Religion has the capacity to silence critical thinking and create blindness in entire groups of people. It can infect the minds of followers so completely as to allow the most egregious sexual acts against children and others to go unchallenged for centuries - DARREL RAY
He arrived one February morning in 2012 from his village, alone, and with a small battered and torn suitcase secured with a rope. The few contents, untidily packed, were visible because the case couldn’t close. When I met him later that evening he was sitting alone in front of the Television enraptured by a cartoon. Thinley, eleven, stood up when I walked in. “So you want to become a monk?” I asked.
“Yes la,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked, “I heard you were in school. Don’t you like going to school?”
“I like school la, but I want to become a monk,” he responded.
“Why?” I asked again.
“Because I want to learn the teachings of Sangay (the Buddha) and if I learn the teachings I will become learned and I will be able to help my parents and my village la.” A child consciously aware of etiquette, bold, and probably street smart too, I surmised.
“But you can do that even if you go to school,” I said. “How will you help them?” I was curious.
“I will be able to share the teachings, and I will be able to help with the rituals. Right now we don’t have anyone who is learned in the scriptures in our village,” he said. He spoke like an adult. I was touched by his desire to benefit others, if that was truly his intent. Short of saying anything else I told him, “Do you know they are very strict in the monasteries and punishment can be harsh?” I was trying to see his reaction and let him know it was not going to be so easy.
“Well, they need to be because children can be naughty. A little discipline is always good,” he said, undeterred. He was only eleven, yet he seemed determined to take difficulty on, even leave his family of his own volition, to become a monk. It was moving. But was it because he really wanted to study the scriptures, or was it to escape the hard life in the village? Everything about this encounter was so Dickensian, it was hard to think there was a different Bhutan out there. Whatever his reason, I was impressed by his conviction and I wished the best for him.
AN ESCAPE FROM BROKEN DREAMS
It was a beautiful June morning at the monastery. The monks had just finished their breakfast and Thinley was at the stream washing up when Penjore, twelve, a year older, joined him. Together they washed their hands and bowls in silence. It had been about four months since Thinley had come to the monastery. The morning sun fell softly around them and although the days couldn’t get more beautiful than this, the nights had been something else. Both Thinley and Penjore had experienced sleepless and terrifying nights at the monastery. Unable to take anymore of what seemed like a nightmare to them, Thinley decided it was time to do something about it. He asked Penjore if he would run away with him. Although both boys deny being the first one to come up with the plan, they both agree that it was decided at the stream that they would run away. Thinley may be a year younger than Penjore, who is shy and reserved, but he is taller and leaner, confident and bold.
It was there that the boys colluded to end their monastic life for good. They ran into the bathroom and hurriedly discarded their robes on the floor, changed into their home-clothes and made their big move. They snuck into the head Lama’s chamber, stole Nu. 3,000, and made for the surrounding forests.
“I knew we would need money if we wanted to get home,” said Thinley. “I knew where the money was kept because another novice monk Tshering, who is eleven, and worked with the head Lama showed me when I had gone to the chamber with him one day.”
Undetected the boys managed to sneak out of the monastery premises. The monastery is about half a day’s walk uphill from the main motor road in Punakha. After running for what seemed like forever, the boys rested. They said they heard voices calling out their names. A few monks had given chase.
“They didn’t find us, but we were scared to move after that, so we spent that night in the forest,” Thinley said. “We didn’t have anything to eat, but we drank lots of water from a stream.” The next morning at sunrise they set out for the road. As they were walking along they saw a taxi and flagged it. “The driver asked us where we wanted to go and we told him to Thimphu. He said it was Nu. 1,000 and we paid him,” said Thinley. “He asked us where we were coming from and we told him that we had gone to help our uncle on his farm and were returning to Thimphu.”
When they got to Wolakha the taxi stopped. The taxi-driver told them he couldn’t go any further. He gave no reason. “He didn’t return our money because he said he didn’t have change, but he found us a car that was going to Thimphu and told the driver to drop us there,” said Penjore.
The driver dropped them off at the bus-station. It was raining when they walked into town and stopped a man to ask him if he knew of a cheap hotel where they could stay. “The man instead took us to the police. We were very scared. The policeman asked us where we were from. We told him the same story, that we came from our uncle’s farm, but the policeman somehow knew. Eventually we told him where we were from, although we didn’t tell him that we had run away. He called the village Tshogpa to inform my parents and Penjore’s grandmother. He told them that we were safe at the station in Thimphu.”
“The policeman took us to a small restaurant where he bought us tea and momos,” the boys said. “A man who was sitting nearby and drinking bought us puri and aloo and even gave us Nu.100 each when we left.”
THE HARSH REALITY
Thinley is back in his village. He is carrying his baby sister, strapped on his back with a kabney. He hasn’t re-joined school as he has missed the academic year. He has an older brother who is in school and another younger sister apart from the one on his back. He spends his time helping his parents with the baby. His parents are farmers, although his father had once also been a monk but had left to become a farmer. I tell his parents that I want to talk to Thinley. His mother takes the baby, and Thinley and I walk behind the house where we sit on a large rock. I ask him why he ran away from the monastery.
“I didn’t like it,” he says.
I ask him again.
“What happened? Why did you run away? You confided in someone about why you ran away. Will you tell me?”
Thinley looks away and remains silent. “Did they beat you?”
“No,” he turns to answer me, and then quickly looks away.
“Then why did you run away? You were very eager to go when I saw you the last time. Why? Did someone harm you?” I ask again.
“What did they do?”
Thinley says that he and Penjore slept in one room with another monk who was probably in his 20’s. Sometimes, the older monk demanded one of them into his bed. They had to sleep with him in turns.
“He didn’t put it inside me, but between my thighs. Every time I tried to scream or struggled, he pinned me with his body, put his hand over my mouth and covered it tightly. He said he was going to beat me if I screamed or said anything to anyone. During the day if I mentioned anything of it in front of the other boys, he would pinch and punch me. When I told him I was going to tell the head Lama, he said he was going to hit me so hard I would lose all my teeth, or make me unconscious.” According to Thinley, he made these threats in front of the other little boys, none of whom dared report it to the head Lama.
Apart from Thinley and Penjore there were also two other young monks – Tshering, eleven, and Dorji, nine. Dorji, according to Thinley, slept with a 60-year-old monk, whom he referred to as Agay. “Sometimes Penjore and I took turns sleeping with the Agay too, because he asked for us,” Thinley said. The 60-year old monk did the same thing, according to Thinley.
“Some nights he put it between my thighs and asked me to clench them. Then during the course he would yell out, ‘dhum, dhum’ (tight, tight). I felt very dirty and sick, it was disgusting.”
Thinley says that apart from this, nothing else happened. But he wonders if the other boys might have experienced differently. According to him, when the boys talked amongst themselves in the mornings about these incidents at night, Dorji who was only 9, cried, and Penjore didn’t want to talk about it at all. “Penjore kept telling us to shut-up. He didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t want us to either.”
Thinley’s parents are sitting outside their house. Both of them suffer from alcoholism. His father looks unwell, his face swollen. I tell them what had happened to Thinley, hoping they will understand why he had run away and not blame him for doing so. “You were once a monk too, I heard. You probably know these things happened?” I tell his father. The father nods in acknowledgement, but doesn’t say anything. He looks embarrassed or even ashamed – either of the subject or about what has happened – and looks away indicating he doesn’t want to discuss it.
I am standing at the edge of the field watching Penjore’s grandmother dig for some potatoes from the only piece of land she owns. She has sent someone to fetch Penjore who is with the cows. This grandmother has outlived her husband, and her only daughter who died while Penjore was at the monastery. Penjore’s father, her son-in-law, also died several years ago. The grandmother now looks after the children – Penjore and his sister. She tells me that Penjore was in school, but she couldn’t afford to keep him there so she decided to send him to the monastery for a “good Buddhist” education. “It was difficult for me to look after and feed two parent-less children,” she says. The head Lama of the monastery meant well when he took Penjore and Thinley, two boys from this village in Chukha, to give them a home and a good religious education at the monastery. After all, both children come from backgrounds where the families are struggling. And it is often that most, if not all, who are in the monastic community come from similar, or even more destitute, backgrounds. According to recent reports from Kuensel many monastic centers even have to bend admission rules by accepting children younger than ten years of age because they are either orphans, have no place to go to, or their parents or relatives are unable to care for them.
“In the absence of foster homes, monastic centers function as homes to the orphans and the poor,” Tashi Geley, the Health and Religion coordinator told Kuensel.
Penjore may come from a poor family where a single grandmother could hardly feed him well, yet when I ask him why he ran away he tells me with some anger, “The food was bad. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but my grandmother thought it would be good for me. I missed my family,” he says, tears in his eyes.
He is obviously thinking about his mother, I think. I ask what else he didn’t like about life at the monastery and he says they were too strict. When I ask him if they beat him, and if there was anything else they did to him, he starts to cry. Did they sexually molest him? I ask – offering him an explanation of the term. He nods, says “yes,” and breaks down sobbing bitterly.
MAKING A CASE; SEEKING JUSTICE
To avoid the boys from being criminally charged for stealing money from their Lama and to prevent further traumatizing them through police interrogations, I presented their case to RENEW (Respect Educate Nurture Empower Women) an organization that has been dealing with Women and Children’s issues. It was also hoped that some sort of therapy or counseling would be provided for the wellbeing of the children. Maybe RENEW doesn’t have the capabilities for that yet, because all the counselor did was ask that a written complaint be filed. It was the first case of its kind that they were dealing with. Mention of the two other boys who were still at the monastery, was also made. A few days later the Counselor said that she wanted to interview the children and summoned them to Thimphu. Penjore refused to come, but Thinley did and gave the interview. In his statements to the counselor, in the presence of a guardian, he gave her a full account of being sexually molested at the monastery, not once but several times. Then there was silence. Our counselor, we were told, was away on leave and we waited. My hope was that after RENEW had established the truth and legitimacy of the case, they would forward it to the police for a criminal investigation, just as they would if it had been a little girl. Instead, a month later, a call from the Dratsang asked that the boys be brought to their office for questioning. They wanted to conduct their own investigation.
When I asked RENEW how the case had reached the Dratsang and why, I was told that the Executive Director had forwarded the case to another NGO, the NCWC (National Council for Women and Children) who in turn forwarded it to the Dratsang. On further enquiry, it was realized that social organizations, and the police, cooperate with the Dratsang and forward all such cases concerning monastic centers to them. I wondered how the boys, who had stolen money from the Lama, run away from their monastery, and now brought sexual abuse charges against some of the monks, would want to talk to the very institution they were accusing. Would they agree to speak? Would they retract their story?
Again Penjore refused to go, but Thinley did. And again, accompanied by the same guardian, Penjore recounted without any variation of what had happened at the monastery in front of the investigative unit. A month passed again. By October, the investigative unit at the Dratsang established that the boy was indeed telling the truth. But they only singled one monk out, the 20 year old. They asked how we wanted the case dealt with; in essence what kind of outcome would be desirable. According to their code of conduct, when a monk did something wrong he was ex-communicated. They would disrobe him, throw flour on him in front of the other monks, and chase him from the monastery.
To what end, I asked? What purpose does it serve this problem of sexual molestation in the institution if the monk is only disrobed? What message does it send to the community at large? I was tormented and torn. I have a twelve-year old son. I have brothers, who were once also little boys. Had our lives been any different, it could have been them – either the abused, or the perpetrator. I also had an insight into the lives of Penjore and Thinley and seen how they were traumatized by this incident. Yes, Bhutanese children are sturdy and they move on, are forced to, and many do. But many also don’t. They continue to suffer not just physically, but also internally – living in shame with these horrible dark secrets of rape and abuse, and suffer in anger and silence for the rest of their lives. Many suffer from depression and turn to alcohol unable to cope, and while some even take their lives, others resort to crime or even molest other children when they get older. When I think of these boys, I think of my son.
The irony about sexual abuse cases in Bhutan is that if a boy (a monk) is raped or sexually molested, he will not find justice the way a little girl can. While it is good that our system is more favorable to girls, why should justice for little boys take a back seat, just because they are monks? Do they have to compromise their dignity and their rights so that the Institutions name can be protected? Should a girl be raped or molested she can go to the police, or any social organization that will readily pounce on the case and investigate it. If the perpetrator is found, he will be charged with statutory rape and imprisoned, the media will report it, and people will be incensed that such things happen to little girls. Even men who have had consensual sex with their girlfriends, 16 or 18 year olds, are charged with statutory rape and have to live with being labeled rapists for the rest of their lives. The age of consent for sex is 18 and above and the law is “supposedly” strictly enforced in order to ensure protection of women and children. Why then is it different for these boys? Cases of sodomy, sexual molestation, or rape that occur in the monastic community to monks, even if they are below 18 years of age, are not reported to the police. If cases are taken to the WCPU (The Women and Child Protection Unit) at the police station, the police will simply forward the case to the Dratsang (the Monastic Center), which has its own internal investigative unit that will look into the case. Although the police say they do not differentiate cases because the Dratsang forwards the case back to them, we don’t know because it has never happened.
According to reports, the government doesn’t intervene in the monastic order because they have their own courts, which operate outside the penal system. But this argument is not uniformly respected because if a monk loots a monastery or a chorten he is tried under civil law, the way he would for any other crime and the Dratsang would not be consulted? Then why is it that only sexual crimes in the monk body are not subject to civil law? While attempts are being made by the Dratsang to bring changes within the institution to improve the lives and living conditions of monks – establishing a child protection unit funded by UNICEF – a Kuensel article (25 March) reveals they still have a long way to go. Kuensel states that Sexually Transmitted Infections, piles, skin diseases, hypertension and other mental health issues are the most common ailments in the monk body. There are also five HIV positive monks, one of whom is only 19. A doctor at the Thimphu hospital told The Raven, on condition of anonymity, that it is almost every other day that he sees a monk that has ailments related to psychological issues or to private parts, some showing signs of abuse. Should a little girl go see a Doctor about her private parts being violated would he/she be required to report this to the police? Shouldn’t it be an absolute requirement that if a health-official comes across a case of a sexually violated child, be it a boy or girl, it be reported to the authorities, or have they also been asked to collaborate in the silence when it comes to monks?
With social problems like alcoholism, substance abuse, and violence increasing in Bhutanese society, it is time to take a serious look at the root problems, some of which may be, sadly, stemming in our monastic institutions. And this is nothing surprising or new. It also doesn’t indicate that this happens in all our monastic institutions, that all our monks live miserable lives, or that it will destroy the image of the Dratsang. This happens in many institutionalized religions all over the world, with all faiths, and it has nothing to do with that particular religion. There is no better example than the tragedy of events in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, abuses might have been more extensive and rampant, and were deliberately hidden for many decades doing irreparable damage to the victims and that institution. Bhutan or Buddhist institutions don’t have to follow that path. The first step on the road to better this is to acknowledge that it is a serious social problem. Allowing transparency and making these transgressions to be recognized as crimes and prosecutable in the civil court of law, rather than outside of it, will save us. Should this not happen, the future of the Buddhist Institutions image could suffer the same fate as that of the Catholic Church. And this will happen not because people like me make such cases public, but because even without my doing so, people will learn that this is wrong and lose respect for the monastic order. I say this not out of anything against the Monastic Center, but because it is bound to happen and people are already talking about it in private conversations.
According to studies by experts in this field, it is very clear that people who inflict sexual crimes against children have very often themselves been victims. Why do these monks think it is acceptable or normal to do this? Because when it happened to them nobody, including society, pointed out that it was wrong; that it is a heinous crime, one that should be punishable by law. Why is it that society, including the media, knows and does nothing? Where does this apathy come from? Is it out of fear, out of “supposed” respect for Buddhism/the monks/the religious institution, or is it because they just don’t see it as being wrong? One reason offered is that it is pointless. Pursuing such a case is not only exhaustive, it takes a toll on your psyche, and it is extremely stressful. Because many of the monks come from similar backgrounds like Penjore and Thinley, there is really no one who has the will, energy, resource or connections to stay the course. And, when your case winds up at the very institution that you want to hold accountable, how do you expect not to feel intimidated?
Also, even after knowing what had happened, both families seemed to have no interest in righting the wrongs. When Penjore’s Uncle, also an ex-monk, heard that he had been molested, he told him not to make incredulous remarks. Yet when I told the Uncle that this might have happened and there was another boy who could corroborate his statement, he acknowledged he knew it did happen. But to them, it was just an unfortunate incident. The monastery had been kind enough to take the boys in and they knew the head Lama, whom the boys had wronged by stealing from, so how could they now hold both Lama and Dratsang to task? They would be seen as ungrateful after all that had been done for them. When I raised the case with educated colleagues their reaction baffled me equally. They were sympathetic, but didn’t seem to want me to make an “issue” out of it. One even said that I should seek compensation for the boys, like a school scholarship, so that they would at least benefit from it. After all, it was presumed that justice – the way I sought it – would be hard to come by, if at all it did. While this was all said in good faith, it surprised me that very few seemed to see why it was important to hold the Institution accountable for something that happens to these children, destitute or not. This was not just about Penjore and Thinley, but that of many other monks like them out there.
Although these reactions were difficult to comprehend at first, it became clearer that it was the general mindset that made this acceptable. Domestic violence is a close enough example. For the longest time Bhutanese society did not see it as something wrong or even as a crime. Even today many don’t see it as such, but only by passing legislations and prosecuting it can we make it a crime and teach society that it is wrong. It is the same for sexual abuse, especially that of monks. But unlike domestic violence where legislations were passed only recently, sexual abuse penalties are very clearly spelled out in the penal code. However, it doesn’t seem to apply to the monks because they are beyond the reach of the civil courts. Sadly, despite knowing these dark truths nobody has questioned it. Meanwhile, the Dratsang trying to bring in change by distributing condoms in the monasteries (as Kuensel reported) or setting up an investigative unit, which sees no cases because no one dares report them (ours was the first case brought to the Dratsang from outside the monastery), becomes a futile attempt at change. Nothing will change.
Child molesters and rapists are often people known to the victim and someone they are familiar with. That is why it makes it even more difficult for these children and for families to report these cases or for some people to see their perpetrators as evil.
The Dratsang itself seemed to be unsure of how to move forward. Instead of suggesting a course of action it asked for a written response to what was expected by filing this case, I responded:
“The issue is simple – either the incidents alleged and supported by testimony and inquiry are a crime or they are not. If it is a crime, then the law should apply regardless of who these people are, (monks), or where they come from (the Dratsang)….The Dratsang is being given an opportunity to show leadership and set an example. It is at times of trouble and stress that true leadership shows moral fortitude. People feel that by hiding these social ills we will prevent an institution from disgrace. It is submitted, however, to the contrary. If the Dratsang puts the interests of the victims and treats this as a crime, it will earn respect from the community and society for setting moral standards and leading the way. By downplaying such an incident and claiming the privilege of excusing itself and its members from civil law that applies to those it asks to follow it, risks losing credibility and respect.
Buddhism is a religion that may be tolerant, but it is also a religion of compassion and empathy for the weak, the underprivileged, and those that are suffering. If anyone should know more about this, it should be the Dratsang. I am simply asking for your understanding of this problem; that it is wrong, and that it is a crime. If the Dratsang cannot treat it as one then, as I said before, disrobing a scapegoat doesn’t do much. The appropriate handling of this case gives the Dratsang every opportunity to show leadership and prove to our society and the world that it is different from those institutions that have condoned and hidden such cases.
You are asking me to make a submission on the handling of this case. It is, however, not my role to determine the outcome. It happened in one of your monasteries, under your supervision, and by some of your members. The Dratsang has the moral and civic responsibility to society to act appropriately for the sake of little children that were entrusted to your care.”
By the end of October the Dratsang did take action. The 20-year old monk was disrobed and had left the monastery. But was that because of my persistence in wanting them to make a criminal case out of it? According to a message conveyed from the Monastic Center, I was now free to pursue a criminal case against this monk in the civil court. They would not report the crime or pursue a criminal case on behalf of the boys while he was in the monk body. This way, the Dratsang prevented itself from being implicated, washed its hands of the case, and avoided moral responsibility and legal accountability for what happened. They were essentially leaving it up to these two boys, to pursue their case or it was taken for granted that somebody would help them.
Meanwhile, no broader inquiry was made into the events, and nothing happened to the 60-year old. He continues to be a monk at the monastery. The situation of the two other boys was also not followed up on by the Dratsang, RENEW, or NCWC. Everything is back to functioning the way it does, except maybe for the boys. Although both Penjore and Thinley are back in school, one with the help of relatives, the other through a sponsor, things will never be the same. They have lost their innocence and live in shame of what happened to them. Penjore still has anger that he lost his mother while he was going through this horrible ordeal, and Thinley lost his father who succumbed to alcohol, six months after they ran away.
(The names of all the boys have been changed to protect their identities and the name of the monastery has been deliberately left out).