The image of the religion has been affected by sexual and financial scandals. Closer checks have been imposed on the finances of thousands of temples. Senior monks now exert tough discipline. Donations and sales of sacred objects in temples have been prohibited. The “inappropriate use of social media" has also been banned. Some 35 monasteries and 29 individuals are under investigations. Relations between monks and the state have become rocky.
Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Under growing pressure from Thailand's military government, and their own religious bodies, Buddhist monks have launched a fresh round of reforms in recent weeks to clean up temples and overhaul a religion stalked by scandal.
The image of the country’s dominant religion, followed by more than 90 per cent of the population, has suffered over sex scandals involving monks and allegations of money laundering by Phra Dhammachayo, the former abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Thailand's biggest temple (ten times the Vatican).
The scandals have prompted calls for tighter checks on the finances of thousands of temples across the country that are among Thailand's popular tourist attractions.
Since September, senior monks have issued orders to enforce greater discipline for Thailand's more than 300,000 monks and some 40,000 temples.
The instructions came from the Sangha Supreme Council, the governing body of the Buddhist order (Sangha) that plays a role similar to that of College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church.
Reuters reports that now monks must stop asking for donations and temples must stop selling holy objects on temple grounds. The goal is to ensure that temple finances are more transparent and to counter criticism about the commercialisation of religion.
Other orders instruct senior monks to tightly control "inappropriate use of social media" by monks to prevent "criticism from the public."
One order given in September by a group of temples in Thailand's northeast region asked monks to police each other and report any behaviour that might go against Buddhist teachings.
These measures come at a sensitive time as Thailand prepares to cremate the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej next week and formally crown his only son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, expected at the end of the year.
In view of the many scandals involving monks, the government has exerted strong pressure on religious leaders to make radical changes. The ruling military junta has been trying to reform Thai Buddhism since it came to power in a 2014 coup.
Last month, it reinstated a former senior police official, Pongporn Pramsaneh, as head of the National Office of Buddhism, who soon afterward asked police to investigate temples where state funds were allegedly misappropriated.
Police say they are focusing on 35 temples and 29 individuals, including five abbots and a former Buddhism chief, who were allegedly involved in misappropriating funds. All five abbots have been formally charged with abusing state authority and colluding to do wrong, among other charges.
The government allocated 5.32 billion baht (US0.77 million) to support Buddhism last year, 4.67 billion baht of which was earmarked for temples and monks across the country.
Some analysts see the latest reform push as part of a power struggle between monks and the state ahead of the royal transition.
"The government has a lot of influence on monks, partly due to the rich subsidies it grants them,” said a Thailand observer speaking to AsiaNews.
“Monks want to defend their autonomy even though the latest scandals justify the citizens' request for transparency on the part of the authorities. Over time some monasteries have become centres of power, boosted by the prestige of the abbots and donations from wealthy families.
“According to Buddhist doctrine, monks are not required to lead a monastic life forever, so some 'prepare' to give up their vows by accumulating sums of money.” However, “in several cases the scandals are due to simple accounting errors, relating to funds used for temple maintenance."