When Monks Prey: Sexual Abuse in Thai Temples

In the past few years, there have been a number of cases of sexually assaults by monks.

In early September, news broke that a 52-year old monk in Buriram had raped a girl in his temple’s community for five years, and that she was now pregnant.

The abuse began when the girl was 13, and she is now 18.

In one case from March, a monk allegedly raped a 78-year old woman at knifepoint near a temple in Krabi, saying “thank you,” after he finished.  In another case that came to light in February, a Thai monk sexually assaulted two children 20 years ago in a Chicago temple, where he taught Thai language and culture.

Prachatai English spoke to Jaded Chouwilai, the Director of the Women and Men Progressive Foundation (WMP), promoting the participation of men and women working to end gender bias and violence against women in Thailand. Jaded talked about his experience handling a case of rape committed by a monk.

Jaded Chouwilai

Jaded said that he could not recall the exact details regarding the boy’s age and the year that the abuse occurred, but he said that the case occurred “around 2016,” and that the abused boy was “about maybe 10 years old.” Jaded said that the boy was abused “for a long time”.

Jaded said, “It took place in the temple because the boy was a novice. He was a novice since he had to go to school. And the monk had to supervise him. Of course it happened in his private room. It would be difficult if it happened anywhere else.”

The WMP hired a lawyer and won the case against this monk, who was sentenced to over 10 years in prison.

How big is the problem?  

The number of people sexually assaulted by monks in Thailand is unknown. Jaded said that he sees roughly 10 stories about it in the news every year, but he believes that the number of assaults is higher than reported. “They’re not the only cases, there are so many cases of this, to sexually abuse and assault and harass young men. I think the numbers from the newspapers are not the true story. In reality, I think there are more than this.”

Jaded said that most victims of sexual assault by monks are young boys, since young boys in Thailand have to train with monks in temples.

Why Do Monks Rape?

Jaded said, “Sexual assault does not happen only between men and women, it also happens between men and men. This is the use of authority by senior monks. When they feel sexual desire, they use their power against a novice who has less power. So this is the exercise of power in patriarchy against an inferior.

It tends to happen many times with the same target, said Jaded. "When this first happens, most children don’t have the courage to come forward. They have no courage because they have faith in the monks. But when it happens many times, a child wonders why the monk did this to him and also probably his friends. So he loses faith in the monk, and he comes forward to tell his parents.”

An Uphill Battle for Justice

In the case that Jaded helped with, the monk was punished for his abuse. But it was hard to get there. Jaded said, “Because this was a high-ranking monk, he was very influential in the area. The monks in this area even had a mafia. We had to fight a lot, we had to fight hard. He used his influence over the police. So we needed evidence for the fight. We fought until we won. He also told people in the community that what the victim said was false, and he was a good monk. So it was not very different from the cases of female victims.”

But not every case ends in justice. Jaded said that this problem relates to the police. In the past two years, Jaded has received 33 complaints about sexual assault (in general, not only by monks), but only one case has gone to court. When asked why this is, Jaded said, “Firstly, negotiation with the police. The police tell the victims, ‘This perpetrator is very influential, you’d better not mess with him.’ Secondly, compensation. The police often encourage victims to just accept money from the perpetrators, instead of taking the case to court. This is why only one case has gone to court. This is why the police are the first gatekeepers, therefore the first obstacle to overcome.”

Jaded said that due to the status of monks in Thai communities, it is often hard for people to fight them in court. He said that while most people in a community will believe young children who say they have been raped, due to a belief in children’s innocence, it’s harder for adults to prove their case. This is because, as Jaded said, most people think “A monk does not rape, he’s a very good person.”

When victims have strong evidence, however, cases can be made easier. He said when the target was a boy, with strong evidence, it was not that hard to prosecute. "The police and communities tend to sympathize more with children, and less with adult women because they will think the female victims gave consent."

When asked if there were any individuals or NGOs working to end sexual assault by monks in Thailand, Jaded said that organizations such as WMP were working to end sexual assault in general, but there are currently no organizations specifically focused on monks. He said, “When I campaign, I have to stop not only monks, I have to stop every man who has a problem.”

Psychological Struggle of Victims

Jaded said that when they win the case, a victim gains a lot of confidence. Even if they suffer anxiety, depression and PTSD, they often gain confidence when they win the case against their abuser.

WMP works with hospital networks and psychologists to provide services for victims. In some cases where the victims can get over it easily, the Foundation also invites them to share their experience with more recent victims so that they can reflect on their own experience and in doing so, help others.