Tycoon's daughter faces probe over Dhammakaya-linked scam
The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) is looking into whether Alisa Asavabhokin, the daughter of a property tycoon, is the owner of a land plot connected with the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative (KCUC) embezzlement scandal. If she is proved to be the owner, she will be summoned for questioning, DSI deputy spokesman Woranan Srilam said.
Speaking at the Border Patrol Police Region 1's headquarters in Pathum Thani, Pol Maj Woranan said the DSI would summon the owner of the land plot where Wat Phra Dhammakaya's six-storey medical care building named Boon Raksa is located.
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Property tycoon’s daughter under spotlight
Dhammakaya case only growing worse
Investigators have assembled 15 cases in all, steadily chipping away at the temple’s reputation. These are divided into four main groups. The first has to do with Dhammachayo allegedly receiving questionable cheques in his own and the temple’s names. The second involves the alleged use of temple money to buy stock shares. The third is related to alleged transfers of the Klong Chan cooperative’s money to Dhammakaya monks who allegedly used it to buy land. The fourth concerns alleged transfers of cooperative money to a foundation linked with the temple.
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Political fallout from the Dhammakaya case
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
To the average bystander, the recent brouhaha over the Dhammakaya temple raises many questions with few answers and just about no clarity.
For Thailand's political environment, it was a storm in a teacup that exposed the raw socio-political divide of the past dozen years.
For the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, it was an ominous confrontation between the state and a Buddhist sect with downside political costs and few upside gains.
For Buddhism in Thailand, it was an imperative for religious reforms mirroring broader changes that Thai society has been looking for in its search for a new balance.
At its most critical juncture, an outright clash between unarmed monks and their supporters and several thousand security officers appeared in the offing, with considerable potential casualties. But in the end, it all fizzled out. Despite the government's all-out efforts to arrest the temple's chief abbot, spearheaded by the Department of Special Investigation, Phra Dhammajayo remains at large. The government has taken over the sprawling temple but its legal status and future management will be cloudy and contested for years.
This all came at a high price. Prime Minister Prayut had to once again invoke Section 44 of the interim constitution, which gives him absolute power. But without Phra Dhammajayo's detention, the use of Section 44 in this case is showing signs of a paradox. The more the prime minister wields absolute power, the more ineffective it becomes. The Dhammakaya temple may now be under government control but its followers remain loyal to the sect and more virulently opposed to the crackdown.
In religious terms, Dhammakaya teachings represent a denomination of Theravada Buddhism, akin to offshoots in other religions. Dhammakaya was popularised a century ago by Phra Mongkol Thepmuni, otherwise known as Luang Pu Sodh Candasarao, who espoused certain meditation techniques in the search for spiritual peace and enlightenment. When he died in the 1950s, his disciples carried on the tradition. Phra Dhammajayo joined the Dhammakaya movement in the 1960s, and founded its main temple together with other followers. Eventually, he made the Dhammakaya sect into a cult following a kind of alternative Buddhism.
As mainstream Buddhism increasingly succumbed to the trappings of modernisation and was tempted by excesses and abuse, including financial wrongdoings, sex scandals, and a wide variety of "unmonkly" behaviour, Dhammakaya gained more converts who found spiritual solace in its discipline and clear Buddhist pathway of meditation. Over time, Phra Dhammajayo commodified this spiritual alternative into a lucrative temple business, pledging instant gratification and attainment of varying levels of heaven based on how much money was given to the temple for merit-making, even though heavenly doorways are not to be found in the original Buddhist doctrine.
Yet the temple kept winning over more followers over the years. To mainstream Buddhists who are pious but sceptical of the corruption and decadence seen in wayward monks, Dhammakaya has been a cult best left undiscussed. While Dhammakaya's adherents talk about their faith in mesmerising, coded terms, they were left alone. It was live and let live, a core Buddhist principle, with the law of karma taking care of the rest. Mainstream Theravada Buddhists neither flocked to nor despised Dhammakaya. Some of them even respected Dhammakaya because it hailed from the majority Maha Nikaya order favoured among the masses, as opposed to the minority Dhammayuttika Nikaya associated with elites and the old nobility.
But as it amassed a fortune, with its land holdings expanding more than tenfold since 1970, the Dhammakaya temple inevitably became too powerful and shady at the same time. It was tied to money laundering and embezzlement charges in the 1990s but later cleared by the attorney-general's office. It latest financial scandals were more difficult to shake off. In 2015, the controversial temple accepted swindled money from a cooperative. The money was later returned but the charges stuck. Last year, the noose tightened, as summonses became arrest warrants. Over the past several weeks, the Prayut government has gone for broke and tried in vain to take Phra Dhammajayo into custody.
Several implications are clear and instructive. First, Thai society remains as polarised as over the past 12 years of confrontation and conflict. Those who may not have paid much attention to the Dhammakaya sect before but are supportive of the May 2014 coup have vehemently stood against Phra Dhammajayo. Those who have opposed the military government that seized power almost three years ago are broadly sympathetic to the embattled abbot and his clergy, even though they may not like or know much about the Dhammakaya sect. Stoking the Thai divide does not bode well for the government's national "compromise" campaign.
Second, the government has lost political capital both ways. Its supporters, who have linked the Dhammakaya temple to the clique and interests of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are disappointed that the abbot has not been caught, that the temple has not been seized. For sceptics and opponents, the Prayut government is hypocritical, cracking down on one rogue abbot but leaving others alone, such as the politically controversial Phra Buddha Isara.
For the Prayut government, the Dhammakaya suppression was a weeks-long distraction from more important work that can actually provide progress for the country, such as the "Thailand 4.0" growth project. What has transpired will likely add to the sense that the Prayut government is approaching is expiry date.
Finally, the recent appointment of Thailand's new supreme patriarch, Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhatayan, provides a window of opportunity to reform and restore mainstream Buddhism. The new supreme patriarch is uncontroversial and universally accepted by Buddhist Thais. Yet it is a tall order. Reforming Buddhism requires an institutional rebalancing of the state, religion and the monarchy, streamlining the governing Sangha Supreme Council to make it relevant and respected and shaping up and instilling discipline into the monkhood. Making an opportunity out of the Dhammakaya debacle means bringing Thailand's Theravada Buddhism, both its doctrine and its ecclesiastical order, into the 21st century.
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