A saffron-robed monk takes to the stage in the Thai capital and urges cheering protesters to fight a “black-hearted” government — testing a taboo in the devout kingdom about clerics getting involved in politics.
Since opposition protests broke out in Bangkok three months ago, Luang Pu Buddha Issara has emerged as a key figure in the anti-government movement, organizing prayers and addressing the crowds, with rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban sitting at his feet in a sign of respect.
He is even in charge of his own rally site, one of several set up around Bangkok by demonstrators seeking to force Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and to end the political dominance of her billionaire family.
The protest monk rails against the embattled prime minister and her brother Thaksin, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006 and lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
“The government, which is run by the Shinawatra family — the brother and sister — has no morality or ethics. They are corrupt and they allow corruption to happen. They lie everyday,” said the 58-year-old, who has also been outspoken about scandals involving the bad behavior and lavish lifestyles of some clerics.
“The religious domain has a duty to tell the secular domain what to do — and what not to do,” he said, justifying his role at the vanguard of the protest movement.
However, not everybody is happy with his activism.
“Monks cannot get involved with politics,” said Nopparat Benjawattantnun, director-general of Office of National Buddhism, the official organization in charge of overseeing the behavior of monks.
“But he has not stopped,” said Nopparat, who has written to authorities in Nakhon Pathom Province — home to Buddha Issara’s temple — telling them bring him into line.
The protest monk is also the subject of a complaint by the Buddhist Association of Thailand, a non-governmental organization.
“Monks can have personal feelings, but political expression is banned according to Sangha regulations,” the association’s secretary Sathien Wipornmaha said, adding that Buddha Issara “destroys the image of Buddhism.”
In Thailand, where about 95 percent of the population are practicing Buddhists — one of the highest rates in the world — many believe that the country’s tens of thousands of monks should stay out of partisan politics.
Yet their participation in political or social movements is not unprecedented.
In 2010 dozens of monks participated in the pro-Thaksin protests in Bangkok, although they kept a lower profile than Buddha Issara. Some were even arrested.
“Although in theory monks are apolitical, in practice when you start to really scrutinize what’s going on beneath the surface, you discover there is all kind of politics,” said Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds.
“What is unusual here is a prominent monk who is not only playing a supporting role or a legitimizing role, but who is actually in the middle of a stage,” he said.
“It’s an unusually overt role for a monk to play,” McCargo said.
The controversy surrounding Buddha Issara’s activities has not dimmed his appeal among supporters, some of whom have followed him to Bangkok from his temple.
“The secular domain was in trouble,” said 75-year-old devotee Mayurachat Manothai, decked out in glasses, headband, T-shirt, rings and bracelets in the colors of the Thai flag worn by many of the protesters.