Buddhist authorities to defrock monks with ‘inappropriate’ online behaviour

Thailand’s Buddhist religious authorities have announced a policy to defrock monks who post ‘inappropriate’ messages and other online content on social media.

Chayaphon Pongsida, the Deputy Director of the Office of National Buddhism (ONB), announced on Tuesday, 17 November 2015, that Mahathera Samakhom, the Sangha (clergy) Supreme Council of Thailand, recently came up with a new policy to control the online behaviour of Buddhist monks.

In an attempt to prevent ‘inappropriate’ social media behaviour of Buddhist monks, the Council will defrock monks who post inappropriate online content.

The Council, however, did not specify what online content would be perceived as ‘inappropriate’.   

Under the policy, the Council will first issue a notice to any monk allegedly posting such content. However, if the Council finds that the monk still continues to post inappropriate online content, he will be defrocked.

Last week, the Crime Suppression Division (CID) started an investigation into a Facebook page with a pornographic video clip of what appears to be a Buddhist monk having sex with a teenage novice after a Buddhist group filed a complaint to the police.

According to the Bangkok Post, the page was a forum for groups of gay men who fantasize about having sex with monks, novices, and other men dressed in monks’ robes.

On 5 November, Venerable Aphichat Promjan, chief lecturer monk at Benjamabophit Temple, proposed that the government burn down one mosque for each Buddhist monk killed in the restive Deep South. The radical Buddhist monk temporarily shut down his Facebook account at the request of the Thai authorities and Mahathera Samakhom after many campaigned against his ideas.   

Before he shut down his Facebook page, he posted “In the last two days, I received notifications from Mahathera Samakhom and was visited by state officials and security officers, who requested me to be careful in expressing opinions about the deaths of Buddhist monks and laymen in the Deep South at the hands of the ‘Malayu bandits’.”

Earlier this year, the military government approved a bill on religion which can be used to prosecute, with jail terms, people who propagate ‘incorrect’ versions of Buddhist doctrines or cause harm to Buddhism. The bill also provides for jail terms specifically for homosexual monks.

Pointing to the importance of Buddhism to the nation, the draft bill says “Buddhism is one of the pillars of the Thai nation and is the religion that most Thai people adhere to. Therefore, Buddhists should be united in patronising and protecting Buddhism to make it prosper and enhancing Buddhist principles and ethics to develop the quality of one’s life.”

In addition to these vague sentiments, however, the bill will allow Mahathera Samakhom and the government to punish anyone deemed to threaten a narrowly defined version of Buddhism promoted by the authorities.

For Sulak Sivaraksa, one of the founding members of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and a historian renowned for his criticisms of the Mahathera Samakhom, the bill clearly shows the monks council’s desire to gain more prominence in Thai society.

“This bill shows blind stupidity and lust for power,” said Sulak. “The Sangha Supreme Council is a very weak council. It doesn’t have its own identity. That’s why it wants to show that it has power, which is regrettable,” he added.

Vichak Panich, a Matichon columnist and expert on Buddhism and religious studies, pointed out that if the bill is passed, it will become another obstacle to democracy in Thailand.

“This bill will give Mahathera Samakhom, which is already quite a dictatorial organization, since it is not transparent or elected, the power to prosecute not only monks but also lay persons who defy its authority,” said Vichak.

Vichak added that the version of Theravada Buddhism which is promoted by the Sangha Council and the Office of National Buddhism in Thailand always has two functions in Thai society.

“It [Theravada Buddhism] is promoted as a part of the Thai identity and nationalism. Moreover, it promotes the intangible concept of virtue and morality over freedom and rights. This lends support and justification for some groups of people in society to judge others,” said Vichak. “It is no surprise that this bill is being accepted under the current political regime.” added the religious expert.

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