11 July 2024

Buddha Isara, a former monk convicted for his role in violent protests seven years ago, returned to the spotlight on Friday when he caught the attention of Their Majesties the King and the Queen as they mingled with a crowd of loyal subjects.

 

A video clip posted online shows His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn walking towards Buddha Isara after he was pointed out by HM Queen Suthida. The former abbot of Wat Onoi prostrates on his knees before the monarch, who pats him on the shoulders and says a few words.

“The King said thank you,” Buddha Isara said later on Facebook. “I replied, it is my duty.”

 

Now known by his layman’s name of Suwit Thongprasert, Buddha Isara recently began mobilising royalists in a counter-move against growing calls for monarchy reform.

Despite being defrocked during anti-government protests in 2013, he still enjoys huge support, with 320,000 followers on his Facebook page alone.

 

Born in 1956, he ordained aged 20 at a temple in Bangkok’s Klong Toei district. He took two years out for military service, returned to the monastic life and in 1989 helped found Wat Onoi on a donated plot of land in Tambon Huai Kwang, Nakhon Pathom province. Six years later he became the temple’s abbot.

In 1999, he was appointed monastic chief of Huai Kwang, but gave up the post after controversy over his number of years in the monkhood.

 

In 2012, he famously invited three powerful generals to his temple for a statue-casting ceremony. The presence of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, General Prawit Wongsuwan and General Anupong Paochinda – the “three brothers” who now run the country – at the ritual prompted speculation they were followers of Buddha Isara.

In 2013-14, Buddha Isara co-led People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters occupying Chaeng Wattana road as part of the “Bangkok Shutdown” in defiance of the Yingluck Shinawatra government. He was arrested and charged with several offences, including sedition.

After Prayut staged a coup in May 2014, the activist-abbot returned to his temple.

 

Four years later, Buddha Isara was watching the news on TV in his monastic quarters when police commandos raided his temple. He was led away in handcuffs and charged with illegal detention over the kidnapping and beating of two plainclothes policemen during the PDRC protests. He was defrocked over the serious nature of the charges, but has maintained his monkish appearance – only wearing white rather than saffron robes.

 

Five months after his arrest, Buddha Isara was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, commuted to 18 months because he confessed. The court then suspended the jail term because he had no criminal record and had compensated the victims of his crime.

After being released, Buddha Isara returned to giving religious sermons, political commentary, doing social work, and promoting the monarchy.

In response to student-led demonstrations calling for monarchy reforms, the former monk declared: “If you’re going to destroy the monarchy, you must do it over my dead body!”

 

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk