Go easy on temples, Thais told
Govt attempts to stem temple-building spree

By Nirmal Ghosh

BANGKOK - Thailand may be a Buddhist country, but the mushrooming of Buddhist temples across the country has prompted the government to call for new rules on temple building.

Buddhist monks chant a prayer in one of Thailand's numerous temples. -- AFP
It has told the National Office on Buddhism, which operates under the Education Ministry, that existing legislation must be modified to ensure that temples can be built only where 'suitable and necessary'.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreua-Ngam, who made the call recently, said that the modification of the legislation was necessary to stem the tide of temple-building.

He said that too many new temples were being built, many less than one kilometre apart - and that temple-building sprees did not always take into account the economic situation of local residents.

Temples can cost anywhere from a few million baht to hundreds of millions of baht to construct.

But there are many incentives to build new temples - including spiritual merit, personal prestige and financial profit.

Once they are established, temples receive funding from the government, but they also receive a not inconsiderable quantity of private donations, which essentially go unreported to the outside world.

To build a new temple, some wealthy patrons may even contribute millions.

'The building of temples is based on the faith of Buddhists who believe that building a temple brings great (spiritual) merit.

'But considering the state of the economy, people should think twice,' said National Buddhist Institute director Suthiwong Tantayaphisalsut.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu suggested that the National Office of Buddhism should survey derelict temples across Thailand to verify how many there are and what condition they are in.

Monks might be able to renovate these temples and take up residence in them instead of having new ones built, Mr Wissanu said.

Although there is no reliable data on the issue, educated guesses put the number of disused temples in Thailand at between 5,000 and 6,000. The number of temples in active use is in excess of 32,000.

Mr Wissanu also called for a comprehensive nationwide survey of religious property, saying he would discuss proposals put forward by groups of monks that the government should establish an independent agency responsible for all religious property.

Mr Suthiwong said his office was already modifying ministerial regulations concerning the construction, establishment and closure of temples, and would soon present its conclusions to Mr Wissanu.

On another religious front, there have also been periodic upheavals in the Sangha - the community of Buddhist monks - regarding the frequent misuse of funds by individual monks or cliques.

These have spawned ongoing efforts to reform the system - many led by progressive monks - in order to make it more transparent.

But the power of these well-established vested interests, a scholar of Buddhism told The Straits Times, remains considerable