The Thai Alliance for Human Rights would like to comment quickly on the critical situation at Wat Pra Dhammakaya. This is a gigantic temple that looks like a space ship from the outside and an ultramodern airport terminal from the inside. Coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha has invoked the all-purpose Article 44 of the Interim Constitution (in which he gives himself permission to do anything he feels like doing) to authorize the use of overwhelming force to enter the temple and serve charges of embezzlement and money laundering to the temple’s sick and elderly Abbot Phra Dhammachayo. (There are actually about 150 miscellaneous charges which were piled on after the abbot refused to come out and respond to the major charges). In response to the refusal of the Abbot to come out and acknowledge the charges after several years, the government has mobilized 20 teams of the Department of Special Investigations, 3,600 police officers and 900 soldiers to surround the temple and search it for the abbot, who may or may not be there.We are pleased that reporters and members of the National Human Right Commission have been allowed along on the search. This lessens the chances for violent abuses, and it somewhat lessens the chance that the government will attempt to plant guns or drugs in the temple during their search. However, according to pictures on social media, one person at least has already been accidentally killed in the operation—a girl was run over by a huge military vehicle. Such accidents are to be expected in a huge military operation, which is why we would have preferred that the government had formulated a response more proportional to the problem.
More generally we are concerned that so many resources have been focused on this one non-violent, and only potential, crime (right now the junta has attempted to serve charges only; the Abbot still needs to be tried; it is possible he did not know the funds he accepted were embezzled.)
Many wonder if the multiple charges and ongoing search of the temple is simply an abuse of power for the purpose of harassing a very popular, very wealthy, and very modern religious organization. They suspect that the junta is more worried about strong loyalty of devotees to their temple than they are worried about the alleged money laundering. And some fear that the junta is angling for a cut of the huge flow of donations into the temple. Wat Pra Dhammakaya is currently very independent of the government. This is less true of a smaller competing branch of Buddhism that originates from a reform of King Mongut and so has connections to the monarchy. This smaller branch of Thai Buddhism is the one favored by the junta government and the King. Blatant favoritism was recently shown to this sect when the junta’s rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly voted unanimously (with 6 abstentions) to amend the law to allow the King, rather than the Buddhist Sangha (a religious body) to pick the next Supreme Patriarch (who is like the pope of Thai Buddhism). The Sangha had nominated a candidate with superior seniority from the larger sect of Buddhism of which Wat Pra Dhammakaya is a part. This was overridden when the King, immediately after the rule change, unsurprisingly, picked someone from the more royalist sect to be the next Supreme Patriarch. As the new King, Vajiralongkorn, is very immoral and un-Buddhist (he seems to be a hedonist and has a reputation for cruelty), it is clear to all he has no special skills or qualifications for judging who should be the next leader of Buddhism. Changing the rules to allow Vajiralongkorn to pick the Supreme Patriarch looks to be a naked power grab. It seems that that the junta, not content to control the government, wants control of Thailand’s majority religion as well. At the Thai Alliance for Human Rights, we stand for the freedom to practice one’s preferred religion without government interference.
We also defend the other basic human rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially those related to fair trials and due legal processes.