Thailand's new temptations

Western materialism has invaded a devout Buddhist nation. Tim McGirk reports on the murder of a tourist in search of spirituality

It was an impulsive decision which young British backpacker, Johanne Masheder, ended up paying for with her life. Sitting in her pounds 5-a-night guest house, near Thailand's infamous River Kwai, the vivacious Cheshire law graduate penned a last entry in her diary on 10 December: "I have two hours more before check-out time at noon. An English teacher friend, Naree, has suggested that I go and see this cave near the temple."

For centuries, the jagged hills which rise like a dragon's spine above the mist in Kanchanaburi, north-west Thailand, have been a retreat for monks. A place of tranquillity where great Buddhist saints once meditated in caves, Khao Poon temple has attracted many westerners seeking Buddhism's message of peace and compassion. It was in these caves that 23-year old Jo found her death.

Her badly decomposed body was found, three weeks later, at the bottom of a ravine where Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery in Kanchanaburi dumped their rubbish. Thai police said Jo was lured into the caves where she was murdered by a novice monk. Police said the suspect, Yodchart Suephoo, was an amphetamine addict who became a monk after serving two and a half years in a Thai prison for rape. In his confession, the monk told police: "She was alone. A very beautiful girl. I took her around the first cave and then offered to show her the caves nearby. She came with me. We were above a cave looking down and I suddenly said - 'look there!' She looked down and I pushed her, grabbing her bag and her camera. She fell 30 feet. I climbed down after her. The cave was just full of rubbish. I pushed her body to the side so she could not be seen from above and then climbed out. She had very little, just 500 baht [pounds 12] and a camera."

According to police, only three days before, the same monk had raped a young Austrian tourist, Inge Holece. On 13 December, the rape victim wrote in the Bangkok Post, "Please take this seriously. Violence was involved and I'm sure my life was endangered. I would not like anything like this to happen to anybody else." By the time her letter ran in the paper, it was too late. Jo had already been murdered and her parents, Stuart and Jackie Masheder, from Wincle, Cheshire, would not know she was missing until Christmas.

"The killing of a tourist by a bad guy hiding behind the yellow robe [worn by the Buddhist clergy] will have a tremendous impact on the reputation of the country," the Thai national police chief, Poj Bunyachinda, said. Another monk and a layman were also arrested in Kanchanaburi suspected of joining in Ms Masheder's murder.

The killing of the young backpacker has not only damaged Thailand's reputation as one of the safer tourist havens in Asia, it is just one in a long string of ghastly scandals that has rocked the Thais' faith in their once-revered Buddhist clergy. Intensely religious, Thais are reeling over how corrupt some of the country's 200,000 monks have become.

Buddhist monks take vows of celibacy. And it is against their faith to kill any living being. Buddhism is practised by 95 per cent of all Thais, and every male is expected to retreat from society for several months during his life, shave his head, beg for food and lead a simple life.

But Thailand, in its rush towards economic prosperity over the past 15 years, has become one of Asia's most acquisitive societies. Sex and materialistic temptations, inevitably, have penetrated into the Buddhist temples. Selling amulets to ward off evil has turned into a multi-million pound business for some monks, who travel in chauffeur-driven limousines. Crooks and gangsters take up vows simply to escape from the police for a few months. With heroin coming into Thailand from the Golden Triangle, drug addiction has also spread to the monasteries, and one of the country's first Aids victims was reportedly a monk. Police suspect that Miss Masheder's killer became a monk in a failed attempt to cure his amphetamine habit. Yodchart used the 500 baht from her stolen bag to buy drugs.

In Thailand until now, to criticise the Buddhist clergy was to reap bad karma. Few dared to do so until last year when the laughable sexual antics of Phra Yantra Amaro Bikku were exposed. Probably Thailand's best-known monk, Phra Yantra counted among his 150,000 devotees cabinet ministers, princesses and an MP who swore by the curative effects of drinking the monk's urine. But it emerged last year that when Phra Yantra was supposed to be meditating in the wilderness of New Zealand, he was sneaking off to the massage parlours of Auckland. The ladies there nicknamed him "Batman" since he refused to remove his monk's robes during sex. He also made one of his followers pregnant and made love to a nun on the icy deck of a ferry going to Finland.

After Phra Yantra was defrocked and disgraced last April by the country's religious leader, the Supreme Patriarch, it set off a chain reaction of scandals that tarnished Thai Buddhism's sanctity. A venerated abbot in a northern monastery was accused of raping six hill-tribe girls, aged between 12 and 16. Next came the grisly incident in which a monk was arrested for "barbecuing" a still-born baby to extract oil for love potions. Then, another monk was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl; during his first assault he recorded her cries and tried to use the tape to blackmail her into having sex with him again. Most recently, six monks were charged with murdering a fellow monk. Some Thais are repelled by the avidity with which the media has revealed the clergy's seamy side, while reformers claim that it is time to cleanse the monasteries.

Belatedly, the Thai Buddhist clergy is realising that monks can no longer stand aloof from samsara, the Buddhist term for worldly cravings. For centuries, the Buddhist laity in Thailand have pretended that monastic life was pure and simple, above reproach. But the proof otherwise cannot be ignored. Some monasteries have opened up drug detoxification centres. The Supreme Patriarch has also set up a new school at which senior abbots can be taught how to reform errant monks.

This has all come too late for the young Cheshire woman who went to Kanchanaburi's caves for a glimpse of Buddhism's gentle promise. When Miss Masheder did not return to Cheshire in time for Christmas, her parents, Stuart and Jackie, both 49, flew to Thailand to search for her. Desperate, they looked everywhere, stopping sun-bathers in the Thai beach resorts to show them a photograph of their missing daughter. Their last snapshot of her was taken a few days before she was murdered, while she was enjoying an elephant- trek in the jungles of Chiang Mai. The Masheders also placed photographs of Jo in the Thai newspapers, and the woman's friend - the English teacher she refers to in her diary - recognised it and called the police. They found her hired bicycle still parked at Yodchart's monastery. A search of the monastery's rooms and the temple grounds turned up her charred passport, diary and air ticket back home.

The warning letter written by the Austrian tourist may have been too late to save Ms Masheder, but it did help investigators track down her suspected killer. Going by the description she provided to the Bangkok Daily, police were able to identify the monk rapist.

For many Thais, the murder confession of the novice monk, heaped on all the tales of monastic depravity, is ample evidence that the Buddhist laity has become inescapably tainted by the sex and greed that engulfs modern Thai society.

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