Thailand’s soldier monks

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soliders and monksThough it seems like a plot device from a Bruce Lee movie, this is very real – Thailand has an undercover army of “soldier monks.” These are young soldiers that are specially chosen to train and become monks so that they can live at Buddhist monasteries throughout southern Thailand and defend them from separatist Muslim insurgents that are wreaking havoc throughout the region.

Around 90 per cent of the Thai population is Buddhist, but a substantial minority in the southernmost reaches of the country practices Islam. In January 2004, a violent uprising erupted in Thailand’s southern provinces that still rages to this day. Led by ethnic-Malay Muslim separatists who want to carve out a region of southern Thailand for themselves, this uprising has involved near-daily bombings and violence on a massive scale, much of it aimed at Buddhist civilians and monasteries, but also at the Thai armed forces. An estimated 5,000 people have been killed in this insurgency since 2004.

The Queen of Thailand herself, Sirikit Kittiyakara, has been heavily involved in organising the counter-insurgency. She not only created various incentives for Buddhists to remain in southern provinces, but she initiated a programme of giving land in the south to Buddhists from different parts of the country who were willing to move to the south, in an effort to increase the Buddhist population there. The Queen is also credited with starting a widespread programme of arming southern Buddhists and training them in the use of arms, and with coming up with the idea for soldier monks.

Buddhist monasteries and temples in Thailand are under the protection of the Thai military. But monasteries do not allow soldiers to live with the monks and participate in all of their activities. One must be an ordained monk to do that. The solution that Queen Sirikit therefore devised is to have talented young soldiers study and become ordained as Buddhist monks, and thereafter to live with the monks as their protectors for the rest of their lives.

This is considered a hybrid service to the country – both to the military and to the national religious order. Judging by appearances, these soldier monks are indistinguishable from the rest. They shave their heads, dress in the same attire, and follow the same lifestyle. But under their robes, they often have a variety of guns and weapons strapped to their bodies to use in the event of a sudden insurgent attack.

The soldier monk programme has received a lot of criticism from international watchdog groups who object to the Thai government essentially arming one religious group against another. In response, leading Thai clerics and officials often decline to discuss the programme or deny its existence. But by this point, enough independent stories have reached the press to verify that this made-for-Hollywood covert operation most certainly exists.

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

Though it seems like a plot device from a Bruce Lee movie, this is very real – Thailand has an undercover army of “soldier monks.” These are young soldiers that are specially chosen to train and become monks so that they can live at Buddhist monasteries throughout southern Thailand and defend them from separatist Muslim insurgents that are wreaking havoc throughout the region.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

soliders and monksThough it seems like a plot device from a Bruce Lee movie, this is very real – Thailand has an undercover army of “soldier monks.” These are young soldiers that are specially chosen to train and become monks so that they can live at Buddhist monasteries throughout southern Thailand and defend them from separatist Muslim insurgents that are wreaking havoc throughout the region.

Around 90 per cent of the Thai population is Buddhist, but a substantial minority in the southernmost reaches of the country practices Islam. In January 2004, a violent uprising erupted in Thailand’s southern provinces that still rages to this day. Led by ethnic-Malay Muslim separatists who want to carve out a region of southern Thailand for themselves, this uprising has involved near-daily bombings and violence on a massive scale, much of it aimed at Buddhist civilians and monasteries, but also at the Thai armed forces. An estimated 5,000 people have been killed in this insurgency since 2004.

The Queen of Thailand herself, Sirikit Kittiyakara, has been heavily involved in organising the counter-insurgency. She not only created various incentives for Buddhists to remain in southern provinces, but she initiated a programme of giving land in the south to Buddhists from different parts of the country who were willing to move to the south, in an effort to increase the Buddhist population there. The Queen is also credited with starting a widespread programme of arming southern Buddhists and training them in the use of arms, and with coming up with the idea for soldier monks.

Buddhist monasteries and temples in Thailand are under the protection of the Thai military. But monasteries do not allow soldiers to live with the monks and participate in all of their activities. One must be an ordained monk to do that. The solution that Queen Sirikit therefore devised is to have talented young soldiers study and become ordained as Buddhist monks, and thereafter to live with the monks as their protectors for the rest of their lives.

This is considered a hybrid service to the country – both to the military and to the national religious order. Judging by appearances, these soldier monks are indistinguishable from the rest. They shave their heads, dress in the same attire, and follow the same lifestyle. But under their robes, they often have a variety of guns and weapons strapped to their bodies to use in the event of a sudden insurgent attack.

The soldier monk programme has received a lot of criticism from international watchdog groups who object to the Thai government essentially arming one religious group against another. In response, leading Thai clerics and officials often decline to discuss the programme or deny its existence. But by this point, enough independent stories have reached the press to verify that this made-for-Hollywood covert operation most certainly exists.

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