in the running for the highest post within Thailand's Buddhist clergy. But detractors say the 90-year-old abbot of Wat Pak Nam in Bangkok is too close to a large, controversial temple called Wat Phra Dhammakaya.PHOTO: THE NATION, BANGKOK

The elderly monk listened carefully as this reporter introduced herself. Then, in the gentlest of manners, he declined the interview, gifting me instead with a bright pink pouch embroidered with his signature.

Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, Thailand's acting Supreme Patriarch, is known more for his silence than his words.

Yet his taciturn attitude, including during an audience with The Straits Times last year, has not saved him from turning into the epicentre of a growing conflict in the monastic order, which recently saw scuffles between soldiers and monks.

The struggle revolves around who should assume the highest post within the kingdom's Buddhist clergy.

On paper, 90-year-old Somdet Chuang, as he is more commonly known, is the strongest candidate.

The abbot of Wat Pak Nam in Bangkok has the highest rank among the senior monk candidates. He was nominated for the post by the Supreme Sangha Council, a governing body for monks.

But detractors say he is too close to a large, controversial temple called Wat Phra Dhammakaya. An ongoing investigation has also uncovered forged documents linked to his vintage Mercedes-Benz.

Somdet  Phra  Maha Ratchamangalacharn, Thailand's acting Supreme Patriarch, is known more for his silence than his words.

Yet his taciturn attitude has not saved him from turning into the epicentre of a growing conflict in the monastic order, which recently saw scuffles between soldiers and monks.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has stalled what would have been a procedural act of forwarding his name for approval by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This has incensed his supporters within the clergy, who staged a protest at a Buddhist park two weeks ago.

According to Wat Pak Nam's website, the abbot was born Chuang Sudprasert in 1925. He lost his father when he was seven. At 14, he was ordained at a temple in eastern Bangkok and moved to Wat Pak Nam shortly after.

"I was poor and heard that the abbot provided whole meals for monks," he said in a video.

Wat Pak Nam was, at that time, helmed by Luang Phor Sodh, famous for his Dhammakaya-style of meditation. He became one of Somdet Chuang's teachers.

One of Luang Phor Sodh's other disciples, a nun by the name of Chandra Khonnokyoong, founded Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a temple that would later grow in wealth and strength, not least because it attracted powerful politicians and businessmen as followers.

But the temple has been accused of distorting Buddhist teachings, holding grand ceremonies and also receiving millions of baht in donations siphoned off from a credit union. It is now led by a charismatic monk called Phra Dhammachayo, who was once taught by Somdet Chuang.

Critics have drawn from this complex web of relationships to allege that Somdet Chuang has abused his authority to protect his former student. The senior monk has largely maintained his silence.

But according to Thai media reports, the taciturn monk has urged the government to protect the welfare of monks based in insurgency- plagued, Muslim-dominated provinces in the south.

In 2014, he called for greater financial help for monks in the south so that they need not head out of their temples to collect food and risk being attacked.

After the military coup in May that year, he asked if all television channels could broadcast Buddhism precepts before their programmes.

He has also travelled to Singapore, where he was one of the special guests at the 2014 re-opening of Manjusri Library in Geylang.

The Thai Prime Minister has promised a debate on the Supreme Patriarch appointment. Meanwhile, Somdet Chuang carries on his duties as Thailand's top monk, all but in name.

On Makha Bucha day last week, when Buddhists nationwide held candle-lit processions, his speech was broadcast on national TV.

"I humbly ask all of you to adhere to the five Buddhist precepts... We should abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, and to dedicate the merit to Their Majesties the King and Queen," he said.

"May prosperity and peace come to the people and nation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Most senior Thai monk draws controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe