Wat Sing brawl ignites debate about Buddhist practice.

A distraction from Thai politics last week has been the incident at Wat Sing School. On 24 February 2019, a group of 20 people burst into Wat Sing School where students from many schools were taking the General Aptitude Test and Professional and Academic Aptitude Test (GAT-PAT), exams essential for university entrance.

Wat Sing's Intruder Arrested
Source: Khaosod

The group had been staging a rowdy ritual to celebrate the ordination of their friend at Wat Sing, the temple adjacent to the school. As the administration of neighbouring schools and temples are often combined in Thailand, the school announced through it PA system that the group had to lower the noise level or else the temple would not continue with the ordination.

Footage of the intrusion
Source: Khaosod

This provoked the group to barge their way into the school. 15 people were injured including teachers, students, test invigilators and even the School Director. A female teacher reported she was slapped twice and heard them saying “Why take the test today, because the monk can’t be ordained?” Female students also reported that they were harassed by the intruders.

It was reported that 2 students from Saint Gabriel’s College fought back to defend their friends and were injured. At the time, the intruders were drunk, according to a female teacher and the online apology one of the intruders.

According to Thai Rath, arrest warrants were served on 27 people. As of 4 March, 26 had turned themselves in and faced 6 charges including trespassing and physical assault, destruction of property, and causing physical and mental harm. 1 is still at large.

Earlier, Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand, addressed the issue on Facebook:

“Regarding the intrusion into a school, obstruction of students’ examination and physical assaults, I request that the law enforcement officers involved in this case please deal with the offenders seriously and quickly.”

Source of Anger: Intruders broke up Thailand’s gaokao

The intrusion into the school in itself outraged many, but the blatant assaults were on students doing the GAT-PAT exams, quite similar to the Chinese gaokao, and crucial for students as they will determine their future. Arranged by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (NIETS), the GAT-PAT tests are the main entrance exams to university in Thailand for high school students.


Exam Room at Wat Sing
Source: Sanook.com

To be exact, the students were taking PAT2 (Science) in the morning and PAT5 (Education) in the afternoon. According to Campus Star, PAT5 will be used as 30% of the total entrance score for faculties of education in many universities and PAT2 will used as a part of the total score for entering faculties of medicine, nursing, dentistry, public health, etc.

The public sympathized with students as they invest a lot of time for studying and money for tutoring. The incident’s aftermath saw hashtags #watsingh (วัดสิงห์) and #PAT5 trending in Thailand to condemn the intruders for stealing the students’ future. Earlier in January, students were also mad at the election delay because it caused re-schedulings of the exam, pressuring the Prime Minister himself to address the issue.  


Sirida Burachat
Source: Khaosod

NIETS announced that it will hold a PAT5 retest on March 5 from 13.00-16.00 at Wat Sing to make up for the harm done to 248 students. The students have to inform NIETS if they will take the retest. If the students decide not to, NIETS will use the score on the first test. Sirida Burachat, Director of NIETS, said:

“On that day, most of students still finished the exam on time, except for 12 students, 4 of whom were injured and taken to hospital.  The rest were in a state of shock and unable to do the exam. The 4 students are no longer in hospital. On inspection, only 1 of them will have to take the PAT exam tomorrow (26 February) at another testing centre, and the student insisted on taking the exam. The other 3 have no more exams. However, in this incident, NIETS was not inactive. We rushed to the site right away at the school and visited the students and also the teacher in hospital. We had a meeting and resolved to take care of healthcare costs under NIETS regulations .”  

So far 87 students have registered for the retest.

Battle for the Soul of Buddhism

Another battlefront of this debate is about how Buddhism should be practised. In a video of the incident, one of the intruders claimed that they paid 20,000 baht to hire a music band for the ordination ceremony. They also drank a lot of alcohol and the procession went round 3 times along with dancing and loud singing. But the intrusion and assaults saddened the monk ordained on that day. On the news he wept that he wanted to leave monkhood every day.

Dr. Sinchai Chaojaroenrat

The incident resulted in criticism by Dr. Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, a scholar specializing in religion. On his Facebook page, he published a post with the caption:

“Without a procession, ordination can be done.

 

With a silent procession without dancing,

 

without an amplifier, ordination can be done. 

 

Or even without the rituals of ordination, ordination can be done.”

His post also contains a report by Amarin TV with details about how ordinations are done. According to the report, ordination in Thailand is practised in a simplified Ugasa style, which has been borrowed from Myanmar since the reign of Rama IV. The ordination is done by shaving the hair, dressing in white, a procession, and checking if the ‘naga’ (monk applicant) is qualified for ordination. The report emphasizes that during the procession, people should not make too loud a noise because it is a chance for the naga to concentrate before joining the monkhood.

In another Facebook post, he commented satirically:

“An ordination ritual is a ritual where you can dance the most enjoyably, have the most enjoyable music, be the most enjoyably drunk and frenzied. Teenagers are the most numerous, and they dress the sexiest.”

Nattapong Doungkaew, writer on the Neo-Kruba Movement, argues that the ordination rituals of ‘naga’ originated in Southeast Asia. In modern times, ordination is considered the duty of ‘good children’ and ‘good parents’. The ordination itself, Nattapong argues, is not the problem, but rather a misunderstanding about rights and freedoms:

“Here the problem is not to do with tradition or rituals, but I think that people in Thai society do not understand well enough about rights and freedom. Thai people often claim rights and freedoms to justify their own actions, without concern about whether their actions are a violation of others’ rights and freedoms, like simply saying what’s on everyone’s lips “it’s my goddamn right, I can do whatever I want.”

Mural Painting at Wat Phra Sing Waramahavihan, Chiangmai Province
Source: 
Silpa-MAG.com

Drinking alcohol during religious rituals has long been normal in Thailand. According to Silpa-MAG.com, records since the 15th century show that alcohol has been a part of religious rituals in Northern Thailand. However, in modern times, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation has seen ordination as a site to combat alcoholism.

11 years ago (2008), research by the Stop Drink Network indicated that in 947 ordination rituals that year in 10 villages in Northern Thailand, 32% of the cost was alcohol, pushing up the total cost to 20,000-25,000 baht. Recently there have been a lot of campaign posters and events by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation to combat alcoholism, and particularly in religious rituals.