Beware of bogus Thai monks seeking alms

The New Straits Times, Jan 14, 2005

JOHOR BARU, Malaysia -- Malaysians have been told to be wary of Thai monks who walk the streets asking for alms. The reason: some of the men in saffron robes are bogus monks, preying on the generosity of locals.

A senior tamruat phra, literally, the monk police, said a Thai syndicate behind this scam was known to have fleeced thousands of Malaysians of their cash and personal belongings.

Phrakhru Sudhidamarak, who is one of 18 monk police appointed by the Thai King, said he was also aware of rogue monks indulging in such acts in the country.

"Last year, we caught and derobed 10 such rogue Thai monks in Kuala Lumpur," said Sudhidamark, who was here to conduct Buddhist prayers for tsunami victims at Taman Johor Jaya here.

"Geunine Thai monks do not wear watches or shoes. Indeed, they have no earthly assests of any sort," he said, adding that all legitimate monks carried a "monk pass" issued by the Sankarat (head monk).

"They wear a saffron robe and the only possession they have is a cloth sling bag for personal documents and a binthabatt (steel bowl) for food.

"They are only allowed to go out to receive donations of food from devotees between 4am and 8am daily.

"Thai monks are also strictly forbidden to beg or roam the streets, bilking people out of cash, food and other donations. They are also not supposed to ask for cash or sell any items like talisman in return for money," he said.

Sudhidamarak, who is the royal monk of Wat Sing Thong in Bangkok, regularly visits neighbouring countries to conduct prayers.

He said he only had jurisdiction over fraudulent Thai monks both in Thailand and abroad, adding that although he had the authority to reprimand rogue monks of other nationalities, he could not take action against them.

"In the case of errant Thai monks, I derobe them on the spot and their particulars are relayed to the Thai police to facilitate their arrests when they return home."

In Thailand, the legal penalty is only US$4.50 (RM17.10) for the first offence. Repeat offenders can get a year in jail, but that's rare.

The most effective deterrent is the element of public shame.

Sudhidamarak said the tamruat phra was formed in 1993 against a tide of scandals engulfing the Buddhist clergy.

This included several high profile cases of real monks in Thailand caught embezzling, selling and using drugs, seducing parishioners and patronising prostitutes.

He said although wayward monks made up only a tiny minority of Thailand's 300,000 clergymen, the damage they had done to the faith was so severe that the King himself had to step in to appoint monk police.