Private jets and Louis Vuitton bags. Nearly a million pills of amphetamines. Millions of dollars vanished and pornographic photos on computers and mobile phones . They are not the follies, or the crimes, of a drug gang or human traffickers. These are just some of the shady affairs of dozens of Thai Buddhist monks that have come to light in just a few years and have scandalized a large part of the country's society.
But the Thai military junta, which seized power in a 2014 coup, has decided that the festival in the temples is over. Since the beginning of the year, it has begun to review the accounts of monasteries and abbots and has put several of them in jail for embezzlement, among other charges. Even Germany had to go to arrest the last of them, who had fled the country after his temple was accused of diverting the money that both the government and the faithful gave them. The authorities could not, however, extradite him since the religious requested political asylum in the German country.
Buddhism imposes a whole series of harsh rules on monks, better known as the “vinaya”, which would have been enunciated by the Buddha himself in life and which can be summarized in the main precept formulated by the prophet: suffering of man is caused by desire, so all vices must be eradicated. Vice, however, is strictly understood and includes not only sexual intercourse or killing others, but also destroying nature, touching money or possessing anything beyond robes, the bowl to receive food and some more basic things for survival.
However, in Thailand, Buddhism has adapted well to capitalist logic, and as was the case with Christianity during the Middle Ages, it sustains itself mainly through perks why believers give money to temples and monks to 'make merit' or, put another way, buy the Buddhist version of forgiveness, good karma. “Thais and Buddhists in general are very flexible. They adapt to everything,” says Gothom Arya, a professor at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Peace at Mahidol University.
This is the only way to understand that in a country where the most widespread religion -93% of Thais declare themselves Buddhists- calls for meditation and a life without pleasures, industries such as sex or party tourism have proliferated. “Thai people are not happy with monks. They are supposed to be the model,” says Banjob Bannaruji, an expert on Buddhism and president of the Committee to Promote Buddhism as a State Religion, a radical group that promotes the supremacy of Buddhism in the country. "If they don't change, there is going to be a crisis in Buddhism," he continues.
According to Banjob, without model monasticism, Buddhism in Thailand will die at the hands of Muslims from neighboring countries such as Myanmar, a country with a Buddhist majority where Rohingya Muslims have fled persecution orchestrated by the army with the approval of the government. “The country is at risk of an Islamic invasion. […] Morality has to guide the nation,” he says.
His organization, however, has already ensured that the latest Constitution, drafted by the military and approved in a referendum in August 2016, contemplates special protection for Buddhism, unprecedented in previous Magna Cartas . Thus, the new text ensures that the State must "promote and support the education and dissemination of the dharma principles (Buddhist teachings) of Theravada Buddhism [...] and must have measures and mechanisms to prevent the Buddhism is harmed in any way." "Buddhism this time clearly put itself at a higher level than other religions," writes the French journalist Arnaud Dubus in his recent book 'Buddhism and Politics in Thailand'.
In southern Thailand, a Muslim-majority area where an independence conflict has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since 2004, schools have always been a source of tension. However, the use of the veil was normally respected. Until last month, when a school forbade its students to wear the veil under the pretext that it was on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. Although the school ended up giving in, similar chapters have given wings to theories about a growing Islamophobia in the country such as those that have recently been experienced in other Buddhist countries such as Myanmar or Sri Lanka. "There is friction between Buddhists and Muslims," says Gothom Arya.
The promotion of Buddhism that the military is championing is not helping to calm the waters either. “If there is any anti-Muslim rhetoric among those groups […] in normal politics, the government would do something to reduce tensions. But if you have a pro-Buddhist government, it's unlikely they'll do anything,” says Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a researcher on the influence of Buddhism on the Thai legal system at the University of Bristol.
According to Khemthong, the military “really believes that they have to reform Buddhism” but their main objective would be to improve their eroded image after four years in power. “They don't have popular or democratic legitimacy so they have to rely on more primitive forms of legitimacy,” explains the academic. “This question of religion is emotional […] Most Thais feel that they are part of that [Buddhist] community. It's easy to use as a campaign,” says Gothom Arya. "One of the ultimate goals is to guide the Thai people in choosing the right person, which for the board would be [current Prime Minister] Prayuth," adds Khemthong.
"The military has no popular or democratic legitimacy so they have to rely on more primitive forms of legitimacy"
The cleansing in monasteries is also serving the junta to undermine the political influence of the monks, most of whom are considered red shirts, an opposition group formed around former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a coup. State in 2006. “The sangha [governing council of Thai Buddhism] and the Buddhist community in general have become increasingly polarized since 2005, in parallel with the growing division between Thaksin's supporters and detractors,” Arnaud Dubus wrote in his book.
Thus, most of the temples that have been investigated are directly related to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains popular despite living in exile. One of the examples is the Wat Saket, one of the main temples of the capital, whose abbot and some of his main monks have been arrested. Last year, the junta laid siege for nearly a month at the Dhammakaya temple, Thailand's largest and richest, whose abbot had also been linked to the former prime minister. “They suspect that Dhamakaya is siding with Thaksin and Thaksin has become the junta's enemy,” says Gothom Arya.
While the elections arrive, promised for February 2019 -although they have already been delayed several times-, there will be little partying in the Thai monasteries. If Prayuth succeeds in taking over as head of government again, he may never return, and the general-turned-civilian-politician will continue to try to recapture the probity Buddha once exemplified.