Bangkok, Thailand – Just outside Thailand’s capital Bangkok, something unique is happening. Thousands of people are defying a military government that, until now, has shown no leniency towards dissent.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have surrounded a Buddhist temple belonging to the controversial Dhammakaya sect. They’re there to get one man, the temple’s former abbot, Dhammachayo, who’s wanted to face a variety of charges including money laundering.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game that’s been going on for years. Supporters of the abbot have defied the military’s order to leave the temple and have instead confronted security forces.
It’s a unique sight because since the army staged a coup in May 2014, small protests have been quickly shut down, the leaders often taken away for days of “attitude adjustment” and threatened with longer periods in detention.
Some who have made critical comments online have been hauled before the shadowy military court on trumped-up charges such as sedition, or have been convicted of breaking article 112 of the constitution which is designed to prevent any criticism of the monarchy, a law that many say is often abused for political gain.
The military continues to push back a return to “democracy” by delaying elections, which it initially said would be held the year after the coup was staged. The latest date for a vote is February 2018 but some Thais wonder whether it will ever happen.
Politicisation of Buddhism
The risk for the junta is that the longer it waits and the more intense the crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech becomes, the greater the chance of the masses latching on to a cause that could rapidly morph into a wider anti-government movement.
As is often the case in Thailand, there are political undercurrents to the situation at Wat Dhammakaya, and not everything is as it seems.
The temple has millions of followers and many of them support the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a coup in 2006, and the government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, which was kicked out in the most recent coup. It’s also thought the former abbot has had close ties to Thaksin.
Last June the popular website Khaosod wrote: “Social media has been flooded with pro and anti-Dhammakaya messages for weeks. Almost without exception, they defend Dhammakaya if they are for Thaksin or against the junta, and they attack the sect if they oppose Thaksin or support military rule.”
Adding to the perceived politicisation of Buddhism and the resulting tension, was the process for appointing a new Supreme Patriarch to replace Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, who died in 2013.
A massive search for one man, could spark a much wider battle between old political rivals.
The Sangha Council followed tradition and nominated its most senior monk, Somdet Chuang, to become the new leader, but his appointment was blocked by the Prime Minister because he was being investigated for tax evasion.
But here’s the thing. Somdet Chuang is close to Phra Dhammachayo and also enjoys support from many backers of the Shinawatras.
The government has now amended the law to hand power back to the King to appoint the Supreme Patriarch and on February 7 Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong was chosen, bypassing the nomination of the Sangha Council.
There’s been no public comment from leaders of groups opposed to the military about the situation at Wat Dhammakaya but political parties and factions of protest groups such as the red shirts, which have largely been silenced since the coup, are watching closely.
A massive search for one man could spark a much wider battle between old political rivals.