What bling-loving Buddhist monks reveal about Thailand’s economy

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Apparently, there’s an unlikely suitor of global luxury goods: Buddhist monks.

A YouTube video showing Buddhist monks sporting aviator specs on a private jet has offended the sensibilities of the world’s largest Buddhist nation. Posted May 22, the snippet features a trio of Buddhist monks in mirrored sunglasses aboard a small jet. The monks, who hail from a temple in Thailand’s Sisaket province, aren’t doing anything outlandish, just fiddling with their headphones and rubbing their eyes.

The problem is the luxury handbag placed next to one of them, which prompted a range of complaints about the incongruence of such excesses with Buddhism’s ascetic teachings. On Monday, Thailand’s national Buddhism body responded, saying it will keep a closer eye on monks around the country. Office of National Buddhism director-general Nopparat Benjawatananun said the monks in the video acted “inappropriately, not composed and not adhering to Buddha’s teachings of simplicity and self-restraint,” according to the Associated Press.

This isn’t the first time YouTube has caused problems for Buddhist monks. In 2011, a temple filed a complaint with police of a YouTube clip of dancing monks, saying it tarnished the temple’s image. But YouTube or no YouTube, some say misconduct by monks—many of whom are young men following the tradition of becoming novices or monks for short periods—is a natural outgrowth of Thailand’s growing affluence. According to a Citigroup report on the Asian retail landscape, roughly 19% of Thailand’s households will have incomes over $20,000 by 2017; in 2002 that number was 2.2%. Brisk loan growth in Thailand, which has outpaced GDP in recent years, is helping to boost consumption.

Thailand’s government has leaned fiscally conservative following its debt crisis in the late 1990s. In recent years, the government has turned to the private sector to juice growth. But one can’t help but wonder what the Buddha would think.

In Thailand, consumer loans are helping to juice credit growth.
In Thailand, consumer loans are helping to juice credit growth.