As scandals involving misbehaving monks rock the nation, 101 East examines if Thailand can save its moral soul.
Nehn Kham was once a hugely popular monk preaching in Thailand’s poor northeast region. Today, he is an international fugitive with a $32m fortune that he amassed through fraud.
Buddhists around the world were shocked when footage emerged of the monk on a private plane, clutching a Louis Vuitton bag and fidgeting with high-end gadgets. His extravagance put him atop a long list of misbehaving monks making headlines in Thailand for fist fights, smuggling drugs, selling guns, hiding pornography and more.
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In response, Thailand’s military junta has set up a 24-hour hotline for the public to report rule-breaking monks. But the junta is also proposing new laws to criminalise breaking any Buddhist rule – a move some fear is an over-reaction that would threaten religious freedom.
101 East exclusively reveals where Thailand’s infamous jet-setting monk has been hiding, and meets those on a mission to save the country’s moral soul.
By Pailin Wedel
Buddhist monks aren’t like priests or imams. In Buddhist Thailand, almost any man can become a monk. In fact, most of them do: a 10-day stint in orange robes is expected of men seeking to gain karma for their parents or recalibrate after a relative’s death.
My grandfather was different. A complicated family situation compelled his mother to drop him off at a temple in southern Thailand at the tender age of three. The temple’s abbot was his own uncle, a monk revered for his piety and knowledge of herbal medicine. By the time my grandfather was 12, he ordained a novice monk and stayed in the temple until he was 25.
Buddhism was his moral centre and source of wisdom. The temple was his home.
These experiences made him who he was. The lessons he learned were passed through the generations to my mother and later to me. I was taught that karma is real because, as science teaches us, every action causes a reaction. I learned that attachment to material things brings suffering. He lived by these values right up to the day he passed away.
In his will, he asked us to forego all wreaths and cash gifts – a radical move in modern Thailand, where Buddhist funerals have become displays of status and wealth.
My grandfather revered a raw and simple version of Buddhism. But it’s not the Buddhism you’ll find popular in Thailand today. The best-known modern Thai monks are celebrities who rake in donations. They cultivate followers on television or social media. They’re followed by entourages and live in large homes. Particularly garish temples lure in followers with rituals that help them predict winning lottery numbers.
All of this magic and greed goes against many of the 227 Buddhist precepts. And for an increasing number of high-flying monks, this perversion of the teachings has become their undoing.
With camera phones and social media, monks are more scrutinised than ever. Rumours and images spread online like wildfire and each week brings a new monk scandal to morning Thai TV talk shows or YouTube. At least three Facebook pages, with millions of followers between them, are dedicated to rooting out bad monks.
The Thai public has been inundated with video of monks at their worst: fighting, drinking and cavorting with women. Other monks have descended into serious crimes such as dealing drugs or molesting children.
Most recently, the corruption of the faith is symbolised by Nehn Kham, a monk made infamous by a leaked video in which he wears designer sunglasses and travels on a private jet with Louis Vuitton luggage. No one knows how he amassed a $32m fortune spread across 40 bank accounts but he was charged with fraud and is now being investigated for money laundering.
Thais were shocked and ashamed. Foreigners who saw the video, which made headlines around the world, were left confused: isn’t being a monk about living a pious life?
Many Thai Buddhists are disheartened by the wave of scandals. But I’m a little more optimistic. It seems like for every Buddhist turning a blind eye to misdeeds, there’s another seeking to expose them. While Thai society is disappointed in their religious role models, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. There’s a publicly-driven crackdown.
Even Thailand’s military government is responding. Promising to establish moral order it sets up a 24-hour hotline for Thais to report bad monks. A proposed bill would treat monks who break Buddhist precepts – by dating women, for example – as outright criminals. The law is so strict that even the women who are caught cavorting with monks could be fined or jailed.
That bill is still in the works and looks like a good idea on the surface. But it’s a severe law that, if passed, could resemble hardline anti-blasphemy codes in nations such as Pakistan. It will force non-Buddhist Thais to abide by Buddhist rules.
I’m not sure what my grandfather would think of the misbehaving monks or the overwhelming response from the government and the public. He’d probably say it’s all part of the equilibrium of things. A series of actions and reactions that will eventually balance out. It’s karma at work.