Protecting monks from themselves
Scandal after scandal has come to light involving rich temples and the misconduct of monks, spurring the military government into action by initiating a law that seeks to bring order to the clergy.
Buddhism preaches frugality but that fundamental principle has been challenged with some temples and monks amassing massive wealth.
Recently, Phra Phromsuthi, abbot of the prestigious Wat Saket and a member of the Supreme Sangha Council, came under fire for allegedly abusing billions of baht of temple donations.
Authorities cleared him of the allegation but the public's scepticism has not gone away.
Experts say grey areas remain in the way temples, particularly some of the prestigious ones, have spent their public donations.
Research by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) showed temple donations nationwide are worth 100-120 billion baht a year.
Temple donations are sometimes spent as personal money by the monks and the transactions of temples have gone unaudited.
Some temples have been accused of running a propaganda machine that attracts huge donations from the faithful through a sophisticated marketing network.
Other temples own vast tracts of land which are turned into lucrative markets or are put up for commercial developments.
There are almost 300,000 monks in 35,000 temples and 5,000 monasteries nationwide, which hold over 40 billion baht worth of land between them. Temples are regarded by the law as non-profit establishments. However, abbots have legal control over the management of the temples' assets, which proceeds unchecked.
Certain senior monks have owned or been driven in luxury cars and seen around flaunting brand-name personal effects.
Other monks have been caught breaking cardinal rules by engaging in sexual misconduct. Many are defrocked but faced no criminal prosecution owing to the absence of a relevant criminal law.
The issues undermining Buddhism as an institution sprang to the attention of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which listed them as among its priority problems to tackle. The NCPO has sponsored the so-called Patronage and Protection of Buddhism Bill, now being vetted by the Council of the State, the government's legal arm.
The council would establish a central body, the Patronage and Protection of Buddhism Committee, to keep tabs on temple spending. The law, if passed, would set new precedents — meting out legal punishments against monks who commit cardinal sins including breaking the vow of celibacy and also against those complicit in the monks' misconduct.
The existing law governing temples and monks is the Sangha Act, which has been amended twice since its enactment in 1941. The most recent change in 1992 put temples nationwide under the administration of the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) headed by His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch and with members being 12 of the country's most senior monks.
The SSC oversees the Sangha Act which sets punishments or disciplinary actions for monks and novices whose conduct damages the reputation of Buddhism. The punishments include defrocking.
The key force behind the drafting of the Patronage and Protection of Buddhism Bill is Nopparat Benjawatthananant, former director of the National Office of Buddhism (NOB). He said the bill will streamline the work of the juristic entities formed to run individual temples for the benefit of communities.
It will also regulate the behaviour of monks through strict enforcement of the religious code of conduct.
"The monks who are the keepers of the rules must have the courage to see to swift enforcement of the law [against rogue monks]," he said. His biggest concern is cronyism within the clergy where senior monks with the authority to act against unruly monks look the other way to protect one of their own.
The Patronage and Protection of Buddhism Committee will have wide powers, from investigation to prosecution, to bring monks who break the law to justice.
Mr Nopparat said the bill would enable law enforcement officers and the public to file complaints against monks and their accomplices.
The bill will also compel temples — which teach disciples to pay large sums of money to "buy merit" — to reform themselves, Mr Nopparat said.
Activist monk Phra Buddha Isara, the abbot of Wat Om Noi in Nakhon Pathom, has urged the National Legislative Assembly to rush the passage of the bill to allow for monks who amassed riches and those defrocked on the grounds of criminal wrongs to face the justice system.
However, he said he held little hope in the NOB's efforts to push the bill through the NLA. "It's not easy to convince the bigwigs in the SSC to sit back and let the axe fall on the monks," he said.
The bill looks certain to run into stiff opposition, especially from the movers and shakers in the SSC, he said. He suggested the anti-graft agency and the Auditor-General join the civil sector to run checks on wealthy temples and senior monks who are unusually rich.