Faith-based networks expand to prevent HIV
By Robert Few
CHIANG MAI, July 2005 – Phra Wanchai is a hard-working monk, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find him at the temple he runs in rural Chiang Mai. He’s just as likely to be at one of the up-market shopping complexes in town. Or he could be out with DJs and guitarists discussing his next pop concert. So if you really want to speak to him, you should try to ring him on his mobile – that is if he’s not already using it to haggle over royalties for the sales of his new album.
Phra Wanchai’s life is not one of traditional clerical asceticism. But there is a very good reason for this unorthodox approach to his duties: he runs a youth network called Khrua Khai Fao Rawang Yaowachon Chiang Mai (Network to Protect the Youth of Chiang Mai) and spends much of his time trying to protect its members and their friends from HIV/AIDS. This means raising awareness and encouraging young people to live safer lives. It means taking the message to young people – wherever they are.
“At first I didn’t dare go into the shopping complexes,” says Pra Wanchai between mobile phone calls, smiling as he recalls his initial fear. “Such places are forbidden to monks. But if you want to reach out to young people, you have to go where they go – you have to balance your aversion against the good you can do for people.” Then his face turns deadly serious as he adds, “But I didn’t buy anything.”
Among the activities Phra Wanchai organises at such youth hangouts are music concerts and competitions for young performers that raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and encourage safer behaviour.
“It is very unusual for a monk to organise a concert, so many young people come to see what it is like,” he explains. “I think they are happy to know that a monk is interested in them and wants them to stay away from drugs and be safe.”
AIDS rates are starting to rise again in Thailand as risky behaviour including early sex and drug use put increasing numbers of young people at risk. Monks like Phra Wanchai are highly respected in their communities and important partners for raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and encouraging young people to act responsibly.
Phra Wanchai received training from the UNICEF-supported Sangha Metta project, which works with Buddhist clergy to raise awareness, prevent new infections and offer care and support to people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. As monks like Phra Wanchai go on to establish their own projects, the benefit of that initial training spreads far and wide.
“Sangha Metta taught me a lot about HIV/AIDS and how people can protect themselves,” he explains. “For example, I learned about homosexuality and transsexuals – that these groups also have a problem with HIV/AIDS. Now our programmes reach out to people of all sexual preferences because everyone can transmit the virus and everyone needs to know about protection.”
This new knowledge is included in Phra Wanchai’s sermons and the instruction he gives to Buddhist novices. Many young people enter temples during school holidays to become novices for a few weeks – but they don’t stop being teenagers just because they are wearing orange robes.
“This is an important opportunity for us to influence the way young people think and to teach them what they need to know,” says Phra Wanchai. “Most young people do not know much about how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS – and novices are no different from other youth. As soon as they take off their robes, they go back to their normal lives, visiting discos and bars.”
Other young people who enter the temple more permanently provide an important link to the youth community. Their friends still come to see them and the novices can pass on what they learn about HIV/AIDS.
Outside the temple, Phra Wanchai also runs another project called Kon Dee Sri Chiang Mai (Good People of Chiang Mai). It involves 33 schools whose pupils keep a diary of all the good things they do, based on Buddhist precepts concerning respect, self-control and love. These range from wearing motorcycle helmets to playing with children affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Our schools hold periodic exhibitions showing how they have contributed to social development,” says Chainimit Paengnoi, a student at a local university who helps organise events. “These exhibitions are a good chance for young people to share their ideas – and they create a sense of unity among children and encourage them to use their free time more productively.”
The good people of Chiang Mai have recently released an album of songs by young people – winners at Phra Wanchai’s competitions in the shopping centres of Chiang Mai. The album has been produced by one of Thailand’s leading music labels. The message of hope and help is spreading even further.