Sunday marked Visakha Bucha Day which is the commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha. Buddhism is the largest religion in Thailand, but we cannot deny that faith in Buddhism has declined due to the inappropriate behaviour and misconduct of some monks.
In the past months, media outlets have reported news of many monastic members including monks of high ranks -- such as abbots -- engaging in sexual and other misconduct. A recent monk scandal concerns the case of Phra Kato, 23, at Wat Pen Yat in Chawang district, Nakhon Si Thammarat, who had a sexual relationship with a 37-year-old woman. Because of this, Phra Kato, or Pongsakorn Chankaew, was forced to leave monkhood.
Phra Kato was well known for his humorous preaching videos on social media. After he left the monkhood, Pongsakorn became even more well-known. When he appeared in public, people wanted to take photos with him or were excited to see him. Media outlets reported that he earned more income than when he was a monk. Pongsakorn earned 30,000 baht for one monastic event. Currently, he can earn 30,000 to 60,000 baht for a 30-minute appearance and a singing performance of four or five songs.
People who support Pongsakorn usually mention his background and that he has a good heart. When Pongsakorn was 13 years old, he earned a living performing shadow puppet shows. He had dreamed of being a singer and had once become a participant in a TV singing contest, Mic Thongkam (Golden Mic). Viewers felt sympathy towards him because he said on the show his mother had lung cancer and needed medication that cost 700 baht per day. Due to his mother's sickness, Pongsakorn gave up his studies at university to take care of her. He became a monk because of a promise to his late mother.
Pongsakorn Chankaew Facebook Account has over 500,000 followers. Pongsakorn Chankaew Facebook account
Supporters of Pongsakorn were touched that he was a good son who dedicated himself to his late mother and believed him to have a good heart and to be innocent. They blamed the 37-year-old woman as a seductress who tempted Pongsakorn, which is ridiculous. They both are equally guilty. Obviously, Pongsakorn was a good son, but he was not a good monk. A good monk would never spend time alone with a woman and would never ask a woman to massage him. He knew full well the precepts of Buddhism and therefore he must take responsibility for his actions.
Aside from sexual misconduct, Pongsakorn accepted that he withdrew 600,000 baht from Wat Pen Yat's bank account to cover up his sex scandal. The former monk knew that was not his money, so his supporters cannot claim that he is innocent.
It is unusual to see people admire immoral public figures, although Pongsakorn is not the first case.
In 2017, when Preeyanuch Nonwangchai was charged with killing and dismembering another woman, people were enamoured by her beauty. Police took photos with her. On social media, people expressed admiration and formed fan clubs. While some admitted these "clubs" were merely a joke, it was still in bad taste. It seems creepy to admire a thief or a cold-blooded murderer simply because of their physical appearance.
One good thing that came from Phra Kato's sex scandal is that Katoon Dam in Nakhon Si Thammarat has become a popular tourist destination. The reservoir there was where the former monk spent time with his lover. On May 3, the Katoon Dam was the top searched location for Thailand's unseen tourist destinations. Many Thais posted on their social media accounts to show that they had visited the infamous dam. Although the dam attracted tourists due to an immoral incident, it has had some positive consequences. Tourists posted they were satisfied with the dam's views and atmosphere. Local merchants and vendors were happy with the increased traffic.
After many scandals, the House Panel on Religion discussed amending the law to punish monks and women who have sexual relationships. The amendment will include one to five years imprisonment, or up to a 100,000 baht fine, or both. The punishment will hopefully make monks think twice before they misbehave and might stop women from approaching them.
However, I think a sexual relationship is something personal. It should not be punished with imprisonment or a fine. Monks who commit sexual misconduct must leave the monkhood. Also, monks and women involved in sex scandals should not be admired or become celebrities after breaking the precepts of Buddhism. Being ignored or rejected by society may be more effective than being punished by law.
Suwitcha Chaiyong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.