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Thailand's rebel monk

It’s been more than seven months since the anti-government protests in Bangkok ended with the military coup, but a sand bunker – a common sight during the tumult - remains at the entrance to Or Noi temple in Nakhon Pathom province near the capital.

A guard stationed there gives me the once over as my car rolls up. Later, as I wait to speak to its most high profile monk, Phra Buddha Isara, I spy an aide fingering a rifle as he shuffles to stay warm in the January chill.

They are understandably wary. The 59-year-old monk personally led a group of protesters to blockade a government complex for months, defended by guards who reportedly assaulted passersby who strayed near the camp.

After then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted, and her caretaker government toppled by a military coup, he stayed in the headlines - airing his opinions on the draft Constitution and how to monitor politicians. He is now taking on Thailand’s top ecclesiastical authority, the Sangha Supreme Council, for refusing to sanction the controversial Dhammakaya temple.

The council elders are like “politicians”, he claims. “They side with anybody who pays them.”

As a result, monks “won’t care for any principles…  but try to promote  themselves, and then bargain for power, money and any offering”.

There’s a video camera trained on us for the entire two hours that we talk. His crew tell me they collect footage for Phra Buddha’s own satellite TV station, which is also streamed online.

But the monk takes little heed of the filming as he makes light of his connection to the military. The former infantryman from the Queen’s Guard – which junta members Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paochinda hail from – has flitted between monkhood and military life, having been ordained a total of three times.

“I was bored,” he says. “I had a job to do. Spy.”

He laughs, but declines to elaborate.

Born Suwit Thongprasert to a brick factory owner and a tobacco company executive, he spent his formative years in Bangkok, before enrolling in the army. He credits his military experience with helping him withstand attacks on his camp during the anti-government protests last year.

At Or Noi temple, he retained his fearless streak, confronting an influential businessman whose animal feed factory raised a stink near the temple.

“I went to see the godfather alone on his birthday, and said we needed to talk,” he recounts. “There were about 400 or more people present, and most of them had guns.

“He denied at first. But I asked ‘what are you afraid of? I came alone.’

The factory later improved its operations to reduce the pollution.

“I am fierce,” he admits. “If I stop being a monk, people would be scared of me. Even the powerful men or godfathers are scared of me.”

His piercing eyes crinkle with amusement.

“Because I am a crazy person.”

Detractors say he should step down for causing rifts in the Buddhist clergy. To them, he replies: “No, I won’t quit.”

Besides, “people say that as a monk, the older you get, the cooler you become”.

tanhy@sph.com.sg