BANGKOK - With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks.
Officials say it’s a move to restore the country’s image of Buddhism, tarnished by recent high profile scandals such as the opulent lifestyle of one jet-setting monk, monks seen using drugs and drinking, as well as allegations of child sex abuse at a temple in the North.
But despite call centers operating in 76 provinces since late June, things have been a bit slow for phone operators like Suriya Choohaven, who said the most common grumble is about monks recycling alms.
“The biggest complaint is about the monks doing business with the vendors by selling back the food they collect, to make money and then they don’t walk around anywhere," he said.
The National Office of Buddhism director said the hotline will work with other enforcement agencies to monitor not only bad monks, but also inappropriate religious behavior by both Thais and foreign visitors.
“When we receive the complaint case we can start work immediately with the other departments. For example if someone posts a bad clip on Facebook, we can tell ICT [Ministry of Information and Community Technology] to shutdown that page," explained Nopparat Bencha-Wattana, director National Office of Buddhism of Thailand. "Or we can find out who release the clip and we can investigate.”
Such tight controls over Thailand once much-freer media and social networks have become a hallmark of the junta’s rule.
But Buddhist experts say monkhood in Thailand has been struggling for years, in part because free secondary education and better family planning means fewer high-quality candidates seek monkhood.
Buddhist expert and former monk Sang Chan-Ngam remains confident that the basic fundamentals of Buddhism will survive in the kingdom, with or without a hotline.
“As far as the monastery rules which were laid down by the Buddha in the Buddhist text, would not dare change them because they have become sanctified. But as for man-made rules or rules made by the temple and the monks, they can be changed,” he said.
Authorities say they will investigate any complaints made against the country’s estimated quarter million monks.