EDITORIAL: A hate-filled monk silenced, not the hate

BANGKOK  (The Nation/ANN) - Apichart claims to be a changed man, but the intolerance he represented is deep-rooted.

Few decent-minded people, whether Buddhists or not, would have been perturbed last week when outspoken monk Phra Apichart Paunnajanto, known for railing against Islam, was disrobed. His immediate disappearance from public view was cause for speculation for several days, but then he resurfaced, clad in pious white attire, insisting he was a changed man. It was his decision alone to leave the monkhood, he said. He hadn’t been forcibly disrobed at all, let alone by state and ecclesiastical authorities.

Those authorities also said he had voluntarily shed his saffron robes, but we have our suspicions.

This is the man who despicably called on Buddhists to burn down a mosque every time a monk was killed in the conflict-riddled South, not an infrequent occurrence there. Such vengeful, prejudicial, inflammatory preaching not only contradicted the teachings of the Lord Buddha, but it also ran counter to common human decency.

Apichart seems, though, to have undergone a conversion in his brief absence from public view. He no longer advocates violence against Muslims, no longer feels they are a threat to Thai Buddhism. How did this abrupt change of mind come about? Perhaps the ruling junta’s almost magical abilities at “attitude adjustment” had something to do with it.

Government officials would like us to think Apichart was a “lone wolf” – a deluded monk with wayward sermons. But several Buddhist academics have looked deeper into the matter and concluded that’s not the case. They have suggested that prominent political figures and monks in Thailand were elevating Apichart as this country’s version of Wirathu, the nationalist monk in Myanmar ferociously attacking the Muslim minority there. Wirathu’s fiery anti-Islam rhetoric paved the way for the persecution of Muslims and the slaughter of the Rohingya in particular.

Photographs taken in Apichart’s residential hall show portraits of Wirathu on the wall. The Thai clearly is (or was) an admirer.

Apichart’s call for Thai Buddhists to burn down a mosque for every monk killed by southern insurgents made headlines two years ago. “If a Buddhist monk dies from being shot or from an explosion at the hands of Malayu bandits, a mosque should be burned, starting from the northern part of Thailand southwards,” he posted on Facebook.

Apichart was arrested a week ago today, reportedly over controversial videos he’d more recently posted online. It seemed an odd turn of events for Apichart if what the scholars have uncovered is in any way true – that he was in some ways a creation of the ultra-conservative elements in Thai society.

Apichart’s monk’s robes may have been removed and his Facebook account shuttered, but the atmosphere in Thailand remains polluted with the cruel beliefs and vengeful hatred he formerly espoused. The authorities and society as a whole will have to do much more than silence the voice of one man who probably ended up going too far.

Any monk can be disrobed. Tackling the ugly ideology that such individuals propagate and promote is a far more difficult matter. Too few Thais are ready to admit that state policy seriously afflicts their Muslim countrymen and would scoff at the idea of anti-Islam sentiment here devolving into a full-blown campaign as seen in Myanmar, where monks take the lead in efforts to shut down Muslim-owned businesses. 

The Myanmar monks’ rallying cries cite heritage and national pride and security. Look out for those poisonous words.


No photos has been attached.