COLUMN: Foreign Intel with Michael Cook
In mid-November the neighbors of the Phai Ngern Chotanaram Buddhist temple in Bangkok complained that a foul odor was coming from the temple grounds. The police investigated and found the remains of 2,002 aborted fetuses in a mortuary reeking of decay and disinfectant. The two attendants were arrested.
It turned out that some of Bangkok's numerous abortion mills had been sending little corpses to the temple so that they could be cremated secretly along with big adult corpses. But about a year ago the crematorium broke down. Plastic bags with the fetuses kept arriving anyway, so the undertakers kept packing them tightly into the fetid vaults.
The monks knew little about what went on in the mortuary because it was the business of the temple employees. "The temple administration had no knowledge of the fetuses beforehand," a monk spokesman told the media. "I can assure you that monks here in the temple were never aware of this and it was not the temple's intention or aim for things to happen like this." But all of Thailand was horrified.
A Sin & a Crime
Abortion, except in cases of rape and incest and when the mother's life is at risk, is illegal in Thailand, and for devout Buddhists it is a terrible crime. "Buddhism believes in rebirth and teaches that individual human life begins at conception," says one commentator. "The new being, bearing the karmic identity of a recently deceased individual, is therefore as entitled to the same moral respect as an adult human being."
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the government's immediate response was not to restudy the wisdom of its restrictions on abortion, but to announce a crackdown on illegal clinics. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva deplored the incident but declared that the current legislation was "flexible enough."
Nonetheless, illegal abortion is a huge problem in Thailand, a country of 67 million people. No one knows how many happen every year. There are about 80,000 legal abortions, and possibly as many as 300,000 illegal ones. Dozens of clinics exist in Bangkok where unmarried pregnant teenagers and married women who want to limit the size of their families can get "fixed up."
The media, both in Bangkok and in the West, focused on Thai campaigners for abortion law reform. As in the West, they highlighted the dangers of back-alley abortions. A member of Parliament, Sathit Pitutecha, immediately announced that he would draft a bill on "consensual and necessary abortion" for unwanted pregnancies, especially for teenagers. "Let me make it clear that legalizing abortion is not liberalizing abortion," he said.
But there is little chance that Thailand will make any further concessions in the short term. As Maytinee Bhongsvej, of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW), says, "People's attitudes are the major obstacle. For Thai society, abortion is a sin."
But in the long term?
What is at stake in Thailand is not just whether its abortion laws will be updated to ape countries in the West, but whether its deeply Buddhist culture can survive the embrace of a globalized economy and a Western consumerist lifestyle.
Some leading Buddhists are aware of the challenge and denounce abortion as a symbol of the worst aspects of Westernization.
For instance, a leading figure lobbying against abortion law reform is the Buddhist activist Chamlong Srimuang. Chamlong is a fascinating character. Back in 1981, the last time a serious attempt at reforming the abortion laws was made in the Thai Parliament, he succeeded in organizing a coalition to defeat it. Although the measure passed in the lower house by a vote of 79 to 3, it was rejected by the upper house 147 to 1. At the time, Chamlong was a lieutenant colonel in the Thai army. He later became a major general, governor of Bangkok, and a leading figure in the People's Alliance for Democracy.
He has first-hand acquaintance with the West and even has a master's degree from the US Naval Postgraduate School in California. Yet he edited a pamphlet in 1981 entitled "Abortion: The last curve on the road to moral catastrophe." In a speech to the upper house he declared that rather than liberalize the abortion laws, Thais should hew to the five moral precepts of Buddhism—refraining from killing, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying, and from drunkenness.
Such exhortations evidently still ring bells with the Thai people, even though Chamlong is a member of a controversial anti-materialist and anti-consumerist sect, the Santi Asoke. Members believe, by and large, that abortion is unreligious, un-Buddhist and un-Thai. They believe it is popular in the West because Christian morality has failed. As a leading figure in the Santi Asoke movement put it:
Thailand is rich and plentiful. Thailand is a clever country, we have culture, we have industry, we have all sorts of things so many I can't mention here. We in Thailand don't need to copy from other countries. If we do, if we fall for the ideas of other countries Thailand will become progressively worse and worse.
Although the Santi Asoke and the Buddhist establishment, or Sangha, have their differences, they are united on opposition to abortion. A leading monk, Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi was unequivocal: "In [the] Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder. Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them."
Mixed Messages & Tattered Morals
Yet there is a paradox in the defiance of Thai Buddhism. Although it is resisting tenaciously on the abortion front, on other fronts its moral defences look decidedly tattered. For one thing, Bangkok is widely reputed to be the commercial sex capital of the world. But more significantly, Thailand is a star performer in government-sponsored family planning. In the 1960s women had an average of about 6.5 children. Now the average is about 1.8 children. Contraception is widely available. So even if abortion is frowned upon as the destruction of unborn human life, the dynamics of a contraceptive lifestyle make it more and more likely that women will resort to it. There can be little doubt why the abortion mills thrive in the face of public disgust, religious denunciations, and the danger of police raids.
Furthermore, young people in Thailand are getting very mixed messages about sexual morality. As in the West, pornography is a big problem. And it seems that half of the women seeking abortions are unmarried teenagers. As in the West, the solution proposed is "better" and more widespread sex education.
So, while the first moral precept of Buddhism, abstaining from taking life, is defended tenaciously, the third precept, abstaining from sexual misconduct, is being rapidly undermined through the infiltration of alien Western values.
A Sad Paradox & a Crucial Question
The paradox arising from this sad juxtaposition of prurience and piety was articulated by one of the back-alley abortionists who sent fetuses to the temple mortuary, a 33-year-old nurse named Lanchakorn Janthamanas. She told police that she just didn't have the heart to kill children from late-term abortions if they survived her procedure. In fact, she was raising five of them as her own children. "I commit sin [abortions] every day, so if the kids won't die, there's no need to kill them. And I want to have children because I can't, possibly due to the sin," she said.
So the real question that arises from the lurid discovery of the tiny cadavers is whether Thai Buddhism will find the strength and wisdom to modernize without adopting the worst excesses of the West. The three pillars of Thai identity are the King, the Nation, and Buddhism. If Buddhist leaders fail to point the way, the nation itself may totter. •
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