Monks caught in poaching scandal
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Monks caught in poaching scandal

National park officials searching Phansuknukul temple in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong district on May 28. Thai PBS TV screen capture
National park officials searching Phansuknukul temple in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong district on May 28. Thai PBS TV screen capture

Sex and money scandals among rogue monks are old news, barely raising an eyebrow any more. What's grabbing headlines now? Monks involved in wildlife poaching.

And these are not just ordinary monks. They are abbots, wielding absolute power over their temples and commanding local reverence. One of them even holds a high rank as the deputy chair of the clergy in his province and director of a monks' college.

The first incident read like an action movie. On April 26, a group of forest rangers was surveying the Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province when they encountered nine poachers climbing down a steep rock into a lush jungle. The poachers panicked and shot at the rangers while fleeing. One monk and a novice were arrested at the scene with wildlife carcasses, including a gaur's horns.

Among those who succeeded in escaping was Phra Srisajjayanmuni, the abbot of Huai Hin Fon temple, the vice chair of Chaiyaphum clergy and another monk and novice.

According to Phu Khieo forest officials, the poachers were relatives of the abbot and have previously engaged in illegal activity in the area.

The senior monk claimed he was merely leading a forest pilgrimage with a group of monks and followers. He insisted the carcasses were part of a religious ceremony to pay merit to the spirits of wildlife that once lived in the forest.

Just one month later, another abbot in Nakhon Ratchasima was charged with possession of a large amount of wildlife carcasses, some still covered with blood stains.

Following villagers' complaints, on May 28 forest officials raided the dwelling place of Phra Kittichai Woradhammo, abbot of Phansuknukul temple in Nakhon Ratchasima's Pak Chong district, and the findings were shocking.

During the search, they discovered remains of several protected animals, some stored in a freezer in the monk's quarters. The meat was still fresh, including a gaur head, two serow heads with leg parts, four bear paws and a complete barking deer carcass with its head and legs.

The abbot had left before the raid and is still on the run.

Last year, an abbot at the Huai Bang Forest monastery in Loei province also faced charges of possession of protected wildlife carcasses which he used to make amulets for sale.

Under the wildlife protection law, those in possession of carcasses of protected wildlife are liable to a prison term not exceeding five years and/or the fine not exceeding 500,000 baht.

Those who engage in wildlife poaching and the wildlife trade, meanwhile, face a jail term not exceeding 10 years and/or a fine not exceeding one million baht.

While forest authorities and police investigate if these senior monks are involved in wildlife trading, the clergy remains silent.

Although it has not been confirmed that these monks participated in the hunting, their possession of wildlife carcasses and complicity in wildlife killing clearly violate the monastic code of conduct and deserve punishment.

The scandal offers an opportunity for elders to come forward and explain the roles of monks in forest and wildlife conservation in line with the Buddha's teachings. After all, the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and left this earth in the forest.

The Buddha's teachings focus on compassion for all living things, non-harm, the interconnectedness of all beings, and mindfulness. The Buddha also encourages a life of simplicity, respectful of the natural world.

While lay Buddhist people should at least follow the five precepts -- no killing, no lies, no sexual misconduct, no stealing, and no intoxicants -- monks must observe 277 precepts. Several involve detailed instructions that protect the environment.

For example, monks are prohibited from damaging plants and trees and not accepting animal skin, which promotes the protection of forest and wildlife. Monks must also pay close attention to their physical movements so as not to disturb or harm small and often overlooked forms of life.

Poaching is out of the question. Monks engaging in wildlife killing must be expelled.

The elders' silence regarding this scandal is typical of the clergy in their isolated cocoon, cut off from society. Their frequent excuse is that these rogue monks are just a rotten few, who not reflect the clerical system or the core teachings of Buddhism.

That's just lame. The clergy is not part of the problem. It is the problem.

Because the clergy fails to keep monks in line, Buddhism is experiencing a significant erosion of public faith, driving away young people from its teachings.

Because the clergy give abbots absolute power over temple affairs without external oversight, temple corruption is widespread nationwide.

Meanwhile, rogue monks freely exploit their saffron robes with various schemes to make money, knowing they will remain protected as long as they kowtow to clerical superiors and supply them with favours.

Inefficient and outdated, the centralised Ecclesiastical Council consists of a small group of frail old men operating in a closed, feudal system without effective administrative mechanisms. Past efforts by young monks to modernise clerical administration and make it more effective and responsive to society have been squashed by the authoritarian clergy. No monks now dare address clerical reform, fearing ostracism from the autocratic elders who view calls for change as a challenge to their power.

Consequently, the clergy has no mechanisms to screen, train, or monitor monks and their behaviour. With impunity, the situation worsens by the day as monks become fraudsters -- and even poachers -- while temples turn into markets of superstition.

Under the monastic discipline set by the Buddha, preceptors must not let newly ordained monks leave the nest until they have been properly trained to practice independently. The clergy's failure to monitor preceptors and monks' training, therefore, essentially violates the Buddha's mandates.

Unfortunately, the elders do not care as long as they still enjoy the perks and privileges. And who can blame monks in the lower rungs when they simply learn from their clerical superiors how to attain power and wealth.

Clerical dictatorship is at the heart of monastic laxity. As long as this continues, there will be even more shocking news than monk poachers. Reform is essential. Without it, Buddhism under clerical dictatorship will lose the faith of an entire generation and fade into irrelevance.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender and Thai Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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