All posts tagged: injustice

It’s not a Spaceship. Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Why We Should Care.

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By Ann Norman

The people I respect most in the Thai human rights and prodemocracy movement all tell me that defending Wat Phra Dhammakaya [Phra Dhammakaya Temple] is the most important Thai human rights issue at the moment: That the very independence of Buddhism in Thailand is at stake; that not content with grabbing the reigns of democracy, the junta also needs to grab the reigns of Thailand’s majority religion.

The abbot and the temple have been accused of money laundering, encroachment on park land, and a wide range of building code violations. The fact, that the charges are so random and unrelated, that they seem minor relative to the many obvious crimes in Thailand that are never investigated (including crimes by other prominent monks), and that this most-wanted abbot is so old and sick that he may die before this is ever resolved, makes one instantly suspect the charges are trumped up and politically motivated. Official complaints against the temple are also entangled with religious objections about correct Buddhism because in Thailand state and religion are not entirely separate. Because it is so complicated, I first tried to pass off the job of formulating a response to a Thai colleague. Then last night, I was alerted that the temple was once again surrounded by hundreds of police, while devotees sat in protest to block them if they tried to arrest their abbot. Given Thailand’s history of disastrous responses to unarmed protesting citizens, this is a worrisome situation. If I can’t make a serious effort to understand why the temple is being threatened with military force and under constant siege, how can I ask other Westerners to also care about these Thai human rights issues?

For the non-Thai, audience, it’s best to first address the big elephant in the room: Why is the Phra Dhammakaya temple shaped like a flying saucer? I know it shouldn’t matter, but if we can’t get past jokes about the flying saucer, we aren’t going to be able to help. It turns out, the temple’s website actually has a page addressing this frequently asked question: “[W]hen the Buddha first appointed the shape of all cetiyas, he folded his robes into a square shape and stacked them all together from largest to smallest. He then turned his alms bowl upside down over the folded robes, and said that that is the shape for a stupa-shaped cetiya. . . . [T]he shape [of the temple]. . . is to mirror the same traditional shape given to us by the Lord Buddha, and to symbolise the rising sun, spreading love and kindness, spreading peace to the whole world.”

The temple’s English-language website is neat and clean and addresses the reader in perfect, clear, and familiar-sounding English, as you can read above. This is in fitting with the temple’s modern style which tries to reach a broader audience for Buddhism, using all the advantages of technology such as satellite television and distance learning. It also is heavily involved in academic Buddhism, organizing conferences, and translating and archiving ancient Sanskrit texts in modern searchable formats. It is important to understand that this temple is very international with branches in the United States, Japan, and Taiwan and some of my friends are members. The temple was founded less than 50 years ago as a meditation center (specifically mediation aiming at tranquility of mind), and grew rapidly because of the popularity of its teachings. As of 2006 there were an estimated one million followers worldwide. The acres and acres of devotees you see in the pictures are just there for the day or for a weekend retreat. They are there to learn and practice mediation. They are considered members, but it is what we in the West would consider an informal membership. They are devotees of a particular style of Buddhism. The Temple is controversial for a variety of reasons having to do either with style and emphasis within Buddhism (distinctions that will fail to scandalize the outsider to Buddhism) or practices (such as meditation and honoring of deceased leaders) that can look scary to Western non-Buddhists but occur regularly in the Thai society. None of these aspects can legitimize official harassment of this particular sect of Buddhism. (I should add, even in my Western nonreligious subculture, many are becoming interested in the practice of meditation and mindfulness, and Wat Phra Dhammakaya is interested in teaching these secular foreigners.) But whether we ever decide to get personally involved in this religion or try out its meditation practices, we can all become concerned when a government seems to be harassing a religion on trumped up charges.

It took me all morning to read the long, long story on Wikipedia. In formulating an opinion, I confess my severe limitations and invite correction from Thai experts. However in watching Thailand, I have become familiar with a particular pattern and this story certainly seems to fit that pattern: The powers-that-be perceive some small threat to their power and focus all their energies on discrediting and destroying that enemy using any flimsy excuse.

In 1999, the temple’s Abbot Phra Dhammachayo was charged with fraud and embezzlement for holding donations of land in his name. The temple defended that it was the intention of donors to give the land to the abbot and that it was not against the law for the abbot to own land. The Sangha Council (a religious governing body) around this same time was pressured into also investigating the abbot, but before they could finish their investigations, the secular government’s Ministry of Education went ahead and pressed charges against the abbot over a point of religious doctrine. This led to the temple countersuing the government for malicious prosecution. The Abbot eventually divested himself of the land after much delay and legal maneuvering. Two other charges were also raised, but by 2006, the Attorney General dropped all charges saying that pursuing the case would only create division in society and was not conducive to public benefit.

After the 2014 coup, as part of the various junta initiatives to change society, there was an National Reform Council investigation instigated by the monk Pra Buddha Issra into the assets of the Sangha Council and it was found that the Wat Pra Dhammakaya had received donations that had been embezzled from a credit union. The temple countered that they have no way of knowing whether donations come from embezzlement. Buddha Isra also tried to reopen the 1999 case involving the land once held by the abbot. Buddha Issra had been involved in, and was a cheerleader for the 2014 coup, and is the fascist monk who led a rally outside the US Embassy featuring many nasty, but hilariously misspelled posters, denouncing US Ambassador Glyn Davies. Glyn Davies was vilified on that occasion for expressing US concern about the “lengthy and unprecedented prison sentences handed down by military courts” for lese majesty (insulting royalty). Davies tried to gently point out the irony of a loud noisy protest AGAINST free speech.

Why were all the accusations and investigations into Wat Phra Dhammakaya and its abbot stirred up a second time? It seems that Buddha Issra was out to torpedo the appointment of another monk, Somdet Chuang, as Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist Sangha—the head of all the monks in Thailand. Somdet Chuang was closely associated with Abbot Phra Dhammachayo (Somdet Chuang had ordained Abbot Phra Dhammachayo). Somdet Chuang had been already been nominated by the Buddhist Sangha (a religious governing body) to be Supreme Patriarch, but the supreme patriarch is formally appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister with the approval of the Supreme Sangha Council. So both the King and the Prime Minister can potentially make, and have in the past made, various excuses to delay an appointment that is not in their interest. It seems that every time a candidate from the larger more popular order is in line for this position, the King or Prime Minister have stalled the appointment, preferring an appointee from a smaller more elite branch of Buddhism arising from a reform of King Mongut in the 1800s. Buddha Issra in fact, campaigned against the appointment of Somdet Chuang at the same time as trying to discredit Abbot Pra Dhammachayo.

The Buddhist Protection Center, a Red Shirt-oriented network, organized a large demonstration of more than 1,000 monks on February 2016 to demand that the junta not get involved in the appointment of the Supreme Patriarch. This issue is one of the very few issues in Thailand over which people seem willing to come out and protest in large crowds despite the junta’s strict rules against political gatherings.

Also, the Phra Dhammakaya temple is just gigantic, and if all the followers do is sit and meditate, and passively resist police orders when the police try to enter the temple, this is scary for the ruling junta. Here is one very visible area where threats of force don’t seem to matter. The groups is willing to commit civil disobedience for the principle that the government should not be harassing their temple or any temple, and it should stay out of religion.

Some propose that a good analogy to the harassment of Wat Phra Dhammakaya is the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice in China. According to Wikipedia, Falun Gong is a “discipline combining slow-moving exercises and meditation with a moral philosophy centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance” that began in 1992. “Following a period of rapid growth in the 1990s, the Communist Party launched a campaign to ‘eradicate’ Falun Gong on 20 July 1999.” The government may have been frightened by a peaceful demonstration of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing. “Falun Gong practitioners in China are reportedly subject to a wide range of human rights abuses: hundreds of thousands are estimated to have been imprisoned extrajudicially, and practitioners in detention are subject to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, torture, and other coercive methods of thought reform at the hands of Chinese authorities. As of 2009, human rights groups estimated that at least 2,000 Falun Gong practitioners had died as a result of abuse in custody. Some observers put the number much higher, and report that tens of thousands may have been killed to supply China’s organ transplant industry.”

This is almost too horrific to be believed, but looking back at my own experience, I understand how it can go completely under the radar of Western concerns. I confess I already met a large group of Falun Gong human rights protesters outside the UN, when I was there with Thai people protesting dictatorship and lese majesty in Thailand. They wore matching yellow shirts and seemed strangely calm and serene, and performed slow-moving exercises, and tried to give me literature about Falun Gong. I am ashamed to say now, I paid no attention and learned nothing about their cause. I realize now it was my own prejudice against strange-to-me religions that blinded me to the seriousness of their situation.

I warn myself to never so dismissive again as I pick my human rights causes. Let’s keep an eye on the situation at Wat Dhammakaya and stand up for religious freedom and police restraint.

Originally published on Thai Alliance for Human Rights at http://tahr-global.org/?p=32050

Jennifer KitilIt’s not a Spaceship. Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Why We Should Care.
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DSI’s Grand Bargain

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A high profile case has captured much of Thailand as authorities and the massive Dhammakaya temple clash over a case against the temple’s abbot, Venerable Dhammajayo. Dhammakaya is Thailand’s largest Buddhist temple, and its abbot stands accused by the Thai Department of Special Investigation (DSI) of money laundering and receiving stolen money after he received donations that were later linked to an embezzlement scandal. The abbot admits receiving the donations but states he did not know the source, as he received them in the open public.

The accusations against Ven. Dhammajayo, also known as Phrathepyanmahamuni, started when the former chairman of Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative (KCUC) was alleged to have embezzled over 12 billion baht from the credit union, a small portion of that amount was traced to donations made to the temple by the former chairman in the form of checks. The rest of the allegedly embezzled funds were traced to checks issued to several other organizations, including other temples.
When the donations to the temple were found out to be linked to the embezzlement accusations, supporters set up an emergency fund to return the equivalent of the funds to the credit union. The credit union subsequently thanked the supporters and dropped all charges. DSI is still pursuing the abbot on criminal charges.

The case intensified when an arrest warrant was issued after the abbot failed to appear for a summons. The temple did, however, send representatives to request that the location of the meeting be moved to the temple’s medical ward due to complications from the abbot’s medical conditions.

Ven. Dhammajayo suffered severe dizziness trying to get up to meet investigators, and the lawyer requested another 30 minutes for him to appear. He later fainted and was unable to make an appearance, prompting DSI to start planning for his possible arrest. The temple responded by filing an appeals to get the arrest warrant rescinded, and by submitting a request by the Medical Council of Thailand to send a specialist to verify the abbot’s condition, as DSI has turned down all requests by the temple to send their own doctor to verify that the abbot is truly ill.

After negotiation, the temple agreed that the abbot would meet with DSI at Khlong Luang Police Station near the temple to hear charges, as doctors warned going to DSI’s office in Bangkok would put the ailing abbot at risk for a fatal pulmonary embolism.

Ven. Dhammajayo suffered severe dizziness trying to get up to meet investigators, and the lawyer requested another 30 minutes for him to appear. He later fainted and was unable to make an appearance, prompting DSI to start planning for his possible arrest.

As the case against Ven. Dhammajayo escalated, DSI held a series of meetings with the appearance of trying to resolve the matter peacefully. On June 2nd, 2016, DSI issued order 531/2559 which requested the the Ecclesiastical Governor of Pathum Thani, the National Office of Buddhism and the legal advisor to the Ecclesiastical Head, Dr. Somsak Toraksa, to meet to help resolve this case. They were ordered to form a committee and given the authority to coordinate the involved parties.

Are they pawns of DSI? L-R: Representative from the National Office of Buddhism; Mr. Somboon Sarasit (Deputy-Director of DSI); Ven. Phrathepratanasutee (Abbot of Wat Kian Khet and Ecclesiastical Head of Pathum Thani); Mr. Somsak Toraksa (advisor to the Ecclesiastical Head)  http://thaisarn.net/single.php?news=57601d370ad1d3f22d2b853a

Are they pawns of DSI? L-R: Representative from the National Office of Buddhism; Mr. Somboon Sarasit (Deputy-Director of DSI); Ven. Phrathepratanasutee (Abbot of Wat Kian Khet and Ecclesiastical Head of Pathum Thani); Mr. Somsak Toraksa (advisor to the Ecclesiastical Head)
http://thaisarn.net/single.php?news=57601d370ad1d3f22d2b853a

The committee met twice, with another meeting set for June 14, 2016. The result was what seemed to be a grand bargain. The deal was that physicians from a government hospital would examine the abbot. If his illnesses are affirmed, DSI would read the abbot his charges at the temple as previously requested and grant him bail. Documents were signed by DSI officials regarding the deal.

However, DSI instead submitted the charges on June 13th, before the next meeting, stating that such negotiations were just an administrative measure. The action by DSI caught everyone by surprise and led to a growing distrust of this department of the Ministry of Justice. Many questioned their tactic and wondered if DSI were using the members of this committee as pawns. Were they merely trying to present the image of impartiality to the public?

Led by monks from Wat Phra Dhammakaya, DSI officers walks through  http://www.matichon.co.th/news/176574

Led by monks from Wat Phra Dhammakaya, DSI officers walks through
http://www.matichon.co.th/news/176574

Followers of Venerable Dhammajayo have made demands for a fair trial in the ongoing case against the abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. Devotees of the monk agree he should turn himself in so that the case can continue, but only under fair legal circumstances. Namely, when full democracy is returned to Thailand.
The basis of these demands is that the judicial process cannot proceed fairly and impartially with proper adherence to the judicial rights of the defendant without a free democracy. DSI has 15 years to pursue the legal charges against Venerable Dhammajayo and the current Thai government has stated they will return Thailand to democracy shortly. Supporters believe the current judicial system will not give the abbot a fair trial.

An example the temple cites for this is the case of Buddha Isara of Wat O-­noi, another controversial monk who is facing charges from 2014 for leading blockades to shut down Bangkok and blocking voting booths. Despite an arrest warrant being issued for the incendiary monk, there has been no progress in his charges under the current military government.
The current military government of Thailand took control in 2014 following a coup that ousted then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Elections were previously due in the fall of 2014 but none have taken place. The current Prime Minister cites that the country is not ready for an election and a new charter to return the country to democracy must be approved before any elections are to take place. Unless the latest charter is approved, a new charter will have to be rewritten, thus putting elections out further than what the Prime Minister had promised when he first took power. In the days leading up to the referendum, the Prime Minister has prohibited any open discussion about the charter and its contents.

The current military government of Thailand took control in 2014 following a coup that ousted then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Elections were previously due in the fall of 2014 but none have taken place. The current Prime Minister cites that the country is not ready for an election and a new charter to return the country to democracy must be approved before any elections are to take place. Unless the latest charter is approved, a new charter will have to be rewritten, thus putting elections out further than what the Prime Minister had promised when he first took power. In the days leading up to the referendum, the Prime Minister has prohibited any open discussion about the charter and its contents.

Jennifer KitilDSI’s Grand Bargain
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