Thailand's materialistic monks pose worldly problems

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 21, 2013 The viral video depicting Thai Buddhist monks lavishing luxury goods while riding on a private jet is just the tip of the iceberg in an ever-growing list of the men in the orange robes behaving badly - or just like any other human with worldly problems.

Earlier this week, an YouTube video showing Buddhist monks sitting on a private jet plane sporting luxury bags, aviator sunglasses and listening to beats caused widespread attention, uproar and inevitable ridicule in Thailand and beyond. The depiction of the apparent lavish lifestyle runs against the strict and downright ascetic rules a Buddhist monk has follow once he decides to devote his life to the teachings of the Buddha.

However, Thai newspapers regularly carry reports of Buddhist monks behaving badly. And a quick look at the headlines in the two English-language dailies The Nation and Bangkok Post for just this year so far alone make for impressive/depressing reading, depending how you look at it:

There are two reports of drug and alcohol abuse (January 15May 28), two cases of physical assault or at least altercations (March 6April 3), three counts sexual abuse of minors, including underage novice monks (April 11June 18 and 19), at least one monk caught dining with a woman (February 8), a profanity-filled tirade by a monk on the SkyTrain captured on film (January 11) and countless allegations of improper use of donation money.

Thailand's national Buddhism agency, the National Office of Buddhism, already reprimanded around 300 monks for misconduct in 2012.

At the center of the current high-flying monks is Luang Phu Nenkham Chattigo - the one depicted in the video with the designer handbag - a 34-year-old, high-profile abbot from Si Saket province with good connections and a controversial past. He is regularly seen riding in Mercedes Benz or Rolls Royce limousines (like in this photograph taken in 2011 visiting refugees from the Thai-Cambodian border clashes - also note the numberplate with the auspicious numbers 9999), which are all legitimate donations as claimed by the monk and his followers. Also, he has allegedly been pictured lying next to a woman - on many levels an unthinkable breach of the celibate rule. His followers are dismissing this to be a malicious photoshop job. Oh, and you can also buy a statue of him for the auspicious sum of THB 99,999 (US$ 3,200) or a commemorative coin for THB 1,000 (US$ 32) - and then there's this...

Much of the temple's web presence consists of glowing homage to [Luang Phu Nenkham] who mixes Buddhist doctrine with claims of supernatural powers.

His personal site contends that he has walked upon water: He rose up and realized that his feet did not even touch the dust on the floor and stayed afloat when walking on the pond. And later in life, so goes the monk's lore, he meditated for three months inside a cave where a python would rest on his chest.

"Thailand reels at video of Buddhist monks' private jet journey", by Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, June 20, 2013

The problem with Thailand's Buddhism - a mixture of animism, superstition, Hinduism and the conservative Buddhist branch of Theravada of which officially almost 95 per cent of the population adheres to - is not solely Buddhist monks behaving badly (or just plain human as some would argue) or other contradictions many monks run afoul of.

There is, for example, the problem of increasing emphasis of materialism in daily religious practice by both the monks and the faithful:

The reformist monk Phayom Kallayano claims that Buddhism in Thailand is indeed 'facing a crisis'. The problem, according to Phayom, is that monks these days are allowing themselves to 'become slaves to material gains'. He notes that many monasteries want to lavish 'enormous sums' on building construction, 'in the hope of attracting public donations' from the new rich.

From: "(Post‐) Modernity, remaking tradition and the hybridisation of Thai Buddhism", by Jim Taylor, in: Anthropological Forum, Vol. 9 (1999), Issue 2, p 163–187

This practice, not unlike to the selling of indulgences in 16th century Christianity, against which German reformist Martin Luther was protesting in 1521 - was popularized by the Dhammakāya Movement and has been proven to be popular among the urban middle-class. The movement, regarded by many as a sect, is known to put on lavish mass-processions in the middle of Bangkok and also claimed last year the afterlife of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Also, the claim by the aforementioned monks riding in luxury vehicles that these were donated show on one hand that some Buddhist monks indeed indulge in materialistic goods or at best could show the sheer naivety of some well-off well-wishers. In the latter case, such donations are simply unnecessary and pointless.

On the other hand is the apparent utilitarian approach to Buddhism by Thais, who participate in customs and rites uncritically, since it is simply part of daily life and a tradition that has been passed on without any questions.

As Mod darts from one donation box to the next she pauses to slip Bt100 (US$3.35) into a box placed before a statue of the elephant god Ganesha. When pressed on the significance of the Hindu deity in a Buddhist temple, she struggles to place him in a Buddhist context but agrees with her friends nevertheless that he is holy and we should not question such mystical things.

"The Crisis in Thai Buddhism", Asia Sentinel, February 1, 2013

Many more issues need in Thai Buddhism to be tackled - such as the role of monks in political conflicts, the utter disregard of female monks or the problematic attitude of monastic Sangha order itself - if it is to maintain moral credibility and not descend into irrelevance, otherwise the men in the orange robes will be increasingly seen as, to borrow a phrase from German poet Heinrich Heine, those who "publicly preach to fly economy, whereas they ride in their own jet!"

2011 - Some Personal Thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 31, 2011 2011 is history and looking back on Thailand this past year, it has been yet another eventful year that brought some answers, but many more questions to the wide-spread problems that continues to plague the country in many aspects. However, 2011 brought many chances and changes, shed light on issues and topics left in the dark before, voices echoed by many and opinions uttered by a few, whether you agree with them or not.

This is a (definitely incomplete) list of these stories that happened in 2011...

Lèse majesté sees December surge

Let's start off with the most recent topic that has unfortunately brought Thailand into the world headlines for all the wrong reasons again and that is none other than the problematic issue of lèse majesté that is gripping freedom of speech. The whole month of December was filled with stories about high-profile cases and countless victims of this draconian law, the discussion to amend it and the (irrational) defenders of this law and the institution that is meant to be protected by it.

The recent surge of lèse majesté began in late November with the dubious sentence against Ampon "Uncle SMS" Tangnoppakul, despite doubtful evidence. The 62-year old grandfather is now being jailed for 20 years, five years for each alleged SMS sent. On December 8 the Thai-born US citizen was  sentenced to two and a half years prison for posting translated parts of a banned biography on the King. On December 15 'Da Torpedo', despite winning an appeal resulting in a restart of her trial, was punished to 15 years prison for alleged remarks made in 2008. These are just a few cases that happened in November and December compared to the countless other (partly ongoing or pending) cases over the past 12 months.

But the surge was also accompanied with growing and publicly displayed concern by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States Embassy in Bangkok over the increasing blatant usage of the lèse majesté law, only with the latter to be flooded with irrational, angry hate speeches and also the venue for a protest by royalists in mid-December (and also in a nearly instant iconic display of royal foolishness, the protesters are wearing Guy Fawkes masks, most likely inspired by the #Occupy-movement, but totally oblivious to its historical roots). It was not the first time this year that this issue got attention from the international community, as seen in October.

The government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected into office last July (see below), and while she would have liked to see some change on the application of the law, not to the law itself though, the new ICT minister has vowed to exploit this to the fullest. He was only to be topped by deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung a few months later, who went into full combat mode and declared war on lèse majesté web content with a THB400m ($12,6m) strong war chest, right after a meeting with the military's top brasses. The hopes of many supporters of the Pheu Thai Party, especially the red shirts, are at latest by now fully gone, as this government already has a tainted record on this issue.

But there was also an important protest by opponents of lèse majesté - the "Fearlessness Walk" shows that this issue can no longer be ignored and the consequences of its enforcement are doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. It is drawing attention to the ambiguous nature of Article 112 of the criminal code (as well as the Computer Crimes Act), it is drawing attention to the signs of changing times and those who refuse to see them, and ultimately it will draw more opposition - we will (unfortunately) hear more about this issue in 2012!

(Non-)Culture: Baring the unbearable and monopolizing "Thai"-ness

While we're on the subject on being subjected to the anachronistic ideas of a few, there were several stories in 2011 in the realms of culture that were disconcerting, to say the least. It wasn't so much the incidents themselves rather the reactions by those self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thai"-ness - a phrase I've been using too often in each of those stories: three girls dancing topless on Songkran, the then-culture minister calls for a crackdown on them as if they have attacked everything "Thai"-ness stands for. A few months later the same culture minister suddenly notices that infidels foreigners are getting Buddhist tattoos and calls for a ban (and back paddles after some considerable uproar). Shortly after his ministry senselessly attempts to crack down on a senseless internet meme because it's "inappropriate" and "not constructive". Later this year a rather curious guide for parents was published on their website. And finally a singer's rather raunchy video gets a ton of hits online and a sanctimonious scolding on national TV.

See a pattern here? The selective outcry borders on ridiculousness and fuels Thailand’s National Knee-Jerk Outrage Machine (“กลไกสร้างปฏิกิริยาอย่างไร้ความยั้งคิดแห่งประเทศไทย”, trademark pending), claims to uphold the only valid definition of "Thai"-ness, that isn't even fully spelled out yet, while they have not noticed that the world beyond their minds has moved on and come up with new and different definitions of what else Thailand could be. The problem is that these cultural heralds, by political office or class, claim monopoly on this. Everyone below their wage level is not entitled to even think about it. And if something doesn't fit their point of view, as guest contributor Kaewmala put it brilliantly, "Only taboo when it's inconvenient!"

The 2011 General Elections

Will he or will he not? In the end, Abhisit Vejjajiva did dissolve parliament and paved the way for early elections in May and also set off quite a short campaign season, which not only saw a few strange election posters and illustrious characters running for office, but it also saw the emergence of Yingluck Shinawatra as the lucky draw for PM candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party. After much skyping to Dubai discussion within the party, the sister of Thaksin was chosen to run and it turned out to be the best pick.

The Democrat Party were banking heavily on negative campaigning (a precursor to the upcoming, inevitable Thaksin-phobia in 2012), which reached its climax in the last days with their rally at Rajaprasong, the same venue where the red shirts protested a year ago. In this event, then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thuangsuban claimed to give the "full truth" on what really happened during the violent crackdown of May 19, 2010. What followed were hours of fear-mongering in case of a Pheu Thai win and an incident that almost caused a major misunderstanding:

The big screens flanking the stage on the left and the right are bearing a gruesome view. Footage of at times badly injured people from last year’s rally are being shown when suddenly at the sight of blood people started cheering – as it turns out, not for the brutally killed victims of the anti-governments protests of 2010, but for a woman with an Abhisit cut-out mask waving to the crowd behind her.

"Thailand’s Democrat Party rally: Reclaiming (the truth about) Rajaprasong", Siam Voices, June 24, 2011

The last days of the campaign were spent outside of Bangkok, for example Pheu Thai in Nakhon Ratchasima before the big day. On Sunday, July 3, election day of course meant a full-day-marathon for a journalist. Not only did it mean covering as many polling stations around town as humanly possible, not only to crunch the numbers of exit polls (which turned out to be total BS!), but also of course running the live-blog at Siam Voices. In the end, it went very quickly: Abhisit conceded, Yingluck smiled and at a lunch meeting later there was already a new five-party coalition.

The worst floods in decades: a deluge of irrationality


This is the current death toll of the what has been described as the "worst floods in decades". Floods are an annual occurrence in Thailand during the rainy season. When the water was sweeping through Chiang Mai already back in late September, this natural disaster was somehow going to be different. But it took some considerable time, despite the unprecedented damage it has created in Ayutthaya to the ancient temples and the vital industrial parks, until the capital was drowned in fear of what was to come.

It was curious to observe that those who were least likely to be affected (read: central Bangkok) were losing their nerves the most. Back in November I attempted to explore one possible reason:

One of the real reasons why the people of the city react the way they did though is this: After a military coup, countless violent political protests and sieges of airports, government buildings and public roads, this city has a sense of anxiety not unlike New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: a sense of being constantly under siege by something or somebody that separates Bangkok from the rest of the country even more. An incident at Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate (we reported) is a perfect example of the conflict between inside and outside Bangkok in miniature form.

"The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 2: Certain fear of uncertainty", Siam Voices, November 23, 2011

On an anecdotal note I remember people around me hoarding bottled water, moving their belongings upstairs and barricading their houses waist-high - while I can understand these precautions, I was astonished to say the least when I started to read social media updates that accuse the government so much so to the point of deliberately drowning the people of Bangkok and other outlandish conspiracy theories, including the now ubiquitous "blame it on foreign media"-card.

There's no doubt that this natural disaster has not only shown the worst in people, but also it's helpful and charitable side (not only towards humans exclusively). During my work reporting from the floods for foreign news crews (hence there weren't many posts on Siam Voices), I admired the apparent resilience and defiance I saw from many victims of the floods - some of which are now struggling with rebuilding their lost existence. And a lot of clean-up will be needed to be done, both literally as well as politically, in order to prevent such a disaster from happening again!

What else happened in 2011? (in no particular order)

- Then-prime minister Abhisit urging then-president of Egypt Honsi Mubarak to respect the will of the people - while being totally oblivious that he exactly did not do that a year ago because, well, "They ran into the bullets" themselves!

- Half a dozen Thais walking through the border region with Cambodia and surprised that they're being arrested, in an arbitrary way to dispute the border demarcations between the two countries. This ongoing conflict, largely fueled by the ever-shrinking PAD, sparked into a brief armed battle. Two of the strollers are still sitting in a Cambodian prison.

- The one-year-anniversary of the crackdown of May 19 and my personal thoughts on this.

- The somehow strangely toned-down five-year-anniversary of the 2006 coup.

- Army chef General Prayuth Chan-ocha going completely berserk at the press.

- The fact that Thailand got its first female prime minister and the (un)surprisingly muted reactions by Thailand's feminists.

- The saga of the impounded Thai plane on German ground, the curious case study on how Thai media reported it, the juristic mud-slinging, and how this mess was eventually solved. Which brings us to...

- The German government allowing Thaksin back into Germany, after heavy campaigning by a bunch of conservative German MPs. Still boggles my mind...!

- And while we're on topic, we are saying good-bye to a regular contributor of outrageous quotes - no one has been so focused to do a different job than written his business card than Thaksin-hunter and former foreign minister in disguise Kasit Piromya!

I'd like to thank my colleagues at Siam Voices for building a diverse and opinionated collective, our editor who keeps everything in check and YOU, the readers! THANK YOU for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets!

Here's to an eventful, exciting 2012 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany again (*sigh*). He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.

"Black Khmer magic" a threat to the Thai army?!

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2011 During the most recent clashes at the Thai-Cambodian border the Thai military have beefed up their presence in the area with more troops, more military hardware and apparently also more amulets...?!

The chief of the 2nd Army distributed talismans to his troops to help protect them from evil curses which he believes Cambodians are likely to call upon in their fight over disputed border areas. As a result, soldiers guarding the border with Cambodia are now equipped with arms, life-saving kits - and talismans.

Second Army chief Thawatchai Samutsakhon issued assorted talismans to soldiers stationed at the disputed border area near the Preah Vihear temple in Si Sa Ket's Kantharalak district to ward off Khmer curses. "I believe in this and I have to take care of my subordinates in every possible way," Lt Gen Thawatchai said.

Lt Gen Thawatchai is a follower of the late Luang Poo Jiam Atissayo, a respected monk at Wat Intrasukaram in Surin's Sangkha district. (...)

An army source stationed at the border said he believed Cambodian troops would perform "some kind of rituals" on Preah Vihear temple to counter the army's distribution of talismans to its troops.

"Keep your talismans close, boys", Bangkok Post, February 12, 2011

Now, it would be easy to laugh it off as a quirky side note and call it a day. But you have to consider that superstition in ghosts and black magic is deeply rooted in South-East Asia and coexists alongside more established religions (and sometimes leads to some wild spiritual mashups). One big aspect of this are talismans and amulets that are supposed to give magic and/or protective powers from bad influences, but also bullets, knives and other worldly dangers.

So much so that in another incident, where two F-16 fight jets of the Thai Air Force have crashed during an exercise drill with US armed forces, there were persistent rumors that...

The air force spokesman brushed off a rumour that there could be a supernatural cause of the crash. "Do not believe in this sort of thing. I can't see how the crash could be related to that [black magic]. This is science: an engine problem perhaps, not superstition.

"Air force seeks clues to crash of F16 jets", Bangkok Post, February 15, 2011

Its impact reaches regularly into politics in Thailand, when there have been dozens of predictions by fortune tellers about the possible downfalls of prime ministers and/or military coups. And like all predictions, some are correct (partly), some are not (yet) and some utter nonsense!

For more on superstition and its influence on Thai politics I recommend you an article written by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker called "The spirits, the stars, and Thai politics", available here.

BONUS: As said above, superstition is widely common in South-East Asia and doesn't stop at the highest ranking people. The Irrawaddy runs a story where Burma's military junta leader Than Shwe was seen wearing a women's skirt in "an intentional act of superstition" to nullify many fortune-tellers prediction "that a woman will rule Burma one day".