THE saffron robe, the symbol of Thailand's moral fabric, is being stained and splotched by incessant scandals.
Misbehaving monks who wantonly discard the tenets of Buddhism to chase worldly pleasures are marring the image of the religion.
Thais, 95% of whom are Buddhists, are embarrassed by the antics and aberrations of these monks. They are also increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with the Sangha Supreme Council – the country's highest religious authority – and the Religious Affairs Department for their lack of will in wanting to punish these rogues in robes.
Ten years ago, most of the cases that raised eyebrows were usually about monks who led double lives – praying and meditating in the temple during the day but sneaking out to meet mistresses or to sleazy joints and karaoke bars at night.
Some of the abbots were eventually exposed and defrocked but many got away with mere slaps on the wrists and still remain in venerated positions.
Sadly, promiscuous monks are still around today. In addition to such behaviour, monks have lately been caught dealing in drugs, smuggling pornographic VCDs, cheating worshippers of their savings, embezzling temple funds, claiming supernatural powers, sexual abuse and gross indecency in drunken stupor.
These days, the list includes the most heinous of crimes: murder and involvement in organised crime.
The saga of Phra Khru Nanthapiwat, the “Mafia monk” of Wat Klang Bang Sue in Nonthaburi who was shot dead last Wednesday, has made Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra attempt to do something quickly to root out the nexus between organised crime and monks.
Thaksin is trying to change the age-old monastic rules under which temples are run so independently they do not even have to submit accounts of donations for auditing.
“I have consulted senior monks of the Sangha Supreme Council about amending some monastic rules so that the government can act against monks who abuse their power or authority,” he said after last week's Cabinet meeting.
Thaksin has assigned Deputy Prime Minister Vishanu Kruangam to resolve the problem systematically, without offending the clergy.
Investigations into the murder of Phra Khru Nanthapiwat have yet to fully expose the skein of underworld links with temples and monasteries, many of which have huge assets.
The murdered monk had an estimated Bt100mil (about RM10mil) in cash in five bank accounts, besides several houses and a fleet of luxury cars.
Police have arrested two suspects – ex-convict Prapan Paksuksri, 34, and Somkiat Kitcharoen, 40, both close aides of the monk.
Four others, including the monk's nephew and driver, are being sought by police.
Prapan, who admitted to shooting the monk, re-enacted how he committed the crime in front of media cameras.
He implicated the abbot's adopted son and lawyer, Kampanat Muannak. Restaurant owner Preeda Sirisak-ampai, who was involved in a legal tangle with the monk for several years, was also named in the plot.
In another twist to the story, Prapan – who was released from jail last year after serving a 10-year sentence for murder – told police the abbot had offered him Bt300,000 to kill the mayor of a neighbouring town.
He claimed that he took the money but did not carry out the hit because Mayor Suniphon Klinchue had helped him in the past. Instead, he said the mayor offered to pay him to kill the abbot and that he took on the job.
Police, however, believe there is more to the story and are unlikely to wrap up the probe soon.
Even before the “Mafia monk” murder, public clamour over the miscreant monks was loud enough for one MP to raise the matter in Parliament.
Wichai Chaijitwanichakul, the Chat Pattana MP for Udon Thai who chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Religion and the Arts, lambasted “naughty monks” and rebuked religious leaders for turning a blind eye.
Blaming badly-behaved monks for the decline of Buddhism in the country, he cited a recent case of an abbot in Ang Thong province who was well known for using telephone sex-chat services. He said the culprit was made to resign as head of the temple but allowed to stay on as a monk.
Some Thais have given up going to the temple altogether. Ravee Wattanatanakorn said he used to give alms to monks and donations to temples to “make merit” but these days he does not feel like doing so.
“I give my money to poor schools and community organisations and small temples in the north. At least I know where my money is going to,” said the managing director of CarWorld Club Company.
Ravee said it was a shame that the millions of baht donated to the temples do not end up helping the poor people, whose lives remain unchanged.
“Surely, this money can be put to good use through proper channels. At least the Buddhists who go to the temple should know what is being done with their money.”
He said monks were meant to lead simple lives and those who manage temples and monasteries should use the assets accrued to help the poor.
M. Veera Pandiyan is Editor, Asia News Portal, based in Bangkok (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
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