The recent violent confrontation at Bang Khlan Temple in Pichit province was caused by one thing and one thing only: money. Last month, clerics, divided into two factions, protested in front of the famous temple.
It is a decade-long conflict which starkly exposes the clergy's failure to curb the commercialisation of Buddhism, its inability to resolve temple disputes and the urgent need for external auditing to ensure financial transparency and prevent temple corruption.
The temple has a thriving amulet trade that taps into the supernatural reputation of Luang Phor Ngern, who founded the place of worship in 1834.
Strife erupted in 2014 when then-abbot Phra Khru Wisitsilaporn faced allegations of temple corruption. Dismissed by senior clerics, he resorted to legal action while his supporters obstructed the new abbot, Phra Khru Pisuthiwarakorn, from assuming control, which resulted in a series of lawsuits. The conflict was marred by violence as militiamen repeatedly led the former abbot's supporters in attacking temple staff, seizing property and closing the temple to the public.
Despite interventions from high-ranking officials and a court ruling ordering the transfer of temple assets to the new abbot, the temple gate remained locked to prevent the new abbot from taking office.
Never before had a dispute over temple finances escalated into a conflict resembling warfare, treating the temple as territory to be seized.
Late last month, controversial Senator Kittisak Rattanawaraha led the former abbot's supporters in preventing the official abbot and his team from accessing the confiscated temple. "If he was not a monk, I would have slapped his face," he declared, furious at being ordered by the monk to open the gate. The Senate ruled his action as unethical.
In response to the ensuing public outcry, Puangpetch Chunla-iad, Minister to the Office of the Prime Minister, pledged to end the temple's turmoil through the provincial cleric authority.
But it will not accomplish anything. The National Office of Buddhism and the Supreme Council have been conspicuously absent from this mess that has affected the public's perception of Buddhist monks.
The crux of the problem is the feudal cleric system. The Supreme Ecclesiastic Council, composed of elderly monks, lacks the monastic administrative mechanisms to enforce orders or penalise corruption.
Worse still, the clergy's closed system and Sangha Law foster corruption by granting abbots exclusive powers over finances and assets without external audits.
About 30,000 temples in Thailand amassed about 120 billion baht a year from public donations, according to a 2012 study on temple donations by the National Institute of Development Administration. This sum must now be significantly higher. Given this temple wealth, most abbots resist financial audits and ignore the council's directives to submit financial reports without repercussion.
The government must not merely aim to restore peace to Bang Khlan Temple. The remedy for temple corruption necessitates comprehensive reform, modernisation and amending the top-down Sangha Act to enforce accountability and public participation.
The short-term solution is to take a firm stance by incarcerating corrupt monks and their collaborators, and not just at Bang Khlan. It is also necessary to demand modern financial management and external auditing from all temples since they still rely on state subsidies funded by taxpayers.