Crouching Junta, Hidden Abbot
PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUNMARCH 17, 2017 The New York Times
The siege of the temple near Bangkok was lifted last Friday, and the abbot remains at large. Some say he is abroad; others say he is dead. But the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is still on a manhunt for Phra Dhammachayo, the controversial spiritual leader of the Dhammakaya movement, a powerful Buddhist sect.
For 23 days, the Thai police blocked access to the sprawling Dhammakaya compound outside Bangkok and raided it in search of its former abbot. Phra Dhammachayo is wanted for embezzlement and money laundering, among other things. The temple’s spokesman has denied the accusations; the abbot’s supporters claim the charges are politically motivated.
But the curious saga of this possibly wayward cleric is also, or mostly, about the ruling junta’s growing insecurity. To stamp out dissent, the military government is now willing to openly trespass into the religious sphere and clamp down on a very popular Buddhist leader. And this story may soon become a cautionary tale.
Dhammakaya is the biggest and most influential temple in Thailand. It has gained traction, especially among lower-middle classes, thanks to a kind of Buddhist prosperity gospel that advocates meditation, volunteering and donations. It repackages traditional Buddhist concepts in accessible form, including carnival-like pilgrimages and
Members of the royal family appear to have sponsored the sect, and are thought to have helped pay for buildings at its main compound. But the movement is better known for its suspected ties to the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006, and to his sister Yingluck, who was ousted by the current junta, in 2014, after she, too, became prime minister.
Phra Dhammachayo was charged with embezzlement in the late 1990s and removed from his position. But he was cleared of the charges and reinstated as abbot after Mr. Thaksin became prime minister. Many Shinawatra supporters, better known as the red shirts, are hardcore loyalists of Phra Dhammachayo.
Much like Mr. Thaksin challenged the political domination of the traditional Thai elites — namely royalists, the military and big business — Dhammakaya’s brash form of Buddhism threatens the belief system of Thai conservatives. Together the Shinawatras and this sect seem to erode traditional forms of authority, and so in the junta’s view, must be quieted.
Buddhism is one prong of the holy trinity that makes Thai identity, alongside the nation and the monarchy. It is the state religion, and a compulsory subject of study in public schools. The king is considered to be Buddhism’s ultimate patron and the gatekeeper of the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order.
Tensions between Dhammakaya and the Prayuth government were bound to come to a head after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October. Bhumibol had ruled for seven decades, partly by forging strong ties with the military and Bangkok-based elites. But in recent years the Shinawatras defied those traditional networks, tacitly challenging the king’s moral authority, by appealing to rural voters with populist projects. The military arguably staged the 2014 coup in the hope of steering the impending royal succession in ways that would safeguard the interests of the establishment. Now it is trying to control the Buddhist establishment as well.
It so happened that as Bhumibol’s health was faltering last year and the question of his succession became a pressing concern, the conservative elites had to worry about another passing of the guard: The Supreme Patriarch, the head of the monks’ order, died in 2013 and had yet to be replaced.
Traditionally, the country’s top religious position goes to the most senior monk designated by the Sangha Supreme Council, the Buddhist order’s governing body. In this instance, the presumptive heir was Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, better known as Somdet Chuang. But the Prayuth government blocked his nomination by invoking a tax evasion scandal involving vintage cars. More to the point perhaps, Somdet Chuang was a mentor to Phra Dhammachayo and he enjoys massive support among Thaksin supporters.
In January, the government amended the Sangha succession law to give the king sole power to appoint the Supreme Patriarch. In February, Maha Vajiralongkorn, the new king, chose Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, the abbot of a competing sect, circumventing the Sangha Council.
Then on March 5, the government issued a royal command, signed by the king, stripping Phra Dhammachayo of his religious titles.
Are the new king and the military working in tandem? Who knows. Almost three years after the coup, Thai politics remains precarious and very opaque. Vajiralongkorn has asked for revisions to a junta-drafted constitution that was approved by referendum last year; a form of horse-trading may be underway. The controversial constitution has yet to come into force, and pending that, the date of the next election, already many times delayed, remains uncertain.
One major question is how long the Thai people will stand for this, especially if the Prayuth government starts cracking down on religious leaders. At the height of the recent siege at the Dhammakaya complex, several thousand monks and supporters stayed in the compound to protest the raid. The standoff was the most high-profile mass demonstration against the junta since the 2014 coup.
The generals’ tough stance hardly is surprising given their insistence on quashing critics in the past. But their failure to eradicate Mr. Thaksin’s influence has probably made him stronger, and if their attack on Dhammakaya, and meddling in religious affairs, was an attempt to tighten their grip on power, they may well come out the weaker for it.