Some actions are taken.
THEY have girlfriends and take drugs. They drink whisky and sing karaoke. Their conveyance of choice is a Mercedes-Benz saloon. But when they hit town they have to wear a wig because, as Buddhist monks, they need to be discreet.
It has not been a good two weeks for the clergy. Wanchai Oonsap, the abbot of a temple near the capital, Bangkok, was caught on camera masquerading as an army colonel with girls on his arm. When police arrested him, as he left a house after spending the night with the women, his wig and uniform fell away, revealing his shaven pate and orange robes beneath.
At first he claimed that the girls were relatives and that he had worn the uniform in honour of an old king of great military skill. He failed to explain satisfactorily what empty alcohol bottles, condoms and pornographic videos were doing in the house, and was promptly defrocked.
Police had earlier caught a monk and the chauffeur of Phra Pativetviset, a senior Bangkok abbot, at a karaoke bar. A third man in saffron robes was seen driving away, having left a wig, layman’s clothes and sunglasses in the toilet. The abbot denied breaking celibacy and other vows but resigned from the holy order.
Several girls working in the bar said he was a regular visitor and “a party animal”. He was easily recognised by his shaven eyebrows – a requirement for all monks. This week an abbot was arrested in connection with the rape and murder of a woman he had been seeing regularly. Police discovered him at the monastery, burning bloodstained clothes and a ring inscribed with the victim’s surname.
Adding to the scandals, a 39-year-old abbot, Pongsak Parisuth, was charged on Friday with possessing and dealing in amphetamines. He was arrested during a routine roadside stop and search operation, driving in layman’s clothes with his girlfriend alongside. Guns were later found at his home.
Thais are accustomed to roguish monks and members of the clergy being involved in major crimes, such as the murder of the British tourist Johanne Masheder in 1995. The number of incidents of depravity and crime linked to men of the cloth have grown alarmingly, prompting much hand-wringing about a collapse of spiritual values and the rise of Mammon in the monasteries.
An editorial in Friday’s Bangkok Post said: “Monks used to follow strict rules . . . they could not even touch money. Today monks and abbots run their temples as if salvation was a commercial transaction. Many are corrupt and buy their way into religious positions from which they can pursue worldly goals.”
Government officials have admitted that postings to wealthy parts of the country are traded by unscrupulous holy men, who happily exploit a key part of the Theravada Buddhism practised by 95 per cent of Thais – gaining merit for the next life. This can involve worshippers giving anything from rice, as monks make their morning rounds, to luxury vehicles and vast sums of cash.
One monk was recently photographed showing off a collection of 60 vintage Mercedes-Benz cars bought principally from worshippers’ donations. When challenged, he said he planned to create a mechanic-training scheme for disadvantaged youth.
There are about 300,000 monks, a high number in a population of 60 million. Men will commonly spend a few months in a monastery after school, between jobs, or before they marry, but the inclusive approach is open to abuse by criminals seeking refuge and by the greedy ready to exploit people’s veneration of a sacred institution. Sathienpong Wannapok, a columnist and formerly a monk for 20 years said: “We must be more strict about who is allowed to stay long-term.
Nowadays anyone is accepted and they don’t pay enough attention to the religious side of their teaching.”
The Religious Affairs Department has said it is “brainstorming” to find ways to tackle the crisis, including increasing the current inspection force of 200 monks. Many fear that if the problem is not tackled, a spiritual vacuum could be created that will be filled by foreign and homegrown cults.
The Sangha Council, the supreme religious authority, has been called on to reform the system and toughen discipline. At present, offenders can only be expelled if they are caught red-handed . . . or on videotape.