From marches to monkhood: Suthep's act of faith

From marches to monkhood: Suthep's act of faith

The former protest leader has shunned the spotlight since the coup, yet aspects of his life at Wat Suan Mok

Even though he is meant to be living a life of repose, everything revolves around Phra Suthep Papakaro at the once-sedate Suan Mok temple.

The monk, formerly known as Suthep Thaugsuban, abandoned worldly pursuits and turned to religious solitude when he was ordained on June 15 last year in an unexpected, unannounced and private ceremony at the small temple in his home town of Surat Thani.

Monks give up their birth names when they are ordained in a sign they have been reborn. Phra Suthep, the former leader and chief agitator of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, was given the Pali language title Papakaro, meaning “the light of wisdom”.

Seven months after his ordination, Phra Suthep, a former deputy prime minister, has abandoned the limelight, party politics, street protests, three meals a day (sometimes celebratory dinners at expensive Thong Lor restaurants) and an air-conditioned bedroom.

Wat Suan Mok offers him a solitary kuti, or one-room monk’s abode, with candlelight and no electricity. He eats only one meal a day, taken from alms, and strictly observes daily prayers with the other monks.

Contrary to other temples in Thailand, Suan Mok’s monks do not have a “student”, usually a man who accompanies the senior monk and acts as his personal assistant. But Phra Suthep has one. He introduces himself to Spectrum as Phra Udom, and says that Phra Suthep’s right shoulder injury means he needs a personal assistant to help him don his robes.

Phra Suthep confirms this during an interview seven months into his monkhood, and one year after the PDRC’s Bangkok Shutdown campaign which played a major role in the ousting of the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

“The tendons in the shoulder were severed you know,” he told Spectrum. “It happened during the Bangkok protests. Can you imagine how many times a day I had to stretch my shoulder and reach my arm to take the bank notes that people lining the streets donated to me? It was almost 10,000 times in a day.”


Wat Suan Mok’s residential area for monks differs from most other temples, as the houses are not grouped together. Here, a monk can be isolated from other monks in order to seek solitude.

Phra Suthep’s kuti is situated on a hill, separated from the other areas of the temple grounds. It sits under the shade of a large tree and is cooled by steady breezes. Getting to the kuti requires trekking up a small walkway to a one-storey building which is split into six bedrooms.

The building was once used as a medical centre, but is now home to Phra Suthep and several former members of the PDRC who have swapped their noisy whistles for the quiet of temple life.

On a Saturday morning, 50 visitors from near and far are seen hanging around in the front of the kuti. Some sit on benches, some stand up and chat. Several local uniformed police seem to be frequent visitors.

“When I first came to Suan Mok, I received up to a thousand visitors a day,” Phra Suthep recalled. “But now, there are more engagements outside so I don’t get to be in so often.

“Look at this one,” he said, pointing to a small middle-aged man kneeling beside him. “He left Na Tawee district in Songkhla province last night at 8pm to get here before dawn. He wants to buy the book too.”

Phra Suthep is referring to Dream on for the New Day, a 304-page collection of photographs taken at the PDRC demonstrations, which sells for 399 baht at the temple.

The Bangkok protests to oust the government of Ms Yingluck began in November 2013. Suthep Thaugsuban resigned from the opposition Democrat Party to lead the demonstrations. He was nicknamed “Lung Kamnan”, or Uncle Kamnan, referring to his former role as a village chief prior to becoming an MP in 1979.

The avuncular sobriquet has followed him to the temple. Visitors adoringly call him “Luang Lung”, or holy uncle.

Thanapat Thonglim, 61, has travelled from Takua Pa district in Phangnga to visit Phra Suthep. She and a group of friends are “die-hard” Democrat fans. They showed Spectrum pictures they took in 2013-14, as they flew back and forth between the South and Bangkok to join the demonstrations. Pictures with Lung Kamnan are the most prized. Today she has a chance to add to the magic moments, taking more selfies with the former protest leader.

Ms Thanapat tries to thrust a few bank notes into Phra Suthep’s hand, somehow forgetting his holiness is barred from touching money and women. Diplomatically, Phra Suthep waves for his assistant to come and collect the money on his behalf.

“This is my first time seeing Phra Suthep here. We’re glad to see he is safe,” Ms Thanapat said with a wide grin.

Preacher man: Phra Suthep is back on top form as a public orator at a fundraising event. He is also selling copies of his book on the PDRC protests.


“The PDRC was on the streets for 204 days, so after I have been ordained for 204 days, I’ll decide whether I’ll leave the monkhood,” he said.

As of today, however, the former protest leader will have worn the saffron robes for 225 days. Asked to be more specific on his future plans, he replied, “I don’t have an answer now.”

Phra Suthep said he became ordained to honour the 24 lives lost during the Bangkok protests. His visitors are listening to the interview and say “sathu”, or amen, and wai when they hear a pearl of wisdom or compassionate phrase from the monk.

At 67, Phra Suthep seems active and in good health, although he has lost 14kg during his time at the temple due to the strict dietary restrictions.

“I wake up at 3am every day. The first thing I do is exercise, especially after I sustained the injury to my right shoulder. I’ve already had an operation for that,” he said.

“When I was first ordained, I ate with my left hand, but now it is better.”

Around 4am, the Suan Mok monks gather for a morning prayer. “We pray in Pali with a Thai interpretation so that the visitors who take part can understand,” he said.

The monks then stage a water-pouring ceremony, where Phra Suthep said he prays for the PDRC protesters who were killed.

“At 6.30am, the monks take alms and eat at 8am. That is our only meal of the day. By 9.25am, all alms bowls are washed and aired.

“In the afternoon, monks have some down time; they wash their robes from 3pm onward, before gathering for the evening prayer at 6pm.

“The prayers continue until 9pm and I go to bed at 10pm every night.”

Back where I belong: Phra Suthep addresses followers at a Buddhist fundraising event at Wat Koh Yuan in Kirirat Nikom district, some 60km from his temple Wat Suan Mok.


Monks measure seniority by three-month periods known as pansa. After six months, Phra Suthep has only had two pansa periods, which means he is still considered a junior monk.

The Thaugsuban family has long-standing connections to the temple through decades of political and business pursuits.

Even so, Phra Suthep’s entering the monkhood has caused unease among both the clergy and lay people who view some of his actions as inappropriate, including his plans for monthly mass ordinations.

Wat Suan Mok’s abbot, Phra Suchart, declined to comment on the changes Phra Suthep’s presence has brought to the temple and its reputation, saying the former politician could speak for himself.

But other monks weren’t as reticent. Phra Tawee, the abbot’s assistant, said he had provided support to Phra Suthep since the first day he arrived at Wat Suan Mok.

“I accompanied him when he first went out to take alms as senior monks should do with junior ones,” he told Spectrum. “I gave him my full support during the two group ordinations at the end of last October and November, but I don’t think that will be the case for the group being ordained at the end of January.”

Phra Tawee was absent from a meeting Phra Suthep organised with other monks to discuss the upcoming ordinations.

“Now I realise that people come to be ordained at Wat Suan Mok because they want to be close to Lung Kamnan, not because they want to learn Buddhadasa’s teachings,” he said. “I heard this specifically from one of the newly-ordained.

“More importantly, just look at Phra Suthep’s busy schedule. How can one’s mind stay in one place if it is constantly on the move?”

Phra Suthep’s presence brings more people to the temple, mostly PDRC supporters who want to check out the new life of their former leader after what they deem the “victorious demonstration”.

Other temple projects are under way. When Spectrum visited Wat Suan Mok, Thani Thaugsuban, Phra Suthep’s brother and long-time Surat Thani MP, was leading a group of men in ground renovation work near the front gate.

“I’m levelling the ground here so that more chairs can be installed to accommodate more visitors,” he explained.

But the renovations and group ordinations are contrary to the philosophy of renowned monk Buddhadasa, who founded Wat Suan Mok in 1932. His philosophy rejects “unnatural and celebratory” actions which disrupt solitude. The very presence of Phra Suthep and his caravan of supporters seems to be the antithesis of what Wat Suan Mok is about.

Last November, Buddhadasa’s relative and Buddhist philosopher Vijak Panich wrote an article on the Prachatai news website criticising Phra Suthep’s ordination.

“Suthep Thaugsuban, a seasoned politician who had earlier transformed himself into a mob leader, within months of being ordained, has had some people believe that he represents holiness in its entirety,” he wrote.

“In such a short time, one can reinvent himself like a gold-coated piece of metal. The religious ground has become his political base, bringing confusion, blurring the lines between the faith in Mr Suthep and the faith in Phra Suthep and the difference between religious propagation and political campaigns.”

In an email exchange with Spectrum, Mr Vijak explained that Wat Suan Mok was intended as a sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment to try different methods outside institutionalised Buddhism “without giving in to politics and institutions”.

“But Wat Suan Mok now seems to be a place for PDRC fans only, when it’s supposed to be for everybody who wants to question and seek one’s path without having to be informed by political preference,” he said.

“What Phra Suthep is doing now, he is trying to lift himself above politics by playing religious politics instead. I’m afraid it’s just what he and the Democrat Party do well: that is, trying to play the game outside the democratic system.”

Phra Tawee said “some monks in Suan Mok just sit and look on. There is nothing we can say or do.”


So far, Phra Suthep has not preached on religious matters. “It’s still too soon. Only seasoned monks are allowed to preach,” he explained.

Yet that does not stop him from initiating other religious activities. Since entering the monkhood, he has organised two groups to be ordained. The first time was in October, which saw 44 men ordained in front of honoured guests including senior monks and the Surat Thani governor.

The second ordinations in November involved many former Democrat members, including Witthaya Kaewparadai, Chavanond Intarakomalyasut and Phra Suthep’s stepson Akanat Promphan.

From January onward, group ordinations will be organised on a monthly basis.

“I need you to help me promote this project as it will be organised once a month, at the end of every month from January onward,” Phra Suthep said. “Only 60 men will be admitted to the programme so please tell them to call the temple to apply.”

Proceeds from Dream on for the New Day will go towards supporting the group ordination project. According to Phra Suthep, the book is published by Fah Won Mai channel, formerly known as Blue Sky, run by station executive Takoeng Somsap.

Phra Tawee, the abbot’s assistant, provided Spectrum with a 12-page schedule for Phra Suthep, which outlines his activities from Jan 13 to April 26. It shows that every day is occupied with either religious or legal engagements in Surat Thani, other southern provinces or Bangkok.

The Saturday of Spectrum’s visit was no exception. Shortly before noon, Phra Suthep began to prepare himself for a Tod Pa Pa ceremony, or Buddhist fundraising event, at Wat Koh Yuan in Kirirat Nikom district, some 60km from Wat Suan Mok.

His entourage included ordained fellow PDRC members Phra Issara Somchai, the former Democrat MP for Ubon Ratchathani, and Phra Uthai Yodmani, former core leader of the Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand, an organisation which protested with the PDRC.

Three black Mitsubishi Pajeros awaited them on the other side of the hill, and they left the compound through a separate gate to avoid attracting attention.

At Wat Koh Yuan, nearly the entire village of about 500 people turned out to see Phra Suthep, who arrived with a large supply of his book.

“Since I’m a monk I cannot carry money as change for you, not even one baht, therefore, you all can buy it for 400 baht net,” Phra Suthep announced in a southern dialect to the cheering crowd.

It was here that Phra Suthep returned to top form as a public orator. After arriving about 1pm, he took to a small platform which doubled as a stage. Next to it was a pa pa tree, used to hold donations.

Humble abode: Wat Suan Mok offers Phra Suthep a one-room monk’s dwelling with no electricity.


Phra Suthep quickly started working the crowd, who were obviously enthralled by one of Surat Thani’s favourite sons. It soon became obvious that Phra Suthep’s visits to local temples are helping maintain his standing and influence with Democrat supporters in the South, the party’s traditional stronghold.

One man introduced himself as a member of the provincial administration who supplied food to the PDRC kitchens during the months of Bangkok protests. Now, he said, his main joy in life is that Phra Suthep is at Wat Suan Mok.

“Suan Mok has been so quiet for a long while,” he told Spectrum. “Since Phra Suthep came, a vigorous atmosphere has returned to the place. He initiated various projects. He publishes Buddhadasa’s books and his presence benefits the shops in front of the temple.”

As Phra Suthep spoke, he captured the villagers’ full attention as he pressed the importance of the coup. “It’s to chase away the Thaksin regime,” he said.

That afternoon, Phra Suthep, Phra Issara and Phra Uthai all took turns in front of the microphone, reliving their halcyon political days on the PDRC stages in Bangkok. At one point, Phra Uthai recalled the day his organisation blocked Government House on Dec 13, 2013, resulting in Ms Yingluck not being able to return to work.

“She was like a ghost without a shelter, wasn’t she?” Phra Uthai said to clapping from the crowd.

Phra Issara also sounded more like a politician on the campaign trail than a monk as he tried to stir the crowd up. He said it was his 48th day of being a monk, before imploring the crowd to stay low. “People, please take things slowly for now because at least now is better than before.”

While all this is happening, Phra Suthep is busy autographing books for adoring villagers.


The breadth and depth of the Thaugsuban family’s influence in the South, particularly in their home town Surat Thani, is hard to measure, but obvious to see.

On the day Spectrum interviewed Phra Suthep, he received an old family friend, Ma Saisa-aad, a man in his eighties. He said he and Phra Suthep’s father were good friends; the connection between the two families spans decades.

After Phra Suthep’s father Jarus died, Mr Ma and Mr Suthep continued to support each other in local politics and personal matters.

Mr Suthep chaired the wedding of Mr Ma’s daughter, Sirisakul Saisa-aad, who married current United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship leader Nattawut Saikuar.

The red-shirt UDD group, led at the time of the Bangkok Shutdown campaign by Mr Natthawut and Tida Tawornseth, was seen as a threat to the PDRC rallies. 

“I met Natthawut for the last time on May 22 last year [the day of the coup]. Before that, I told him and Tida Tawornseth many times that if they don’t stop, the military is going to intervene and it did,” Phra Suthep said.

Spectrum asked Phra Suthep’s assistant whether other major Democrat figures such as former prime ministers Abhisit Vejjajiva and Chuan Leekpai had visited their former colleague since his ordination, to which he replied no. However, Democrat Party Chavanon Intarakomalayasut confirmed that Mr Abhisit and former party leader Banyat Banthattan have visited Wat Suan Mok.

He could not confirm if Mr Chuan had ever made a trip because party members “never discuss among ourselves who makes or doesn’t make a trip to see Phra Suthep”.

The former PDRC leader, however, was resolute about his future in politics. “I will never take part in an election again,” Phra Suthep told Spectrum.

“I made the point clear when I left the Democrat Party and led the PDRC on the streets of Bangkok to overthrow the government that was based on corrupt money. I also came into politics through elections but the democracy that was in place, exercised in parliament, was only a form.

“I will not take part in an election but that doesn’t mean I will not take part in politics ever again. We, the PDRC, have invested our energy. We suffered to take the country out of the hands of bad people so I might focus on people’s politics, rather than just being a politician.”

Asked whether he still thinks about the Bangkok Shutdown one year later, Phra
Suthep’s answer was blunt. “Not at all,” he replied. “I don’t read newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio here. What you’re going to write about me after this interview, I won’t have a chance to read it.”


Phra Suthep maintains that the military government should be left alone and allowed to work towards reform.

“Let me take this opportunity to speak for the people,” he said. “First of all, we thank Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who decided to take control of the country’s administration because the PDRC’s opposition at that time was found to be collecting weapons to inflict harm.

“Secondly, if Gen Prayut did not [seize power], we, the people might have been forced to do it.

“And thirdly we, the people, send support to Gen Prayut and will allow him to work. We all are laying low, turning to religion as a way to find peace.

“I have no advice for Gen Prayut. He is such a resolute man so he already knows what to do. We place our trust in him to lead the country toward reform and we provide him with our support and encouragement.”

Asked why his decision to maintain a low profile is so similar to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s earlier message to red-shirt supporters, Phra Suthep simply replied: “There is no similarity between me and Thaksin Shinawatra, nothing.” n

The small matter of material matters

SHOW ME THE MONEY: Suthep Thuagsuban receives donations during a march in Bangkok early last year. Below, protesters show off bank notes received from PDRC supporters.

In early January, a letter emerged on social media from a group of people claiming to be “Actors in support of the PDRC”, calling for clarification from Phra Suthep over the vast fortune raised during the Bangkok protests.

The letter said that from Oct 31, 2013, to May 22 last year, a total of two billion baht in donations passed into the hands of the protest leader. So far, there has been no clarification of how the money was spent. The letter asked where the money went, how much was left and whether professional accounting methods were followed during the demonstration period.

The letter addressed Phra Suthep as “his holiness” and said it was his responsibility to clarify these points as donations to the PDRC had not been looked into by any independent organisation. The letter said that as Phra Suthep had become ordained, any misconduct over donations would be deemed a sin.

The following week, a second letter was sent with a similar list of concerns. The writer has not revealed his or her identity to the public, and no PDRC members have so far clarified the issue.

PDRC spokesperson Akanat Promphan dismisses the letter as the work of political opponents angered by impeachment moves against Yingluck Shinawatra.

Spectrum asked Phra Suthep about the alleged misconduct. “Let’s put it this way, early in the demonstration, Tharit Pengdith, the then-DSI chief, suspended my personal bank account which was used for the transfer of donation money,” he said.

“After the suspension, the transfers had to stop and I started the walk to receive donations instead. The PDRC has its accountant to manage the donations. Money was used to rent stage devices, lights, tents and for the supply of food during the protest.

“At the time, I borrowed money from many people; five million from this one, another 10 or 20 million from that one.

“Now I am about 300 million baht in debt. Some of the debt has been paid from the palm plantations I sold. I don’t want to hold on to too much. You know, I’m 67 now, the family business is mostly handled by my children.”

This month, Issara news agency reported Phra Suthep’s debt stood at 287 million baht, around 36 million baht down from his previous reported debt at the end of 2013. The figures were revealed by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which requires political office holders to report their revenue during their tenure and the one year after.

Phra Suthep’s revenue from palm and rubber plantations reduced from 39 million baht in November 2013 to 31 million baht a year later. n

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