Thailand’s junta feuds with an influential Buddhist sect
Feb 23rd 2017 | PATHUM THANI | The Economist
SOME people think he has fled abroad. Others say he may have died. For more than a year the authorities in Thailand have been trying to get hold of Phra Dhammachayo, the reclusive former leader of a controversial Buddhist sect who is wanted for questioning in a fraud case. On February 16th a group of officers finally gained access to the vast religious complex which his Dhammakaya movement maintains on the outskirts of Bangkok. Instead of locating the septuagenarian monk—often pictured in signature sunglasses—they found an empty bed stuffed with pillows.
By February 22nd more than 4,000 police and soldiers were lingering outside the Dhammakaya compound—waiting to complete a full sweep of the massive site but apparently hindered by monks and devotees who had blocked its dozen entrances. A spokesman for the sect claimed that 30,000 people were still inside the property, having ignored orders to leave; there have been scuffles at its gates. Apiradee, a retired civil servant helping to feed Dhammakaya followers who had gathered in support outside the police cordon, said she has never seen anything like it.
Founded in the 1970s, the Dhammakaya movement claims about 3m followers around the world. It is by far the most influential temple in Thailand. It bears a loose resemblance to the evangelical mega-churches that increasingly beguile the world’s Christians. Dhammakaya’s mostly middle-class adherents complain that older Buddhist temples have grown complacent and materialistic. They insist, rather grandly, that the Bangkok compound, with its vast stadium, is meant to become a kind of Buddhist Vatican.
But Dhammakaya has fierce opponents both within the Buddhist establishment and outside it. Critics denounce it as a cult that peddles wacky theology, and warn that it misleads wealthy urbanites into thinking that they can purchase religious merit. (The most serious of the several allegations against Phra Dhammachayo relates to a case in which an acolyte funded a donation with cash embezzled from a credit union.) Thailand’s ruling junta worries that the movement’s leaders are sympathetic to the cause of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister toppled in 2006 whose lingering influence the generals and their backers are determined to stamp out.
Last year the junta abandoned several attempts to drag Phra Dhammachayo out for questioning, fearful of the outrage that might follow were soldiers to be pictured manhandling monks. The latest effort looks more concerted. It may not be a coincidence that the operation began shortly after the installation of a new Supreme Patriarch (Thai Buddhism’s most senior monk). That job is usually filled according to a strict hierarchy but had been held open for several years after conservative clergy refused to endorse the expected successor—in part because of worries that he was too close to Dhammakaya. The junta took the unusual step of asking King Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his father in December, to solve that dispute; he anointed a less controversial alternative, Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, who hails from the smaller and more orthodox of Thailand’s two main Buddhist orders.
Monks at the Dhammakaya temple say that they have not seen their former abbot for months. They say the real aim of the raid is to shut the entire temple down. The generals may yet decide to back away from the fight, as they have done previously. They could perhaps claim that the searches they have already conducted are enough to declare the operation complete. That might look like a defeat, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Dhammakaya movement is running out of powerful friends. With the royal succession—which some had feared would be tumultuous—safely behind it, Thailand’s conservative establishment is reasserting itself, in religion as in politics.