The Real Crackdown in Thailand Isn’t on Migrants, But Monks
07/12/2017 Stanley A Weiss Huffpost
LONDON— Supporters have called it “the Buddhist Vatican.” But, at 1,000 acres, the Wat Dhammakaya temple is nearly ten times the size of the Holy See, and its larger-than-life leader, Phra Dhammachayo, is more like America’s multi-media evangelist Pat Robertson than Pope Francis. Its UFO-shaped stupa measures more than 2,000 feet in diameter. Its ceremonies attract tens of thousands of orange-clad monks. And it caused the largest security operation in Thailand since a 2014 military coup.
In February, 4,000 police officers and soldiers lay siege to the temple. Thousands of followers remained in defiance. After 23 days and two deaths, the government got into the complex, but Dhammachayo was nowhere to be found. The generals still don’t know where he went, but they accidentally revealed where they are trying to go.
Since the creation of modern Thailand, its three pillars – the military, the monks, and the monarch – have underpinned the state’s ideology of “Nation, Religion, and King.” Together, they have guided the country through decades of fractured politics. But since the passing of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October, and the ascendance to the throne of his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, this balance of power has come to an end. During a week in which more than 2,000 foreign workers were forced to flee the country under a new decree that penalizes employers for hiring undocumented workers, the real crackdown in Thailand isn’t on illegal immigration, but on monks. The military junta is attempting to reform Thai Buddhism in its own image and consolidate its hold on Thai politics – in ways that could profoundly impact America’s oldest Asian ally.
The military’s power comes from its arsenal. The monarch’s power comes from being semi-divine. And the monk’s authority stems from the people, who see Buddhism as a central part of being Thai. Thailand is both one of the most religious countries in the world and one of most religiously homogenous. It is more Buddhist than India is Hindu and Ireland is Catholic. Thai citizens organize their calendars and their communities around the festivals held at their local temple. When you add that to the fact that Thailand is just one of only four countries in the world with a majority Buddhist population, it may not be surprising that Buddhism elicits a stronger sense of national identity among Thai citizens than any other factor.
But in recent years, corruption and sex scandals have eroded the spiritual authority of Thailand’s 300,000 monks. The most common reports speak of monks stealing temple donations, crashing their sports cars, and getting caught in a variety of drug and sex scandals. But you also hear of the more exotic. One temple recently kept a slaughterhouse for tigers. Scandals have become so common that, in 2014, Thailand’s governing body for Buddhism created a 24-hour hotline for people to report on monks behaving badly. These scandals have weakened the monk’s influence and the trust they receive from the public.
But even in this context, no temple has attracted attention quite like Wat Dhammakaya, which some describe as “a cult best left undiscussed.” With an extensive patronage network and a doctrine built on the prosperity gospel, it rivals the biggest United States megachurches in its influence and opulence. As Reuters reports, the temple “has established over 90 branches in 35 countries. The temple runs television stations, slick websites and active social media accounts. It holds choreographed ceremonies of tens of thousands of people.” Its sermons guarantee blessings in exchange for donations and its chairs proclaim that you can “sit here and get rich.” And then there is Phra Dhammachayo.
Over the past four decades, the temple’s leader has been a lightning rod for controversy. His bold proclamations and glaring displays of wealth have energized his followers and captured the attentions of the media, other monks, and the law. Throughout his career, he has evaded multiple accusations of corruption, heresy, and money laundering, among other, more minor offenses. Most recently, he was connected to an embezzlement scheme that took $40 million from a follower’s credit union.
For more than a year, the junta used these allegations to pursue Dhammachayo. They threatened to raid the temple – twice – to apprehend him. They revived a 1999 case to defrock him. They banned him from leaving the country. In the process, they filed more than 100 cases against the temple itself. And that pattern has continued through today. Since the standoff ended in March, the junta has opened three new case investigations. They also connected the temple to an illegal weapons ring.
Why has the junta spent so much time, manpower, and money to find a diabetic, if diabolical, 72-year-old monk? It’s not about religion, or the law. It’s politics.
Over the past fifteen years, Thai politics has been locked in a stalemate between the “Red Shirts,” rural and populist supporters of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from the country’s north, and the “Yellow Shirts,” dominated by urban elites around Bangkok and the country’s south. The Red shirts have numbers on their side. The Yellow Shirts have the military.
After his election in 2001, Thaksin led an ambitious program of economic reforms that channeled money from the Bangkok elite to the impoverished, rural north. The military responded by staging a coup in 2006 and exiling Thaksin. When Thaksin’s sister came to power in 2011, the cycle repeated itself. The military removed her from office in 2014 and has been in power ever since.
As I argued last year, “the final product of all of this is that Thailand is stuck. Red shirts lack power, and yellow shirts lack ideas.” Every time the red shirts win a democratic election, the yellow shirts use anti-democratic means to remove them from power. The result is that Thailand remains at a frustrating impasse.
And in the middle of these red and yellow shirts are orange robes. While it denies any official connection to Thaksin, many of its adherents have long supported the exile looming over Thai politics. In 2010, the temple nearly sent 100,000 monks in support of Red Shirt protests. And those sympathies have not gone away. One of the temple’s former monks recently told The Diplomat that Thaksin is the reincarnation of an 18th century King and claimed that the country needs to “return power to the righteous one.”
To the military, Wat Dhammakaya isn’t a security threat. It’s a political one. And in attempting to restrain what the BBC describes as “the largest institution in the country not under the military’s control,” the junta also sees a chance to expand its authority at the monks’ expense.
While targeting a specific temple with the threat of force, the junta has targeted all temples with the threat of law. It pushed for language in the new Constitution empowering the military to “prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.” It sacked the government official responsible for Buddhist affairs in favor of a more sympathetic police officers. And it considered establishing a new regulatory board that would “support and protect” Buddhism, but only offer three seats on the 27-person board to Buddhism’s governing body.
As international media fixates this week on the 2,000 undocumented immigrants fleeing the country, the crackdown on religion continues. By giving itself the power to silence any monks who do not agree with the military’s politics, the junta isn’t just minimizing the long-term influence of the monks. It’s also neutering one of the last institutions that could effectively mobilize political opposition. The result is a Thailand in which dissent is silenced, trust in institutions has fallen, and the chances of a return to democracy are increasingly remote.
If they really mean to lead the country back to democracy, the junta needs to solve the country’s political stalemate. Unfortunately, that idea increasingly looks as alien as Wat Dhammakaya’s stupa.