[Last updates: 4 March 2017 (links to footage of confrontation and Al Jazeera report), 5 March (reports of food contamination - clarified 23 March), 6 March (link to article by James L. Taylor) and 9 March (update on new phase of escalation), 11,12 March (DSI concludes searches, Sangha developments).]
It is with sadness that I write this post. During the past couple of weeks an already serious situation in Thailand has been getting a lot worse, threatening the peaceful livelihood of thousands of monastics and lay supporters at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the temple to which I belong.
I was given a copy of a short film taken during the past few days outside the temple in Pathum Thani that shows police or security personnel manhandling, even trampling on, some monks from the temple as they sit on the ground in non-violent resistance, in the manner of Gandhi. Now footage has been posted with a commentary on the situation. I've never seen that kind of rough treatment before in Thailand.
On 2 March I received the following account:
... yesterday a ... woman with asthma who lives close to the temple was in distress and asked for an ambulance to bring her to a hospital. However, Internet and phone connections in the temple and surrounding areas are shut down. After an about an hour or so they managed (through a chain of Bluetooth connections!) to reach an ambulance which tried with emergency lights and alarm to get to her. The nearest way was through the temple area. The vehicle was denied access by the army. They were told to go around the temple area which was a long and slow way. After another hour of delays and controls at several army and police checkpoints they reached the woman's house, but she had already passed away.
[May be this case, which is described in more detail.]
The main problem at the moment is lack of food at the temple - which is the subject of the photo above. A friend reports:
For the thousands of people currently at the temple, only 300 boxes of food are being let in. When the people in the temple set up a big poster "we need food" as a signal to the outside world, the police took it down referring to section 44.
Hence the urgent campaign, as illustrated in the following post.
But it sounds like there is a further problem: I've been told that food let in to the temple has been contaminated, which probably explains why there have been reports of people inside becoming unwell and needing to call ambulances.
[Update 23 March: on further investigation, it was found that the food had just gone bad because it had been left for a long time, probably held up. Sorry for the previous inaccuracy.]
These eye witness accounts are not being shown by mainstream Thai media who all have to be very careful to toe the line. Reports by foreign journalists have also been constrained. For example, Wayne Hay for Al Jazeera had his report chopped, but his report can be viewed on YouTube.
Yet even from Thai media you can get some idea of the seriousness of the situation, e.g. from Khao Sod (= 'Fresh News'):
The escalation has followed an action taken by the Thai Prime Minister, head of the military junta. As that news item indicates, he has applied Section [or 'Article'] 44 against the temple to give the Department of Special Investigations the power to apply whatever pressure it takes to seize the Abbot, Ven. Dhammajayo, wanted to a number of charges. The temple is resisting because it feels strongly he would not receive a fair trial. Its stance is explained at:
About Article 44Article 44 was introduced in 2014 by the present military government in order to maintain a certain kind of stability. The original constitution document devised by them is too lengthy to list in full here, but there's a paragraph that indicates the sweeping powers. Translated into English it reads:
"Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay."
Then there is the amendment that basically affirms Article 44 in 2015 immediately after the end of martial law:
Here's a translation into English:
Legal experts who have analysed Article 44 have come to the conclusion that it is a contravention of human rights, see e.g. the International Commission of Jurists,
For further commentary from the temple's perspective see:
Some analysis from James L. Taylor, Adjunct Associate Professor, Anthropology & Development Studies, University of Adelaide, considers the wider political picture and finds the actions against the temple perplexing.
What's happening nowThe Thai media have been pumping out many columns, but I strongly recommend trying to get in touch with temple supporters who have been seeing first hand the restrictions in place and hear what they have to say. There are many accounts on social media:
Fake news? No. That's why we are asking for help, which can be of many kinds: from sending loving kindness and charity works with merit dedications, through to signing a petition, and writing letters of concern to human rights organisations and official bodies. Thank you.
Escalation [9 March]Unfortunately, news from Thailand gets worse. The Thai government has now intensified its efforts, initiating a 5 day period of heightened activity, which appears to be aimed at controlling the temple before 13 March when Thailand’s human rights record will be reviewed on 13 and 14 March 2017 by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which scrutinises States’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (as reported on: https://www.facebook.com/UNHumanRightsAsia/). Live transmission and archives are available from the UN.
As an indication of wider issues, the BBC has been unable to reach agreement to renew shortwave transmissions.
Whilst the military government constrains media reports still further, it seems they will seek to arrest as many monks as possible to reach a position where they think they will force unreasonable terms. So far they have already arrested 2 monks who have been informing the public about the situations at the temple as it really is. The monks and lay people still have severe food, water and medicine shortages (and supplies are contaminated).
Ebb and Flow [11,12 March]The DSI have concluded their searches on this occasion and come away empty-handed: there's no material wealth and no sign of Ven. Dhammajayo. Whilst the DSI are reducing the overall numbers of the military and police there, they are maintaining control of the area and may apply to administer it as a step to take over the temple's affairs. For now, they are at least allowing everyone access to the temple through all the gates, which includes police and the military — with a noticeable increase in their numbers inside the temple. The monastics and lay people now have sufficient sustenance, but I think the damage done already to people's health needs to be properly assessed ahead of the UN Human Rights Committee meeting this coming week.
Meanwhile there are other wider developments concerning the State's relationship to the Sangha; both Ven. Dhammajayo and Ven. Dattajeevo, who as Abbot and Vice Abbot respectively were awarded high-ranking royal titles by the late King Bhumibol the Great, have had their titles removed whilst the DSI has been pressing ahead with its heavy-handed actions. Now more subtle arguments are resurfacing (as happened almost 20 years ago) by opponents presenting particular scholarly views on what they consider is 'true Buddhism'. It's largely with the same goal of shutting down the temple, trying to defrock monks, and generally destroy all it stands for. Ven. Dhammajayo's response then was: "I shall never disrobe." I expect it's the same now, but help is needed to protect this vocation.
We should all wish for peace in Thailand - everyone at Wat Phra Dhammakaya certainly spends a lot of time developing peace through meditation.