An unholy display of aggression: The Nation

Thai Buddhist monks confront soldiers at Buddha Monthon in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, on Feb 15, 2016.
Thai Buddhist monks confront soldiers at Buddha Monthon in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, on Feb 15, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on Feb 18, the Nation argues that the angry monks who clashed with soldiers this week did a grievous disservice to Buddhism and to the country.

Thai Buddhism suffered yet another dismaying moment on Monday (Feb 15) when monks resorted to violence in a confrontation with soldiers at the Buddha Monthon sanctuary.

The tussle in Nakhon Pathom erupted when a large group of monks attempted to push through a military blockade. They were intent on attending a gathering to demand that the government endorse the Sangha Supreme Council's nomination of Somdet Chuang as next Supreme Patriarch.

The Sangha and the National Office of Buddhism had earlier cleared Somdet of alleged links to Dhammachayo, the controversial abbot of Wat Dhammakaya, whom the late Supreme Patriarch once accused of committing "parachik" (great offence) in registering property donated to his temple under his own name.

Video footage of Monday's melee delivered an unprecedented shock. Monks have never before been this aggressive en masse.

Surging in a fury, they attempted to push military vehicles out of their way and manhandled soldiers trying to keep them out. One monk was seen holding an Army officer in a headlock.

The military, in ironic contrast, dealt with the situation calmly for the most part, evidently avoiding the use of force in deference to the protesters' saffron robes.

It has been suggested that some of the violent men in robes were impostors, ordered to shave heads and don saffron by some unknown ringleader with political connections.

The video does in fact support this dark theory, since several monks - if that's what they are - can be seen taunting the soldiers and inciting violence. And the use of provocateurs in disguise if, after all, a common enough tactic in political clashes everywhere.

The fact remains, however, that many of the robed participants certainly were real monks, even if their actions call into question their adherence to the Lord Buddha's teachings, not least those about controlling emotions.

Properly ordained in holy rites they might be, but these did not appear to be men of religion.

As grotesque as it was, the scene on Monday represented another visit to the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Lying barely hidden beneath the surface was the systemic corruption that has led the country's predominant faith into sharp decline.

While respect for the Buddha's 2,500-year-old enlightened guidance has remained largely intact in this country, modern Thailand is beset with tales of misbehaving monks.

Even entire temple hierarchies slip from the sacred path to press devotees into donating as much money as possible - even if it has to be borrowed from the bank - quite contrary to the principles involved in making merit.

Monastic precepts bar monks from accumulating wealth, and yet many do just that. Several senior monks have been found on their demise to have millions of baht in their personal savings.

Monks need money, according to critics, to buy their way to higher monastic ranks where they can acquire even more wealth and wield greater influence over both clerical and lay authorities.

The problems persist. The solution has always been self-evident - and yet never acted upon.

Thai Buddhism is in desperate need of reform, starting with a dramatic clampdown on the accumulation of wealth by monks, who are after all supposed to develop virtue through the stoic refusal of material goods.

Clergymen are charged with preaching what they learn - by practice - in their efforts to help lay people deal with life's worries and, on a greater scale, help the country maintain social order.

What they preach must be what they practise.

If they cannot act according to what they preach, they have no value as priests.


The Nation is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.