Thailand's tiny Buddhist 'army'

The ascetic group is adding its moral weight to mounting calls for the prime minister to step down.

Under a roof of brown tarpaulin erected on a public square, Chamlong Srimuang sits calmly, waiting for another all-night protest to begin. A former army general and politician, he knows the tactics of patience and persistence.

But today, Mr. Chamlong leads a different kind of army - barefoot Buddhist ascetics who have turned their backs on modernity, but not on politics. Called the "Dharma Army," they belong to Santi Asok, a breakaway sect of about 10,000 that runs nine self-sufficient communities known for strict monastic discipline. Its codes include sexual abstinence and a diet of one meal per day. Their name comes from the concept Dharma, which includes truth, righteousness, and integrity.

Dharma's numbers are modest- around 1,000 or so have heeded the call to join the protest. But their moral voice carries far in the political turmoil that has gripped Thailand and forced embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to call snap elections in April.

Among them is Santi Asok follower Nungput Vimuttinun, who marched on Sunday with tens of thousands of anti-Thaksin protesters. "We believe in Dharma. Right now, society is divided into two - Thaksin and the people. We have to choose a side, and we choose the people," he says.

Sunday's rally was the biggest so far in an opposition campaign that has filled the air with vicious jabs at Mr. Thaksin. Protesters accuse him of betrayal and cronyism over the $1.9 billion sale of his family's telecommunications company to Singaporean investors in January. Many also criticize free-trade talks with the US, which Thailand suspended last week because of the political impasse. In addition, opposition parties in parliament are boycotting the April 2 ballot, throwing the process into disarray. Thaksin says he won't surrender to "mob rule."

Such worldly issues may seem far removed from a fringe sect that runs vegetarian kitchens and promotes organic farming. But Santi Asok's brand of Buddhism, breaking from the mainstream tradition, has embraced social and political action since the group's founding in 1972. Chamlong, who once fought with US troops in Vietnam, drew on its ranks during his two terms as Bangkok governor in the 1980s.

Chamlong became known as "Mr. Clean" for his battle with city hall's entrenched corruption. Though Buddhism has rarely played an overt political role in modern Thai history, Chamlong insists that its principles must apply to political life. "Politics needs Dharma," he says, referring to the concept. "If politics doesn't have Dharma it will destroy the world, not only this country."

As part of its public morality drive, the Dharma Army last year picketed Thailand's stock exchange to block the listing of a local liquor company. Chamlong has also lobbied against proposals to license casinos in Thailand.

This activism, and the sect's orthodox disdain for mainstream Buddhism, which it considers corrupt, has ruffled feathers. Santi Asok's founder, Bhodirak, a former TV host turned monk, was disrobed in 1989. And under Chamlong's leadership, protesting Santi Asok members helped bring down a military leader in 1992, restoring democracy.

Chamlong's decision to take to the streets - the same streets that saw the 1992 protests - was greeted as a major blow to Thaksin. "We wouldn't be where we are today without him coming in. When you hold a protest, that's who you want to bring to the table. The Dharma Army has the numbers and the discipline," says Michael Montesano, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

It's also something of a personal crusade for Chamlong and his barefoot troops. Chamlong lent his prestige to Thaksin during his early political career and supported him after he took office in 2001. But Chamlong later turned against his protégé, saying that Thaksin's morality had surrendered to greed and corruption.

He's not the only one who feels duped. Atisa Saengartit used to hand out campaign leaflets for Thaksin in his hometown of Chiang Mai, where she has lived for 20 years in a Santi Asok commune. Now she's determined to keep protesting - peacefully - until he steps down.

"We want to mark a new chapter for protests. Peaceful, nonviolent, and forgiving to wrongdoers," she says. At the rallies, there is heated talk of ethics and morality, and proud displays of royalist and religious symbols. But analysts say the injection of Buddhist morality into the protests doesn't necessarily signal a shift in Thai politics. While daily life is deeply entwined with Buddhism - the religion practiced by 95 percent of Thais - politicians rarely feel bound by its strictures.

British historian Chris Baker says the rise and fall of Santi Asok is a case in point. "Santi Asok was for a time in the 1980s a very important sect. It was arguing for a greater political and social role for the monkhood. To prevent this, the politicians decided to defrock them," he says, referring to the monks' expulsion from the Buddhist clergy.

Still, the presence of the devout at the rallies touches a chord with many. "We might not to able to live like Santi Asok, but we admire them for having the courage and stamina to live their humble lives," says Sanitsuda Ekachai, a writer on religious affairs.

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