BANGKOK: A saffron-robed monk takes to the stage in the Thai capital and urges cheering protesters to fight a "black-hearted" government - testing a taboo in the devout kingdom about clerics getting involved in politics.
Since opposition protests broke out in Bangkok three months ago, Luang Pu Buddha Issara has emerged as a key figure in the anti-government movement, organising prayers and addressing the crowds, with rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban sitting at his feet in a sign of respect.
He is even in charge of his own rally site, one of several set up around Bangkok by demonstrators seeking to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and to end the political dominance of her billionaire family.
The protest monk rails against the embattled premier and her brother Thaksin, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006 and lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
"The government, which is run by the Shinawatra family - the brother and sister - has no morality or ethics. They are corrupt and they allow corruption to happen. They lie everyday," said the 58-year-old, who has also been outspoken about scandals involving the bad behaviour and lavish lifestyles of some clerics.
"The religious domain has a duty to tell the secular domain what to do - and what not to do," he told AFP, justifying his role at the vanguard of the protest movement.
But not everybody is happy with his activism.
"Monks cannot get involved with politics," said Nopparat Benjawattantnun, director-general of Office of National Buddhism, the official organisation in charge of overseeing the behaviour of monks.
"But he has not stopped," said Nopparat, who has written to authorities in Nakhon Pathom province - home to Buddha Issara's temple - telling them bring him into line.
'Destroying the image of Buddhism'
The protest monk is also the subject of a complaint by the Buddhist Association of Thailand, a non-governmental organisation.
"Monks can have personal feelings but political expression is banned according to Sangha regulations," said the association's secretary Sathien Wipornmaha, adding that Buddha Issara "destroys the image of Buddhism".
Buddhist monks have openly played a political role elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as during a failed uprising against the former junta in neighbouring Myanmar in 2007.
In Thailand, where some 95 percent of the population are practising Buddhists - one of the highest rates in the world - many believe that the country's tens of thousands of monks should stay out of partisan politics.
Yet their participation in political or social movements is not unprecedented.
In 2010 dozens of monks participated in the "Red Shirts" pro-Thaksin protests in Bangkok, although they kept a lower profile than Buddha Issara. Some were even arrested.
"Although in theory monks are apolitical, in practice when you start to really scrutinise what's going on beneath the surface, you discover there is all kind of politics," said Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at Britain's University of Leeds.
"What is unusual here is a prominent monk who is not only playing a supporting role or a legitimising role, but who is actually in the middle of a stage," he said. "It's an unusually overt role for a monk to play."
The controversy surrounding Buddha Issara's activities has not dimmed his appeal among supporters, some of whom have followed him to Bangkok from his temple.
"The secular domain was in trouble," said 75-year-old devotee Mayurachat Manothai, decked out in glasses, headband, T-shirt, rings and bracelets in the colours of the Thai flag worn by many of the protesters.
"He has to help because if the secular domain collapses, the religious domain cannot live, because there will be no one to support religion," she told AFP in front of the rally stage, where the monk was surrounded by a dozen guards dressed in bullet-proof vests and sunglasses.
"There are two leaders respected by the protesters, Khun Suthep and me," the monk said, speaking a few days before another protest leader was shot dead during a speech. Khun is a term of respect.
"If one of us is killed, a massive crowd will come out and it will be an excuse for the government to use force to crack down," he said, promising to never leave his position.
"We will stay here," the monk vowed. "We want this country to win." -AFP