With regard to the standoff at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the Thai Alliance for Human Rights repeats its statement that the siege of the temple using 4,000 military, police, and investigative officers is a dangerous overreaction. The stated goal is to charge one person, the honorary Abbot, with embezzlement and money laundering. This is a nonviolent crime and the money has already been returned. At the time of our first statement, one person had already died: a girl accidentally run over by a military vehicle. Now two more have died as a result of the standoff – one person near the temple hung himself in protest of Prayut’s use of Article 44 to siege the temple; and one woman, a layperson protesting within the temple, had an asthma attack, and because of the checkpoints, medical personnel could not reach her in time. So three have died despite the fact that officers carry no lethal weapons and have acted with restraint and the monks and laypeople also have vowed to be peaceful. Again, it is almost inevitable that an operation of this magnitude will have collateral damage (unintended damage to innocent people not the target of the operation). Is it really worth the Thai authorities’s dedicated resources so far? Add to this, the fact that the tens of thousands of temple members currently can’t use the beautiful temple they built with their own funds to practice their preferred brand of Buddhism. And the livelihoods of those living and working in the area suffer because they can’t get to work. The Abbot has almost certainly already escaped, so what is the point of continuing to surround the temple? Who is being punished now? It is not the abbot, but all the tens of thousands of temple members. It appears to be the harassment of a religion that is unpopular with many, including and especially those now in power.
People ask why the Abbot doesn’t turn himself in and avoid all this mess, and why he has his tens of thousands of supporters defend him. I don’t know why because this is not my temple and not my religion. But these are foundational beliefs and matters of identity for tens of thousands. It is a mistake for the government to be threatening, or to appear to be threatening, a huge religious group. It is playing with fire.
On the other hand, maybe I do understand the resistance. There has been so much blatant unfairness under this junta government. A temple is sieged with 4,000 officers to catch one man who MIGHT have embezzled, while blatant nepotism in the Chan-o-cha family is excused. When the rules say that a monk considered friendly to Wat Phra Dhammakaya is to be the next Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism, the junta government changes those rules, overriding the highest religious body, to appoint its own preferred Supreme Patriarch. The government brings seemingly frivolous charges against the former Prime Minister, Miss Yingluck Shinnawatra, and uses article 44 to freeze her assets. Many fear that the hunt for the Abbot is a pretext, and the ultimate goal is crushing and stealing the wealth of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. I know plenty of people who, when faced with summons from this junta government, fled the country. They had no faith that they would receive justice, and I can’t blame them. It is perhaps for similar reasons that Abbot is in hiding and that many (but not all) temple members appear to be OK with that.
If the government wants to build legitimacy and achieve reconciliation, it has to treat all groups equally. It can’t appear to be favoring one group of Buddhists and yet persecuting another. It can’t take its frustrations with one monk out on tens of thousands of laypeople. The Abbot has now been stripped of his rank by the new King. When and if he is found, he can have his day in court. But please show fairness by letting the laypeople go back to practicing their religion. And importantly, the government must vow that it will not use Article 44 to steal from the temple.
I keep hearing that this is about the rule of law, that all must see that no one is above the law. But if that is supposed to be the lesson, stop using Article 44! The application of ordinary laws would never have resulted in this huge siege with so many innocent bystanders affected. We are begging the Thai government to please consider the innocent lives, back away from this dangerous game, and create the conditions for the reconciliation of the groups in society which are currently so suspicious of each other.
Ann Norman, Executive Director
Thai Alliance for Human Rights