Thailand: Making Merit While Escaping the Law

In October of 1973, amid a storm of nationwide protest, Thanom Kittachikorn, the Thai field marshal who appointed himself the commander in chief of the army and ran a deeply repressive government from 1963, was forced to flee a student uprising.

For three years, he remained in exile in the United States, finally returning in 1976 in the robes of a novice monk, which kicked off another massive student uprising at Thammasat University that was quelled with stunning brutality by the army, killing an unknown number in a burst of frightening savagery.

It is unclear how long Thanom remained in the Thai monkhood, a unique institution that is unlike, for instance, the novitiate in Roman Catholicism, before returning to public life, which he did do after things calmed down. But Thanom has been followed into the robes by a long procession of politicians and public figures or the very rich who use Thai Buddhism as a convenient hidey hole while they either repent their sins, seek protection from being killed, or just use it as place to circumvent prosecution. It goes back at least to 1538, when King Maha Chakkraphat chose the monkhood after a coup brought down his dynasty.

“Thais treat monkhood as a form of cleansing,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor and activist currently teaching in Japan. “Young boys are encouraged to enter the monkhood to spare merits to their parents. But monkhood is also a political affair. Politicians exploit it to whitewash themselves, as it works well as the Buddha taught the concept of forgiveness. Because the sangha is an inviolable domain, many Thais are reluctant to condemn corrupt politicians who exploit monkhood for themselves.”

Obligation to Religion

Most Thais believe it is an obligation for young men, often in their teens, to seek ordination as novices, at least for a sort period. It is part of the holy trinity of Thai national identity of nation, Buddhism and monarchy. Those who go into the monkhood remain anytime from a few weeks to a lifetime.

The latest to do so is Janepob Veeraporn, 37, who smashed his Mercedes into the back of a Ford Fiesta in Ayutthaya in March, killing two university graduate students when the Ford exploded. Janepob is the son of Jessada Veeraporn, a luxury vehicle importer. He is also the heir to the Lenso Group, a major Thai company involved in the distribution of chemical products and other parts of the logistics chain from sourcing supplies to storage and transportation. Janepob is said to have blown through a throughway tollgate at an estimated 150 kph an hour before, well down the road, he was estimated to be traveling at 250 kph when he hit the back of the Ford. Somehow, he escaped with minor injuries.

Police allowed him to refuse a drug and alcohol test at the scene of the accident. A video of the crash, in which the Mercedes was traveling so fast it appeared to come from nowhere before it hit the Ford, went viral, causing nationwide outrage, at least partly because so many heirs to the very rich have been involved in car accidents and other incidents that took the lives of the unwary or innocent. He was subsequently expected to be indicted in the middle of this month.

However, Janepob entered the Wat Khae Nang Lerng temple in Bangkok before moving on to a forest temple in Nakorn Rachasima in the country’s northeast. His uncle, uncle Charoen Kaewyortla, told reporters his nephew had made the decision to ordain after the accident as he had wanted to show his remorse for and make merit for the two he had killed.

Thugs, crooks, dictators

"It's simply incredible the kinds of thugs, crooks, and political dictators that organized Buddhism in Thailand is prepared to whitewash by allowing them to enter the monkhood,” said a Bangkok-based source. “Phra Janepob is just the latest example of this sleazy practice of false redemption and trying to reduce public pressure after his murderous, incredibly reckless driving killed those two graduate students."

Before Janepob, it was the turn of Thai-English actress Anna Reese, who crashed her own Mercedes into the back of a police car last June, killing the officer inside the vehicle. Like Janepob, she wasn’t tested for drugs or alcohol for almost 12 hours, refusing at the scene to be arrested, shouting that she was “not ready.”

Rather than face charges, Reese declared herself a Buddhist nun and entered the Thai Nun Institute in Bangkok where, according to the Bangkok Post, she agreed to be “super-devout” and dedicated all of her merit to the dead officer, Sub-Lt Napadol Wongbandiit. She prayed every night, she said, “and a part of me believes he has forgiven me.” Asked about charges, Reese said she had left the process to her lawyer. Last July, she attended the officer’s cremation ceremony, where she later told the media his ghost possessed someone present in order to tell her she was forgiven.

Other examples include Sondhi Limthongkul, the publisher and onetime leader of the ultra-royalist Yellow Shirts, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which spent months in violent protest campaigning against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and successive surrogate governments, starting in 2005. He entered the monkhood in 2007, possibly to escape lese majeste charges for claiming that members of the Thai royal family supported the Yellow Shirt quest against Thaksin. He lasted two years in the monkhood before bailing out in 2009, after which he narrowly escaped assassination by unknown assailants.

Suthep escapes the assassins

Suthep Thaugsuban, the thuggish Phuket warlord who led the violent months-long attempt to bring down the government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, disappeared shortly after the May 2014 coup that brought the military to power. He was ordained a few weeks later, apparently after Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the military regime, told him to quiet down. Although Suthep said he sought ordination to honor the 24 people killed over the course of the protests he led. Sources in Bangkok have given several other reasons. Some say Suthep needed a rest. But others in Bangkok said he made a hasty retreat into the monkhood to avoid being assassinated. He was joined by Ekkanat Prompan, a close aide, who was also ordained shortly after the coup.

While making merit, Suthep and Ekkanat also enjoy at least temporary immunity from charges of malfeasance and abuse of authority. “Since many Thais believe that Buddhism is beyond reproach, the religion provides ready cover for a monastic’s past trouble with the law,” one critic wrote in the website Tricycle, which posts about Buddhist teachings and practices, “no one wants to lay his or her hands on a monk for fear that it could constitute an offense with long-lasting karmic consequences.”

Suthep’s sincerity in taking refuge gained him bad press, legal trouble and ostracism from power, the author wrote, has gained him refuge from the three poisons of political life: bad press, legal trouble, and ostracism from power. “And while his questionable intentions may not accrue him much merit, they have certainly accrued him time, which he can use to determine his next move.” He has since emerged, ready to take up politics again.