By LYSIANE GAGNON
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
When I told people I was going to Thailand for vacation, I was met with a flurry of enthusiastic comments about Buddhism. Here was a religion of peace and love! Indeed, the image of silent monks in their flowing saffron robes, humbly walking barefoot from door to door to collect their daily meal, comes as a sweet, innocent respite in a world dominated by greedy leaders and violent fanatics, such as the deadly Islamic State.
The reality is less romantic.
Thailand has been shaken by a series of financial scandals involving some of its top Buddhist clerics. And neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma) offers a striking reversal of the romantic narrative: Its bad guys are Buddhists and its victims are Muslims, with thousands having sought refuge in Thailand and Bangladesh from Buddhist-led pogroms at home.
The Muslims in question are Rohingya, essentially stateless in their own country despite being descended from ancestors who settled in Myanmar long ago. Not that they'll find much protection in Thailand, where illegal migrants are reduced to marginal jobs and unable to send their kids to school, but at least it's a respite from open sectarian violence and the risk of death.
Especially disheartening is that this ethnic cleansing operation has been led by Buddhist clerics, with Myanmar's government lending a sympathetic ear to the monks who periodically take to the streets to proclaim their hatred for this poor minority.
What does opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have to say about the Rohingya situation?
Not much. The Nobel Prize laureate, obviously more preoccupied with her political ambitions than with human rights, has lamely argued that there has been violence on both sides. In one interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Radio 4, Ms. Suu Kyi expressed sympathy for Buddhist fears of "global Muslim power" despite the fact that Muslims make up perhaps 4 per cent of her country's population.
With approximately 40,000 temples and a population of 67 million that is 95 per cent Buddhist, Thailand is a Buddhist dreamland. Theravada Buddhism is such a significant part of daily life that many parents send boys as young as 10 to live as novices in monasteries, and adult men are expected to take time off from work and family to embrace monkhood for periods of weeks or months at a time. The revelations about shady financial dealings by Thai religious leaders has had a tremendous impact.
Thanks to donations from local followers and foreign contributors, Buddhist temples accumulate fabulous wealth that largely goes undocumented, since very few temples publish annual financial reports.
Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the country's richest temple, is embroiled in a long-standing scandal involving allegations that huge amounts of money and land were diverted by its leaders. Cases of corruption and fraud regularly make headlines in Thailand despite the religious hierarchy's efforts to cover them up. Last year, the head of a temple invested in the stock market using money from donations, while other monks were caught flying in private jets and trafficking amphetamines or endangered wildlife. In January, the senior abbot of Wat Saket, considered one of the country's oldest and most prestigious temples, was alleged to have embezzled the funds earmarked for the cremation of his predecessor.
The moral of the story is that if all religions are respectable, none are entirely free of evil - not even the one that derives from the Buddha's noble teachings, capturing the imagination of so many.