Developing Compassion

Farang Online, January-February 2002

Bangkok, Thailand -- Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe now have the fastest rising rate of new HIV infections. With more than one million Thais (about one in 60) plagued with the HIV virus, Thailand tops a recent list of 10 Asia-Pacific nations, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s Social Development Division. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai have the greatest concentration of victims.

However, the number of Thai sex workers infected has fallen, while the rate of young heterosexual males succumbing to the disease has risen alarmingly.

While the Public Health Ministry has said that sufferers of HIV/AIDS are entitled to antiviral drugs under the government’s Bt30 health plan, the promise has not materialised yet.

The scene looks distinctly subversive. A layman is standing in front of an audience of about 5 Buddhist monks, holding up an erect, plastic penis and demonstrating how to put on a condom. The irony is not lost on the monks, and waves of laughter roll round the room as a few crack jokes about the situation. Fortunately, the layman in question is not a fanatic intent on persuading monks to renounce their vow of chastity, but a teacher from nearby Chiang Mai University, who is participating in a workshop organised by the Sangha Metta Project. (Sangha refers to the Buddhist monkhood, while metta means compassion.) The project, initiated in late 1998, has already trained over 1,500 monks in AIDS awareness and counseling skills, which the monks take back and apply to their local communities. Word of the project’s success has traveled so far that some monks participating in this workshop have come from Cambodia, Laos, and China.

The organiser of the project is Laurie Maund, an Australian who has been living in Thailand for over 30 years. A former monk, he now teaches at the Mahamakut Buddhist University at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, where the workshop is taking place. During the last few years, he has run many such workshops, both here and in other places in northern Thailand, as well as in neighbouring countries.

He is enthused by the response. “You see that monk there?” he whispers to me as the talk about safe sex continues. “He set up a discussion group for teenagers exposed to risks from unsafe sex and narcotic addiction at his local temple, and now the teenagers have started other groups in nearby villages. We find that local initiatives for dealing with problems like AIDS are far more effective than national ones.