Fighting Buddhists wage war on drugs in Thailand

Tuesday, April 9, 2002

GOLDEN HORSE MONASTERY, Thailand -- He was a soldier and champion boxer but now the burly abbot leads a band of "Little Buddhas," some as young as 7, who practice martial arts and meditation, then ride into the mountains to fight the scourge of drugs.

There are nearly 33,000 Buddhist monasteries in Thailand but not many like this remote retreat set in limestone crags and bamboo thickets of northern Thailand.

Most of the country's sanctuaries are defined by a languid atmosphere and little physical exertion by the clergy. The Golden Horse Monastery resounds with the neighing of some 100 horses, the thwack of body punches and the barking of orders at ranks of disciplined youngsters.

"Before I was just a soldier of Thailand. Now I am a soldier of the Lord of all the world's people. Now, I fight against lies, theft, hate and violence," says Abbot Kru Ba Nua Chai, seated in a simple hall stacked with religious icons.

His little army consists of the sons of impoverished hill tribe families, most of them orphans, some former drug addicts. Its mission, Kru Ba says, is to spread the Buddha's teachings and combat widespread drug abuse among tribal people in an area where narcotics are as common as cold pills.

Good people hard to find

The 40-year-old monk, accompanied by some of the novices, spends about a half of each month trekking through the rugged region along the Myanmar border in the northern province of Chiang Rai. They ride horses, which fare better than vehicles, especially during the monsoon rains.

"We don't like to mix with city people," Kru Ba says, his forceful voice accompanied by the tinkling of temple wind-chimes. "There are some good people in the cities but they are hard to find. People in the hills have a great sense of honesty."

It's from the hill peoples -- the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Shan and others -- that he draws his recruits, from villages without schools and grim futures as a burgeoning population faces shrinking farmland, ravaged forests and infertile soil.

Some ethnic Thais also come, like Manop Indhamot, 31, who says he had been a drug addict from his youth until two years ago, when his parents brought him to the monastery with its mix of rural peace and regimentation.

Wake up call is at 1 a.m. followed by meditation, religious teaching and the chanting of prayers until dawn. Then, standing in military formation, the novices -- there are currently 17 -- count off before calisthenics and immersion in a pool of frigid mountain water for more meditation. There are periodic fasts, lasting up to three days.

Thai-style boxing is practiced every evening. Using knees, elbows, feet and fists, Kru Ba shows how he could disable his young sparring partner if he applied real force.

Such behavior ordinarily would be considered unmonkly, but instilling discipline and mastering self-defense are needed for the ventures into lawless border areas, Kru Ba says.

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