Sunday, November 8, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on ‘Monks Like Crows.’ Oct.2007

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘Monks Like Crows,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine, Yr.55, Vol.3, 12 – 18 Oct., 2007.

Many days ago, the whole world stood in awe of the monks of Burma who braved the threats of the soldiers and came out in protest against rulings by the military junta. Monks in red robes came out in the hundreds of thousands in Rangoon and in many other cities in long lines. Through the drizzling rain they came for many days, undeterred. The sight was stirring: the people of Burma could be proud. These monks remained a pillar of their society, in unity with and understanding the suffering of the people.

At first the demonstration was peaceful. Some monks were interviewed and told how the people suffered as the price of oil had suddenly shot up, increasing by 100%. Burma is a poor country. How could the people live? The monks could not live either.

The monks made it clear that the demonstration was to be made by them, and that the people should stand back. They were told not to join for fear of danger to anyone who marched.

As I marveled at their courage and prayed for their success in pushing back the tyrants who govern them so cruelly, I looked at Thai press reports full of news about Thai monks and their supporters demonstrating against a painting, Monks Like Crows, by Anupong Jantorn coming out of Silpakorn University. The work won a gold medal at the 53rd National Exhibition.

These demonstrators called the picture inappropriate on many points. It is an image of two monks, crouching head to head, with mouths like the beaks of crows. They fight over ritual thread and ‘magic’ bead which they have collected in their alms bowls. Also in the picture are images of frogs and lizards copulating and a stillborn foetus –suggestions of sexuality that should never be seen near monks. The whole effect is something bad for society and for the priesthood as well.

Protestors demanded that the prize given this disturbing image (it was painted upon the same cloth used to make monks’ robes) be recalled.

Hence, the demonstrations by the Thai and Burmese monks were totally different, both in content and level of wisdom. One group was calling for democracy, the other for censorship. One group fought on behalf of the poor oppressed by tyrants, the other to fend of criticism of themselves. The Thai monks twisted the intention of the artist, who in fact loves the priesthood and Buddhism, and attacked the artist for discrediting them.

Thai monks demonstrate very well, but they march against the wrong things. For example, they launched demonstrations to have Buddhism lodged in the constitution as the national religion. Monks came from all over the country to stand in front of the parliament. They threatened a hunger strike if the parliament didn’t accede to their demand.

When the people were driving out Thaksin, the monks were silent. They never criticized him, even when the point at issue was a moral one – the ethics of government which brought the country and the people into hot water. Some temples in Pathum Thani offered support because the (ex) prime minister had given them large donations. Only the Santi Asoke group joined the anti-Thaksin fight from the start (it is a group whose legitimacy is denied by the orthodox clergy.)

The Jatukarm fiasco especially makes the whole Thai priesthood look crazy. They sold thousands of medallions, some of them containing the ashes of the dead to make the amulet more powerful and ‘holier.’ The authorities in the clergy supported all this because it is not expressly forbidden, an interpretation convenient to these monks.

Mooching off the powerful was not enough; they mooched off children as well, making Jatukarm for children. It pleased the adults to see their offspring wearing mini-medallions. The little novices were conscripted into stamping out more of them for sale. Child labor. Charming.

The economy has been week this past year. Some people said it would have been worse if not for the Jatukarm angel. The temples of Thailand became Jatukarm factories, responding to the hungry markets. The temples where formerly the scriptures were preached, peaceful places where the mind and heart could find rest, now were hot with the appetites of monks and lay people.

Now that the Jatukarm fad is passing, images of Prapikanete (Lord Ganesh) are all the rage. It is a speculative economy, and one that does not know how to be creative, how to create something distinctive. The temples have become centers of speculation.

These monks like crows by Anupong Jantorn are not too harsh a criticism of Thai monks at all. The image is not without reason. The work is strong in form and content, and is suitable in the context of Thai society. The picture is chilling. Monks with mouths like demons make a living off magic. They can’t be at peace: they must fight back, but the people are crestfallen at the sight. The investment in yellow robes doesn’t pay off.

One is very pleased that the artist and the judges at the National Exhibition – the panel included artists like Prayad Pongdam and Thawan Dachanee, men who were confident of the principles and pure intention of the young artist who had never looked down on Buddhism, and who was bold enough to resist threats.

The fiery monk protestors and their followers prayed and trampled on pictures of the artist and announced that they would take the artist and the judges of the exhibition to court.

And in Burma, the monks and people who marched peacefully were shot down by the soldiers. The world watched in horror as the people were cut down in vicious, inhuman acts. Important temples all over the country were ransacked by police and soldiers. Monks were beaten to death; the temples flowed with blood.

The news shows that Burmese monks are politically involved. The temples are important political gathering places. The monks are always close to the people and the political process. But Thai monks in the Ayutthaya period conspired against the king. Again, when the communists were active, they said it was no sin to kill a communist. What is their role in politics? They have nothing left to offer but amulets and currying favor with politicians.

In the carnage of 1988, many Burmese monks died under the brutality of soldiers and police. The monks excommunicated the head of the government and would not receive alms from the killers of the people. So the people believed the monks were with them – unlike the Thai monks, who have never refused a tyrant, not even one.

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