by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Buddhist monks who allegedly murdered people, enjoyed sex with women and, in a macabre ritual, roasted a dead baby have wreaked hell on Thai society and its saffron-robed clergy.
On Monday (October 30), police arrested a Buddhist abbot for allegedly killing a woman whose body was found a week earlier inside a septic tank at a neighbor's home.
Police seized Abbot Adhikan Arn Wattanadhammo, 46, in Petchabun town while he reportedly tried to burn bloodstained clothing and destroy a ring inscribed with the dead woman's surname.
"Buddhist leaders face major crisis of faith," warned the respected Nation newspaper in an editorial.
"There was the monk who roasted dead babies in order to collect their oil to be used in spurious magical ceremonies," the editorial added. "And then there was the monk who committed necrophilia in coffins in his temple.
"These are but two of the most bizarre incidences in recent years which have caused the monkhood to suffer a serious loss of credibility." The paper lamented, "Barely a week goes by without some kind of monastic scandal."
It demanded punishment for all monks who commit "blatant fraud and theft" by using donated funds to finance disreputable lifestyles.
The latest abbot-linked murder comes during a week of widespread media coverage showing a different abbot being arrested and disrobed for allegedly having sex with several women, while masquerading as a special forces colonel.
In that case, Abbot Thammathorn Wanchai denied committing a sex crime within the clergy, and said he was simply visiting female friends.
By coincidence, he was wearing a uniform to express respect to the military's spirits, he claimed.
"It made me happy to dress as an officer," the abbot was quoted as saying.
Thanong Khanthong, a columnist, warned such scandals are "holding the Thai faith up to ridicule."
Referring to the uniform-wearing abbot, the columnist added, "He was part of a 'Chivas Regal gang' who liked to drink the expensive Scotch whisky before giving sermons.
"At his private residence, police found pornographic material, lingerie and condoms -- apparently His Excellency Wanchai was not totally careless about AIDS," Thanong said.
On Oct. 23, the abbot was filmed driving his Mercedes out of his temple at night, stopping to don a uniform of the Special Warfare Command, with Army Signals insignia, and pulling up at a house where two women later arrived by taxi. The trio stayed overnight.
The next morning, he was filmed taking the women to a restaurant before they all returned for another overnight at the same pad.
"Get out of the car," a police officer demanded the following day, when the abbot tried to cruise away.
Police arrested him, and yanked his green uniform open to reveal his orange robe underneath -- all on nationwide on TV.
Wanchai, 43, had been in the monkhood for about 14 years, and an abbot since 1991. He had received huge donations from leading Thai officials and others.
"He often came to the house at night, and always entertained female guests," Crime Suppression Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong said. "He went out virtually every night."
Thawee said the abbot could face up to five years imprisonment for impersonating a military officer.
In an extremely rare display of ire within Thailand's Buddhist congregation, about 500 residents who lived around Wanchai's temple refused on Oct. 26 to give alms to any of his temple's monks, after seeing television coverage of the abbot being defrocked on Oct. 25.
As a result of the devotees' boycott, about 30 monks at the temple in provincial Suphan Buri town had to make do with whatever food they collected in their alms bowls earlier in the week, from their traditional morning rounds.
Thailand, meanwhile, is still reeling from the antics of yet another monk, caught on camera wearing a wig and enjoying a nightlife of loud karaoke singing, boozing and other taboo acts.
His shaved eyebrows -- de rigueur for all Thai Buddhist monks -- reportedly betrayed Abbot Pativet Viset. He also denied wrongdoing but resigned on October 20, a few days after his alleged hijinks.
Thailand's late meditation master Luang Pho Chah Supatto wrote that abstaining from sex "is the monks' biggest obstacle." One of the most unusual meditations to knock-out a monk's sex drive is "corpse contemplation."
Monks purchase crime-scene news photographs of horribly dismembered, bloated or decaying human corpses and concentrate on them.
The cheap, forensic photographs are sold in Buddhist icon shops for this meditation.
Cartoon versions depict, for example, a woman in a bikini next to her skeleton. Such technique stresses all humans will soon rot in unpleasant decay. A learned monk is supposed to perceive a sexy female's shape as merely a temporary illusion.
Angry chanting, however, is being voiced against other Buddhist abbots as well.
In September, an abbot was investigated by the Education Ministry and Religious Affairs Department for amassing a collection of expensive vintage cars instead of renouncing material possessions.
Abbot Viboon Pattanakit also faced inquiries from the aged abbots of Thailand's Sangha Council on Buddhism.
He shrugged and said he used donations to buy more than 60 cars in an altruistic plan -- to open a museum which would benefit the temple.
In 1996, Thailand's freakiest Buddhist monk roasted a dead baby to extract "magical" oil, which dripped from its charred corpse. Police arrested Harn Raksajit, popularly known as Aer, after publication of a photograph showing how he allegedly grilled the tiny victim.
Aer boasted he broiled the baby to create a much-feared babyish ghost known as Kumarn Tong, who is widely believed to possess powerfully hypnotic, manipulative abilities.
Aer insisted one of his devotees found a nine-month-old, apparently still-born baby near the temple in a black garbage bag, which was being chewed on by a dog.
The devotee brought it to Aer, asked the monk to cremate it, and paid him 20 US dollars for expenses, Aer added. The baby's mother was never found.
Aer, 35, was ultimately defrocked for committing an indecent act with a corpse, and failing to report a death.
About 95 percent of Thailand's 65 million citizens are Buddhists. Gorgeous "wat" temples shelter ornate giant statues of Buddha, and other revered icons, virtually everywhere in this devout Southeast Asian nation. More than 400,000 monks and novices live in Thailand's 40,000 temples. Most of them obey strict tenets, which for monks include never touching women or intoxicants, because they distract one's focus away from spiritual enlightenment.
Wealth must also be shunned, in an effort to achieve "detachment" from desires. In Thailand, homosexuals, criminals, handicapped people or anyone infected with disease or in debt, cannot be ordained as a monk, the clergy's rules state.
Worshippers anxious for good luck, meanwhile, are thrilled when a monk indicates a number which they hope may win an upcoming lottery.
But some monks, after receiving food donated by devotees each morning, have sacrilegiously dumped it from their alms bowls into big plastic bags, and later sold the food to street vendors.
Other priests have grown wealthy from wheeling and dealing in religious icons, good luck amulets, and magical blessings.
They dwell in chauffeured luxury.
Richard S. Ehrlich
Asia Correspondent firstname.lastname@example.org Bangkok, Thailand