Telegenic tanks rolled into Bangkok. Soldiers evacuated protest encampments. The coup, declared on May 22, 2014, put an end to the demonstrations that had embroiled Thailand for six months. During that period, Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, became the country’s most visible and controversial figure. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, he disappeared.
In a ceremony devoid of pomp and circumstance, he quietly became a Buddhist monk.
After so many days in the middle of unrelenting turmoil, Suthep wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he’d chosen from the standard means of high-profile political respite—a beach vacation, perhaps, or a choreographed trip to his hometown. But this choice to become a monk was downright strange. The decision’s seeming incongruity reflects a contradiction at the center of Thai civic life, which sets the recurring instability of its political institutions against a backdrop of perennially steady religious ones.
The protests that precipitated the coup focused primarily on corruption—a very real and significant problem for the Thai political system. Suthep’s participation in the outcry was deeply ironic, however, as he had been dogged by charges of corruption for much of his political career. Most notably, Wikileaks cables revealed that members of Suthep’s own party complained privately about his “corrupt and unethical behavior,” describing him as a “backroom dealmaker.”
Nevertheless, his protests proved masterful stagecraft. They convincingly linked prominent issues in Thai society, like a failed rice subsidy program and the nation’s growing debt, to an imagined national consensus, while concealing the wealthy and powerful interests that supported Suthep and his activities. Ultimately, the protests brought about a transfer of power.
Nominally neutral, the resulting military junta rules to this day and is largely perceived to be following the agenda of Suthep’s protest movement. Suthep, after all, had called directly for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, by coup if necessary. He also claimed to have had discussions with Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the military regime, before the coup took place. But Prayuth reportedly then told Suthep to quiet down about their relationship. Suthep was ordained a few weeks later, on July 15, vanishing as quietly as a leading Thai politician can.
Granted, Thais—over 90 percent of whom are Buddhist—consider it an obligation for men to seek ordination as novice monks for at least a short period of time. Whether motivated by a desire to make merit for their parents, an interest in Buddhist teachings, or an opportunity to attend school through the monastic education system, Thai men can serve as monks for anywhere between a few weeks to a lifetime. When he was a young man, Suthep was himself ordained, and remained a monk for over a month.
Increasingly, though, the monastery has become the province of poor and rural Thais; well-educated professionals are far less likely to seek ordination. This trend makes Suthep’s foray into monastic life all the more surprising.
Did ordination simply provide Suthep an effective means by which to heed general Prayuth’s suggestion? Or was something else afoot?
Suthep said that he sought ordination in order to honor the 24 people killed over the course of last year’s protests. This type of ordination, to make merit for the dead, has long been common in Thailand and other Buddhist societies. He also stated that he wanted to be a monk for 205 days in order to mirror the length of the protests. Suthep has now been a monk for 311 days, though he recently announced his intention to someday disrobe.
As for public perception, Thais’ explanations for Suthep’s ordination generally reflect their own political positions. One friend, a tepid supporter of the protests, told me that he thinks Suthep was ordained because he needed a rest after the movement. A monk from Chiang Mai, the birthplace of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, said he thinks that Suthep was ordained to avoid getting killed. Another monk suggested that perhaps Suthep had made a vow to seek ordination if he survived or won the political standoff.
While entirely possible, these hypotheses omit important legal considerations. Since many Thais believe that Buddhism is beyond reproach, the religion provides ready cover for a monastic’s past trouble with the law.
Suthep faces malfeasance and abuse of authority charges that stem from his role in ordering a government crackdown on protesters in 2010, when he was the Deputy Prime Minister. Although Suthep is currently being prosecuted, no one—police officers included—wants to lay his or her hands on a monk for fear that it could constitute an offense with long-lasting karmic consequences.
Given the criticism from Gen. Prayuth, mid-June was a politically conspicuous time for Suthep to go underground. In this respect, he joins a little-known line of Thai politicians who have quietly sought escape from intrigue by entering the monkhood. In doing so, they take advantage of the prevailing, if problematic, notion that the Sangha is above politics. Most Thais understand that the national sangha has been affected by the nation’s divisive political dynamics. But, even so, many still presume that there are more good monks than bad, and that by entering the sangha even a bad person becomes better.
Thus, regardless of Suthep’s sincerity in taking refuge in the three jewels, he has gained refuge from the three poisons of political life: bad press, legal trouble, and ostracism from power. And while his questionable intentions may not accrue him much merit, they have certainly accrued him time, which he can use to determine his next move. If the past is any indication, that could be just about anything.