BANGKOK (Reuters) - A young Thai man and woman are on their knees, their palms pressed in supplication to the saffron-robed Buddhist monk, an anti-government protest leader, looming before them.
Accused of being pro-government spies they have been brought before the monk at a protest site in north of Bangkok by burly guards donning tinted sunglasses.
A 15-minute interrogation fails to convince the monk, Luang Pu Buddha Issara, of their innocence and he orders protest guards to keep them under close watch before striding on stage to tell supporters to fight against the “black-hearted” government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The monk’s role in political protests that have gripped Thailand - a predominantly Buddhist country - for months, has divided Thais as much as the protest itself.
He faces disciplinary action by the National Office of Buddhism, the organisation in charge of overseeing monks’ behaviour, for inappropriate conduct while the Buddhist Association of Thailand has threatened to disrobe him.
That doesn’t seem to faze the 58-year-old senior monk. Last month he led protesters to block polling stations ahead of a February 2 election, giving orders to followers during violent clashes between pro and anti-government groups at a Bangkok intersection that left at least six people injured.
Buddha Issara strongly rejects the idea that his followers were armed.
“The only weapons we have are our minds,” said Buddha Issara. “If it comes to civil war it certainly won’t be my faction that uses weapons.”
The latest crisis pits protesters, mainly middle class Bangkok residents and southerners, against supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, from the north and northeast. Protesters want her out to make way for sweeping reforms before an election.
Both sides have refused to give way in a highly polarised standoff, leading to whisperings of civil strife.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban called on Friday for the demonstrations to be scaled back and for supporters to move to one site in the central oasis of Lumpini Park.
That order has incensed Buddha Issara who heads his own protest camp at a sprawling government complex in north Bangkok.
He vowed on Saturday to keep protesting even if other sites in the city close.
“I was angry with Suthep’s announcement. We have lost blood and lives and for what? To end it all now?,” said Buddha Issara who is in daily contact with Suthep by telephone but said he does not follow the head protest leader’s orders.
“I will still stay here until national reforms are in place. Suthep can do what he wants.”
Buddha Issara’s nightly speeches have sparked fierce debate in Thailand over the role of the Buddhist clergy in politics but has equally inspired unwavering devotion among supporters who say Buddha Issara - whose followers include powerful military generals and royalist politicians - is a fresh breath of air in a country known for dirty politics.
“Monks always tell the truth, whatever he says I can believe. Monks have played a role in politics for centuries so why should he not get involved in politics?” said Poomeht Piyacharoenjit, 70, a retired telecommunications employee.
Buddhist monks have played a role in political uprisings elsewhere in Asia, including in neighbouring Myanmar.
Their role in Thailand’s partisan politics is not unprecedented. In 2010, dozens of monks took part in pro-Thaksin protests in Bangkok, although some were denounced by critics as fake monks while others were arrested.
A decree by the late-Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana, the 19th leader of Buddhist monks in Thailand, said monks “must be above the politics”.
Buddha Issara disagrees and sees his protest camp as a vital, first line of defence against any threat from government supporters from the north and northeast.
“I have saved many lives and am prepared to sacrifice my own life. If I die, if our enemies kill me, people will cry foul that a monk was killed and that would silence the government.”
Editing by Nick Macfie