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Thai monks struggle with drug addiction
300,000 addicts: Drug of choice is methamphetamine, or 'crazy medicine'
The National Post


monk mealBANGKOK - The young man bowed his head reverently as he walked away from the giant golden Buddha. It was still early, but the 20-year-old novice had already breakfasted and prayed. With a bright orange robe and shaven head, he looked every bit the pious devotee. Only one thing marred this view: his drug habit.

According to a recent study by Thailand's Religious Affairs Department, 300,000 of the country's novice monks are drug addicts.

Their drug of choice is methamphetamine, which floods the user's brain with dopamine, enhancing the senses and inducing a state of euphoric invincibility.

The novices are among three million Thais who use the pills, also known as yaa baa or "crazy medicine."

Although the numbers of Thai addicts are increasing yearly, the young monks' drug habit has caused alarm and soul-searching in a country where religion still plays a crucial part in daily life.

The 20-year-old novice was not proud of his drug use. He had to be persuaded to speak about it and only did so on the understanding neither his name nor the location of his temple would be revealed.

Sitting on the stone steps at the foot of the temple, shaded from the already hot morning sun, he spoke about his life.

"I started using yaa baa before I became a novice," he said. "All my friends were doing it and I got into it as well. At first I was taking the tablets every now and then, but it soon became a regular thing. When I joined the temple, I realized I couldn't do without yaa baa."

Like many young men across Thailand, he had joined his local temple temporarily, in his case for six months. At the request of his parents, he gave up his secular life to follow a traditional rite of passage, where young men become monks for a limited period of time -- ranging from a week to several years.

This religious devotion, which is still the norm in rural Thailand, is said to equip them spiritually for a virtuous life.

"When I got to the temple I wanted to give up the drug," he continued. "It's wrong to take such a thing, especially when wearing holy robes. A novice should follow an austere life as ordained by Buddha. But I'm not doing that."

The young monk looked pained when speaking about his dilemma. Yet despite his awareness of the difficulties his addiction posed, he seemed unable to do anything to resolve his situation.

"I need to get help, but it's hard to know who to turn to because I'll be letting a lot of people down by telling the truth," he said.

Phra Paisal Visalo, a progressive and reformist monk, said the problem of drug use among novices represents a wider problem in Thai society as a whole.

"This drug knows no borders," he said. "It has invaded temples as it has invaded everywhere else. The problem is that in many temples, hundreds of novices live and study together without good guidance from an abbot.

"Many different kinds of misbehaviour can take place in such an environment."

He believes part of the problem lies in the Council of the Elders, the governing body that supervises the monks. This group of elderly conservatives is burying its head in the sand, but its refusal to act is bringing holy orders in Thailand into ill repute.

"I don't think the council knows how to deal with [drug addiction]. This is a modern phenomenon which the hierarchy doesn't understand at all," he said.

"Young monks need support and education to help them deal with problems. At the moment the system is completely out of date."

Similar criticism comes from Sanitsuda Ekachai, an assistant editor and social commentator for the Bangkok Post, who has written extensively about the need to reform the council.

"Monks deliberately try to keep their problems hidden from society," she said.

"And that stops them from dealing with issues like drug use among novices."

Although the council is now planning to introduce urine tests before ordination, it is easy to avoid detection by stopping drug use a few days before.

"A more integrated system of community liaison is needed so that the senior monks can determine who among potential novices have a history of drug abuse," Ms. Sanitsuda said.

"They can then stop them before they have even applied to join the temple."

The Religious Affairs Department said it needs more money to fund programs.

Manop Polparin, author of the addiction study, told a press conference: "Efforts to solve the drug problems in temples have failed because of poor co-operation from senior monks and a lack of funds.

"Senior monks don't want to admit that novices are addicted to drugs because they fear that the public would lose faith in the religion."

With only the equivalent of $100,000 available to help rehabilitate the monks, Mr. Manop said he was concerned the issue was not being given the financial support it needed.

"Each addict receives only 10 baht [33] for rehabilitation. This amount is not enough to help addicts kick the habit."

His controversial comments set off a wave of worried and critical editorials in the country's press.

The criticism of the department's apparent inability to deal with the matter caused it to batten down the hatches.

Only after repeated requests for interviews was the National Post granted a meeting with Tawin Samakrathagit, chief of the Religious Affairs Department.

His spacious office seemed to hark back to a golden age when the filing cabinet was king. In a wide-open room, a dozen workers sat at little wooden tables filing endless sheets of paper, with neither computer nor fax machine in sight.

But for more than an hour, Mr Tawin was "engaged," "in a meeting" and then "at lunch." When he finally appeared, he passed the buck on to Mr Manop, saying only he could speak on such a "sensitive matter."

Despite agreeing to be interviewed, Mr. Manop soon announced he, too, would not say another word on the subject of drug use among novice monks.

Laurie Maund, manager of the Sangha Metta Project, which educates monks on HIV/AIDS and narcotics awareness, explained why the department had clammed up.

"Those novices who use drugs are only temporary, yet their behaviour casts aspersions on monks as a whole, which the Religious Affairs Department rightly concludes is unfair," he said. "They feel that dwelling on it will ultimately do more harm than good.

"What is being consistently overlooked in this debate is the work being done in some temples to actually resolve the drug problem in Thailand."

Many monks and temples run effective drug rehabilitation and awareness projects in their communities.

Mr. Maund gives the example of Wat Tam Krabok temple in Saraburi province, north of Bangkok, which has a successful program that has won several international awards.

All this might be true but a problem remains, as the monk Phra Paisal explained.

"There are structures to help drug users in general, but very few to specifically help monks who use yaa baa," he said.

"These novices just don't have the support they need because no one in authority is willing to address the scale of the problem."


Updated: 2-8-2001

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