Politics and religion coming worryingly together in temple scandal

My mobile phone recently beeped with an unusual message. "We all die," it said. "But only what we die for counts."

The sender was a fervent supporter of Phra Dhammachayo, the fugitive abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, where thousands of followers had gathered last week to deter Thai investigators from arresting him over fraud charges. She was ready to dig in her heels.

For critics of the influential temple, the sight of law enforcement officers standing helplessly before masses of white-robed devotees seated on the road only reinforced their suspicion that Phra Dhammachayo had been faking illness all along, to ward off arrest over his alleged role in laundering some of the more than 11 billion baht (S$419 million) siphoned off from a credit union. His followers insist that they are unable to question the source of donations.

But what could have passed for a prolonged judicial tug of war took an unexpected turn when devotees declared their abbot should turn himself in only when "full democracy has returned" to Thailand. This has triggered a backlash reminiscent of the exchanges common during the political conflict preceding the May 2014 military coup.

Religion and politics are now coming together in ominous ways. This week, telecommunications provider DTAC was forced to distance itself from its chairman Boonchai Bencharongkul after he was quoted on Dhammakaya's web channel asking followers to pray together and help free the abbot from false accusations. Subscribers threatened to cancel their accounts.

Fuelling the debate was Mr Thanat Thanakitamnuay, the scion of a prominent businessman who in 2010 drove his Ferrari into some parked motorcycles owned by "red shirt" protesters then occupying Bangkok. He accused Mr Boonchai of sedition through a Facebook post. "At this old age you'd better stop your lies," he wrote, using an expletive.

Wary of the rising temperatures, the Thai military has tried to get the Foreign Correspondents' Club to call off a talk on Buddhism and politics.

But a barrier has already been breached. By publicly raising doubts about the protection given by the justice system of a non-democratic regime, the Dhammakaya devotees have surfaced latent suspicions of the temple's links to the "red shirt" supporters of the ousted Puea Thai party-run government.

Yet, while some may draw parallels between Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Puea Thai party, their support bases do not overlap so neatly.

Buddhist scholar Vichak Panich observes that both entities have challenged the status quo. Puea Thai and its previous iterations upset traditional patronage systems by offering national-level policies and appealing to rural heartland of the populous north-east.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya expanded swiftly by melding sleek marketing and mass events with military-like discipline. The 46-year old temple counts C-suite executives and overseas graduates among its followers, which it estimates number over three million in Thailand.

For critics, its rise has merely underscored the need to clean up a Buddhist order increasingly rocked by scandals involving sex, drugs or money - or sometimes all three.

Historically, Thailand's Buddhist order has buttressed state and monarchical legitimacy. The late supreme patriarch, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, tutored current King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as well as his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Buddhist rituals overseen by monks are woven into the bureaucratic calendar.

Mainstream Thai monks are governed through a strictly hierarchical structure topped by a council of elders increasingly criticised for its conservatism and insularity. Yet the monks have strongly resisted state control. In February, hundreds of monks gathered in a park just outside Bangkok in protest over the stalled appointment of the acting supreme patriarch Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, to the post. Scuffles broke out between monks and soldiers. The senior monk was once Phra Dhammachayo's teacher.

Thai investigators have not raided Dhammakaya temple so far even though an arrest warrant was issued for Phra Dhammachayo on May 17. While such a raid could create unrest, one wonders if the junta may eventually resort to harsher treatment reserved for its political critics.

Soldier-turned-monk Phra Buddha Isara - who also co-led anti-government protests two years ago - spoke for many of the mega temple's critics last week when he suggested that a non-elected government was best placed to rein in the abbot.

"If this government, which is equipped with all the power, cannot deal with this illegitimate person, don't hope that the elected government can do anything," he said in an online video.

When an election takes place, Dhammakaya "would simply promise that they would let their followers vote for any political party, and trade its way out of the controversy", he added.

The problem with this sort of talk is that it is propelling circular arguments about whether Phra Dhammachayo will be dealt a fair hand if he does give himself up.

Coupled with existing disquiet in the Buddhist order, it is entrenching positions and widening the rifts in the already divided nation.

This article was first published on June 23, 2016.
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