The article recounts the path towards “enlightenment” of three monks and novices involved in political demonstrations for demanding democracy and equality alongside school and university students and ordinary citizens over the past year since the first protest held by the Free Youth Group on 18 July 2020. Moreover, this article will help our readers understand obstacles and challenges for monks who openly support social movements – the behavior which the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand usually labels as “inappropriate involvement in political affairs.”
Our interview series “ First Sermon on the path to democracy: the stories of the Ratsadon monks ” are divided into three parts. Each of them presents the stories of individual monks and novices with unique backgrounds and paths leading them to join the fight for equality.
The child who questioned injustices around him
Luang Pee (Elder monk) Phupha, a 22-year-old monk, told TLHR that he grew up in a neighborhood near Phu Paan Mountain. At a young age, he was fascinated with Buddha amulets and enjoyed reading books about monks. In 2012, when he was around 12 years old and studying in the last semester of Grade 6, he asked his family to participate in a summer ordination program because he would like to experience living in a monkhood.
“I would not say that I was mature for my age. I was just an average kid. It was not like I was just having fun without any interest in life. However, I also was not a serious kid,” Luang Pee Phupha recounted his childhood after TLHR asked him whether he considered himself more mature than others of the same age due to his interests in monkhood since he was young.
Despite having been a kid who rarely left his home, Luang Pee Phupha had to move away from his family for the first time to pursue further studies at a temple school in Loei Province after he got ordained as a novice. Even though his mother did not want him to enter the monkhood, he had strong interests in this path and insisted on undergoing the ordination. Nonetheless, within the same year of his ordination, his mother passed away. As his mother had served as the family’s breadwinner, her death had immediate impacts on the family’s financial status and livelihood.
“When I got ordained, I thought that I could leave monkhood at any time I wanted. However, after my mother died, I had to think hard. If I had left the monkhood, no one would be able to provide support for my education. This financial situation became an important factor in my decision at the time.” Due to his background interests in Buddhism and financial necessities, Luang Pee Phupha chose to continue pursuing Buddhist education from his teenage years to the present.
“In the past, I had always been taught to hate and fear communists. I was told that they were cruel and barbaric. I did not know why I was taught that way, partly because I was still a child. I only knew that the communists were savage armed people living in the forest and resisting against the state,” He told TLHR about the stories he often heard when he was young.
Luang Pee Phupha was initially not interested in politics. Then, however, he remembered that when he turned 14 years old in 2014, General Prayut Chan-o-cha staged the third military coup d’etat in Thailand.
“I grew up with the Prayut regime. I was brainwashed that it was wrong to gather in a protest and criticize the government. I was taught to refrain from those activities lest the authorities take me to an attitude adjustment camp. Back then I did not even know what politics is,” Luang Pee Phupha spoke of his experiences of growing up during the time when the Thai society was governed by the coup-making regime. Then he moved on to tell TLHR about his life in the temple and the injustices he has witnessed.
“The abbot of the temple where I got my secondary school was very nice. When he first assumed his position, he changed many archaic rules to revitalize people’s faith in the temple because the previous abbot had damaged the temple’s reputation significantly.”
When Luang Pee Phupha was a novice, he rarely stayed inside the temple. He always went out to help monks organize external activities. He had the chance to assist the activities related to Sangha affairs in Loei province and found several issues with the Sangha system there.
“When I was in Grade 11, I found many internal issues related to Sangha affairs after being involved in and helping senior monks organize in the province organize activities. Even though I have not seen anyone paying a bribe for a Sangha rank, I noticed a competition among monks contesting to obtain a high-ranking position. I felt that there were no criteria for granting any positions. If you become an insider, you might be very shocked. This issue is no different than what happens in state bureaucracies. Since then, I felt that we needed to find a solution for this issue.”
When Luang Pee Phupha was a novice, he faced not only the issues mentioned above concerning the Sangha organization but also the abuse of power by the abbot of his past host temple.
“Later, a new abbot came into my temple. I had many problems with this abbot. I refused to participate in temple activities because I disagreed with the abbot’s practice of incorporating many gossips into his sermons. When I questioned his approach, he restricted me from accepting an invitation to attend external religious events. I then realized that the abbot holds too much power and usually exercises it in an authoritarian and unfair manner. Eventually, I moved to a different temple and had to find a new school after I finished Grade 12.”
Luang Pee Phupha stayed at home for a while before being admitted into a central university for monks belonging to the Maha Nikaya sect.
“I decided to move to a temple near the university for my studies. I came to the central university because I wanted to access opportunities and quality education and meet diverse groups of people. However, I was quite disappointed because my expectations were not met. The Buddhist education for monks, including the teaching methods and university system, continued to be based on an archaic curriculum which is no longer relevant to the present context.”
“At that time, I developed stronger interests in social inequalities. When I was in my freshman year, I still had not been ordained as a monk. My temple imposes a strange rule banning novices from accepting any invitations for external religious activities. This rule hinders novices from earning money for their education. It is alarming as the novices must perform many duties inside the temple more heavily than monks. When I got ordained as a monk, I had an opportunity to teach Buddhism and morality courses in schools, so these works helped me earn some extra income which eased my financial burden to some extent.”
First sermon ahead of the path towards democracy: “The Fire Burning in My Heart” and the Poem I Read on Stage
“I became interested in politics in 2020, which was quite recent. When I was in my freshman and sophomore years, I had some intermittent interests in politics, but my life was not all about politics. In my junior year, the pro-democracy movement began staging rallies. Then I started to go to every single demonstration. Attending the protests allowed me to listen to speeches, which were easily comprehensible summaries of different political and social issues. When the Future Forward Party was dissolved, I felt frustrated and knew that it was wrong. However, I did not take any action until the Free Youth Group organized its first protest (18 July 2020). I listened to the speeches via an online platform. I felt impressed and, therefore, consistently followed other protest speeches after that,” Luang Pee Phupha told us about what sparked his serious interests in politics and protest speeches.
“After watching protest speeches online, I decided to get on a bus from my university to attend the first rally on 10 August 2020 at Thammasat University’s Rangsit Campus. I did not know anybody there. I never expected that I would ever take a bus to Thammasat either. Still, I did it. That protest changed my entire life. One coincidence happened on that day. Before that day, one of my seniors was looking for poems to be read on stage during the protest, and I submitted mine for the selection. On 10 August 2020, I found out that my poem was chosen to be read aloud on stage too. I was confused but also inspired to feel like a part of the movement, as if there were a fire burning in my heart and helping me find the light.”
Luang Pee Phupha also said he tried to participate in iLaw’s campaign to petition for a constitutional amendment to the Parliament. However, he then learned that monks do not have the legal right to participate in the constitutional amendment process. Staff members of iLaw told him that his name might eventually be removed from the list.
“I just learned that the disenfranchisement of monks’ voting rights, by extension, makes us not eligible for providing a signature for amending the Constitution. We basically have no voice. However, the staff members told me that I could come back to give my signature once I leave the monkhood,” Luang Pee Phupha said and laughed. He added that, after the 10 August rally, he went to almost every demonstration. He used his savings for transportation fees. Due to his political participation, he rarely stays at the temple and does not have any invitations to external religious activities to help him earn income. During the COVID-19 outbreak, schools also suspend the Buddhism classes that he used to teach.
“I am interested in issues within the Buddhist clergy. Reflecting on my past, I learned that novices were banned from accepting paid invitations to religious events even though we had to work harder than monks. This experience made me feel that the abbot had no mercy and only oppressed and took advantage of us novices. Such injustice makes me yearn for changes. I believe this is an uncivilized system with absolute rule by a single person who is not required to consult anyone when making decisions. Buddhist principles teach me that we need to have metta (compassion and kindness) for one another. I thought, ‘If I did not start the changes, who would?'”
“Therefore, I set up a group of people sharing the same ideology and desire to reform the religion and society. The group consists of monks, novices, and laypeople; we work together on raising public awareness about issues within Buddhism to transform the Buddhist clergy and tackle its structure characterized by oppression and authoritarian governance.”
“This issue is interlinked with what the pro-democracy movement demands because we are under the same political system. For example, the Constitution prohibits Buddhist monks from voting. The Sangha Act also provides for no channels for amendment. The Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand’s rules also penalize monks involved in politics by forcing them to leave monkhood. The pro-democracy protestors know us by the name of the “Carrot Gang.”
“Bad Karma” of monks and novices involved in political movements
It is not easy for monks and novices to express their political opinion inThailand, where the Buddhist clergy are expected to refrain from engaging in politics. The Thai state controls and suppresses monks’ political expressions through the Office of National Buddhism and the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand. Both agencies have the power to issue written orders to be enforced with monks and novices under their supervision.
Monks and novices could face various forms of harassment from these organizations overseeing Sangha affairs if they get involved in social movements, especially on issues deemed as “sensitive” for the state authorities, including calling for political rights and equality.
“In late April 2021, I took Luang Por (Venerable Father) Dao Din to Nang Learng Police Station. My Carrot Gang regularly monitors and documents instances of harassment against monks and novices and accompanies those required to acknowledge their charges to give them moral support.”
“On that day, the police saw me and asked to take pictures of my monk’s identification card and national identification card to obtain my name and address. I told them they could look at it, but I did not allow them to take any pictures or record the information. I fled the scene, but they followed me and insistently asked to take photocopies of the documents. They threatened to contact the Office of National Buddhism to go after me too. Eventually, another person who was with me told me to allow them to take the photos to end the troubles. We only went there to accompany our friend and did not face any lawsuits. Before that day, I accompanied another person to Pahon Yothin Police Station, and I experienced the same thing. The police officers there also tried to get access to my documents.”
“I thought I would not get into any troubles. Still, when I got back to my temple, the abbot summoned me. He told me that a police officer called him to ask about my personal information, including my educational background and daily behaviors. To prevent the police from entering the temple and causing further troubles, the abbot told the authorities, “This monk already left the temple. I don’t know where he is.” The abbot asked me to move out temporarily for one or two months. I did not know what to do. I only thanked him for saving me. However, later, I questioned why he had to be afraid that the police would come to arrest me since I am not facing any charges and have not committed any wrongdoings.”
Luang Pee Phupha explained further that he had also consulted with other senior monks- one who ordained him and the other who referred him to his latest temple- before the abbot made this decision. Upon receiving recommendations from the three monks, he learned that the abbot’s decision had been well considered and approved by many parties.
“In the end, I left the temple for a simple reason,” said Luang Pee Phupha.
At present, Luang Pee Phupha has moved to reside in university housing. Living as a university student makes him unable to earn income from performing religious activities. The COVID-19 outbreak also seriously impacts his ability to visit households and collect alms.
“The closed path” for monks and novices involved in political movements
“Most monks do not believe that we could drive meaningful changes. They often fail to protect other monks who are victims of abuse. One monk told me that if I got forced to leave monkhood, I could still re-enter. He said it as if it were very easy. Most of them simply accept the current social conditions. That is why we rarely see any monks in political rallies — because the system in place is oppressing us.”
“Getting harassed and forced to leave a temple would be a huge deal for any monk. It is crucial to seek a backup plan in case of such a situation. It could be difficult for politically active monks to find a host temple because the temple administration often fears that they could face collateral damage. Consequently, most abbots often do not encourage monks under their supervision to be involved in political movements.”
Luang Pee Phupha views that the most important factor which determines whether monks would take part in politics is safety. As aforementioned, any involvement in political movements could expose monks to severe risks of losing their monkhood. Therefore, it is not easy to see monks involved in politics. Those who are visible in the current movement should be considered very brave.
“I used to take part in a survey during the graduation ceremony at my university. It allowed monks to give their opinions without having to provide their names or any other personal information. We only had to write down our age on a sticker and our comments on a post-it note. Many people did not dare to participate; only a minority did it. Monks belong to a privileged class in this unequal society. Many monks came from lower-income families. Losing monkhood could severely impact their livelihood. If they get accused of being involved in politics and lost their host temple, they could be forced to leave monkhood under the Sangha Act.
Luang Pee Phupha reflected that monks often pretend they are above politics. However, if we live in a bad political regime, all lives, including monks, would be affected.
“Politically active monks are often labeled as eccentric and disobedient of Buddhist teachings. Even though some monks complain about the impact of politics on their lives, they only feel sad and hopeless and succumb to their faith.
Dreams of the future of Sangha institutions and clergy
When asked about what kind of future he envisions for Buddhism in Thailand, Luang Pee Phupha made a pause before responding,
“I would like to see changes in the Buddhist clergy to ensure that we live righteously and fairly. I have always felt that we are one big family with many diverse members. I may not see a clear direction or approach for achieving changes yet. This process may require brainstorming by taking into account the desires and needs of monks and novices. The most important factor would be the Sangha institutions – whether they agree to become our allies and join our political movement. We would continue to communicate our issues and spread our ideology to the widest extent to awaken all the monks and novices and encourage them to join this fight with us.”
Despite numerous obstacles, Luang Pee Phupha does not feel hopeless. “I think that even if we do not achieve our ultimate goal, we could start with establishing a safe space for academic discussions on politics and the Buddhist clergy. Such activities could spark inspiration for some monks and novices for sure.”