Jonathan Head’s recent report on Wat Dhammakaya is worth reading. We won’t go through it all and will just post some clips from it. It skillfully weaves a story that ends with this:
Thailand is in the midst of a complex and potentially dangerous, triple transition; a delicate royal succession, a battle over the future of Buddhism and a still uncertain political transition to a military-guided democracy.
Given that, a sect as controversial as Wat Dhammakaya was perhaps bound to be caught up in the turbulence.
It begins by noting the smoke and mirrors of Thailand’s (in)justice system:
Over the past month what is often cited as the world’s largest Buddhist temple, on the outskirts of Bangkok, has been the scene of an extraordinary stalemate.
Police officers, in rows three deep, blocked the gates to the Wat Dhammakaya temple compound. Around the back, helmeted soldiers guarded alleyways, with some crawling through surrounding rice-fields. It was, they explained, a restricted military zone….
The official reason for this siege was that the elderly abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, was wanted on multiple criminal charges related to a collapsed credit union and police believed he was being hidden inside the temple….
But then, after three weeks, the operation was suddenly called off…. Even now it remains unclear what exactly the police wanted to achieve.
As so often in Thailand, the official explanation is misleading. Allegations of financial malpractice have hung over the temple and its charismatic abbot for decades. They also hang over many other institutions and individuals in Thailand, many of whom are neither investigated nor prosecuted. To be pursued by the state with this much commitment suggests that much larger issues are at stake.
The military dictatorship is said to have several motives for its odd behavior on the temple. One observation is that:
… it should come as no surprise that a military government bent on restoring traditional values, and backed by ultra-conservatives who want to see the Buddhist clergy cleansed of corrupting, modern influences, dislikes Wat Dhammakaya.
Then there’s the weapons “seized” a few days ago.
… the government continues to push its argument that there is something sinister about Wat Dhammakaya.
Last weekend the police showed off a large cache of weapons seized, they said, from the home of a now-exiled dissident. Although many of the weapons were ancient, the police argued that there was a plan to arm the temple’s supporters and even to assassinate top government officials.
One of PPT’s readers, with decades of military service has also pointed out that the cache of weapons was made up of mostly old and some pretty useless guns and accessories. The BBC seems to find the link as wondrous as we do, but points to the junta’s political motives and makes a good point:
Indeed the temple is the largest institution in the country not under the military’s control, and its refusal to hand over its abbot is the most sustained defiance of military rule since the coup.
Then there’s the “triple transition,” with the monarchy going through change as the new king stamps his reign as fundamentally different from his father’s.
Just as the monarchy is seen by Thailand’s [military] rulers as the essential institution holding the country together and legitimising governments, so the monarch’s official role as protector of Buddhism gives each occupant of the throne a unique, sacred stature. Kings preside over the most important Buddhist rituals at the most prestigious temples. The two institutions reinforce each other.
… King Vajirakongkorn’s command to strip the royal monastic titles from Phra Dhammachayo and his de facto replacement as abbot also signals royal support for the government’s move against the temple.
It is an interesting read.