Moralist monks turn on Thai prime minister

The Spectrum, MARCH 6, 2006

Bangkok, Thailand -- Among all the angry protesters now trying to turf Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office -- the students, the workers, the farmers and the artists -- it is an army of 10,000 celibate vegetarian Buddhists that may be the most dogged of his opponents.

<< Phra Bodhirak, founder of Santi Asoke

When Thaksin rose to prominence in the late 1990s, members of a fringe Buddhist sect called Santi Asoke were among his original foot troops -- the Dharma Army. The abstemious adherents hoped the multibillionaire businessman's wealth would give him the luxury to dodge temptation. They counted on him to change Thailand's culture of corruption.

These days, however, with Thaksin accused of perpetuating the same-old crony capitalism, the Dharma Army has mutinied with the bitterness born of being burned. Willing to sit for days and nights to make their views heard, the sect has brought its vegetarian kitchens and its stamina to the protest rallies, trying to stake a claim at the moral sharp end of the anti-Thaksin forces.

Santi Asoke's lifestyle and politics make many Thais uncomfortable. The sect is ostracized from mainstream Buddhism, whose monks refuse to recognize founder Prah Bodhirak, a one-time TV host and rock DJ, as a legitimate religious figure.

But its best-known member, former military officer-turned-politician Chamlong Srimuang, is a moral pillar of Thai politics. Late last month, Chamlong came off the fence and to forefront of an anti-Thaksin movement that, lacking the votes in parliament, has tried to drive the prime minister from office with street power.