Buddhist monk Phra Panya Seesun glanced at the police summons that had been delivered to his temple outside Bangkok. Within seconds, he grasped that he was being accused of defaming the powerful monarchy, which can carry up to 15 years in prison. It was the start of a painful process that would see him flee Thailand and seek asylum in an undisclosed country, a rare collision of politics and religion in the Buddhist-majority kingdom.
"They're trying to put me in jail," Panya told VICE News from the undisclosed location abroad. "If they don't shut my mouth, there could be a second, a third, ten, or a thousand monks."
Since July, anti-government protesters have held mass demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha to step down and for the monarchy's powers to be reduced under a new constitution. While monks in the Buddhist-majority country are not supposed to get involved in politics and can't run for office or vote, they have become an increasingly potent force in recent years, taking sides at protests in a deeply polarized society.
A number of sex, drug and corruption scandals have also rocked Buddhist-majority Thailand's monkhood over the last decade, prompting urgent calls for reform. Panya, who has devoted the last eight years of life to Buddhism, believes the problems plaguing the religious community overlap with demands of the pro-democracy protesters. Like the students taking to the streets in large numbers, he is fed up and being more vocal about it.
It was Panya's Facebook posts from last year that first attracted attention from the police. He claimed that some monks were rising through the ranks because they were affiliated and personally selected by the monarchy. He also criticized links between the royals and the military-backed government, later sharing information online about King Maha Vajiralongkorn's holdings in Siam Cement, the country's biggest industrial conglomerate. Panya said he never used insulting language about the king; he simply tried to educate Thais on what was already public information.
Panya has also been outspoken over the fact that Vajiralongkorn has the authority to appoint the Supreme Patriarch, the top position in the Sangha, or Buddhist clergy. The change was adopted in 2017 to keep rules in line with a "long tradition" where the monarch has been responsible for picking the candidate.
While use of Thailand's harsh royal defamation laws have declined in recent years, dozens of anti-monarchy dissidents have been forced to flee the country in fear for their lives. In December 2019, two people with a history of criticizing the monarchy were found in the Mekong river, their bodies stuffed with cement blocks. Others have gone missing, including a Thai activist who vanished in broad daylight in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on June 4th.
Panya's case is unusual. Under normal circumstances, dissenting monks are reprimanded quietly within their own temples, stripped of privileges, or verbally punished. VICE News has seen the original summons for royal defamation. But when Panya reported to the police station, he was told that the charges had changed to violating the country's computer crimes act, which human rights groups say is increasingly used in place of the harsher royal insult laws.
His political awakening was rooted in the alleged corruption and financial mismanagement he saw around him. He said many temples are tourist traps for donations, and that abbots are incentivized to make as much money as possible if they want to build respect and power within the Sangha. Financial reporting within temples is also inconsistent, he said.
He started witnessing questionable ethical behavior from leading monks in his circle. He saw more senior figures prioritizing money, obsessing over their reputations, and becoming power hungry. It was a total reversal from his understanding of the Buddhist doctrine, or dharma, which under ideal circumstances should function as a "democratic system."
"If the Sangha wants to do something, the dharma [Buddhist belief system] says we must vote on it," he told VICE News.
But he did not see this playing out in the temples, which he compared to the top-down rule of an army barracks. He chose to push back, and began expressing open support for the youth-centric Future Forward Party during last year's election. The party made promises to end political instability and a long cycle of coups in Thailand. But last year, a court dissolved the massively popular force in a move that analysts say fueled the beginning of the new protest movement.
Panya also began criticizing laws related to the Buddhist community, which he said were drafted by "dictators." He spoke on panels at prestigious Thai universities, and would routinely stream his thoughts on Facebook Live.
VICE News could not independently verify Panya's specific allegations, but they mirror countless headlines about scandals in the Sangha. The Thai generals that seized power in 2014 and held onto it in controversial elections last year have made its own moves to crack down on misbehaving monks. In 2018, a jetsetting monk landed in prison for fraud. He caused a scandal when a video online surfaced of the monk aboard a private plane wearing sunglasses and carrying designer luggage. Another was charged for allegedly sexually assaulting a young boy. Senior monks have been caught money laundering, while another temple was found trafficking tiger parts.
The Thai government did not immediately respond to questions about allegations of corruption in Buddhist temples.
Fervent supporters of the royal family started sending him hate messages and physical threats. Many of the messages came from hugely popular royalists groups led by Thai celebrities. His name spread rapidly online from page to page. Panya estimates that there could have been thousands of hateful comments directed at him from numerous pages.
"The posts read, 'We must look for this monk, we must "give him the feet" we must disrobe him," Panya recalled of the comments across social media. "I would read comments like, 'Oh this is the bad monk who is engaging with the Future Forward Party. This monk criticized our beloved King. This monk crossed the line. We cannot accept that," he recalled.
He escaped the intimidation, death threats, and potential violence by laying low in the Philippines from Dec. 2019 to May this year He returned to Thailand thinking the worst was over, but escaped again when he felt the anger was reaching new levels and with the threat of long prison sentences. He does not want to reveal his current location out of fear for his safety.
"I could feel how angry they were, how angry they were because I criticized the king." he said.
In Thailand, it's still uncommon for monks to be politically engaged. According to the Supreme Sangha Council, monks are not allowed to participate in politics at any capacity. The constitution also bars all roughly 300,000 monks from voting. But there have been blips where monks have pushed boundaries. In 2017, Thai police raided one of the largest temples in the country. Police claimed that the abbot was embezzling money and had close ties to self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatara, a possible source of political influence. Thousands of monks came to the abbot's aid in an unprecedented face off. He has still not been caught.
But Panya is no longer one of the few monks claiming the Thai Buddhist community has lost its way. Dozens have been seen on the streets in recent protests calling for change, though their numbers are still small in a country where their political engagement remains taboo. Earlier this week, Thailand's Buddhist governing body also instructed monks to cease participating in current protests and "expressing political opinions," according to Reuters.
Those who have ignored the strictures are aware of the risks but still think the cause is important enough to show support.
"We're not supposed to give interviews or talk about politics, but we want them [the protesters] to achieve success. Democracy is a good thing," a middle-aged monk told VICE News at a rally on Nov. 8. He chose to not give his name out of fear of repercussions.
Another monk named Udon at the same rally said that it's all about protecting human rights.
"Protesting for rights is a human thing. It's not just about the monks. Whether to demand justice within the monks' community or other communities, we need justice to happen in our society," the 46-year-old said. "As monks, we have justice and morals. But here, this government, they do not act with justice toward the protesters. They arrest anyone who comes to protest. Therefore, there is no justice, there is no democracy."
Monks are protesting for a combination of reasons, according to Prakirati Satasut, a lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University and an expert on Thai Buddhism. He told VICE News that anti-government sentiment within the monkhood has been on the rise since the 2014 coup, which was led by the current prime minister. But others like Panya are also fighting for more freedoms within their own community.
"These young monks feel they cannot voice their opinions. They don't like how the government is treating the sangha. But if they voice their opinions, then that would be branded as political, he said. "They don't like the fact that they can't speak up, they want to be able to determine their own lives, their own future, but they are prohibited by the constitution."
He added that according to ancient texts, monks have historically challenged Thai power structures, even the monarchy. But he added that the rule that monks cannot participate in politics is a "modern thing."
Panya doesn't plan to return to Thailand any time soon. "I've seen that many people are missing. Some have been abducted, some were killed," he said. He has applied for asylum status with the UN refugee agency, but his application is still pending. His situation is uncertain, causing him large amounts of stress. His money is also drying up. He now spends almost all of his time inside a small apartment in a foreign city, too worried to go out as he fears if police find him, he could be deported for overstaying his visa.
"I'm stuck, I cannot go anywhere," he said. "This is what I want to say, I want help, I want to leave this place, it's not safe for me here. I can't go back to Thailand because it's too dangerous for me."