No good deed: Fight heats up over 'abandoned' temple

The prospect of a land title document being issued for a remote wat in Sakon Nakhon considered deserted is raising the ire of locals who fear a well-heeled Pathum Thani place of worship is exploiting loopholes to force its way in

A dispute over the legality of a temple on a remote island lake in the northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon is shedding light on the problem of abandoned and disused wats.

PEACE AND PROBLEMS: The monastery at Wat Don Sawan was built in the late 1990s. Plans to issue a land title to the temple have been delayed following local protests.

Over the past two weeks, street protests and campaigns have been staged against the possible issuance of a land title deed for the 85 rai (13.6 hectares) of Wat Don Sawan to the local Buddhist governing body to turn it into monastery land.

The temple is located on Don Sawan island, the biggest of some 30 islands covering 100 rai, on Nong Harn, the largest freshwater lake in the the Northeast.

Officially, Wat Don Sawan is registered as an abandoned temple in the province, as no monks live there permanently because there is no local community to feed them.

The local Buddhist authority and the 8th Ecclesiastical Regional Governing Body _ which oversees monks _ want to develop the temple and have it occupied by monks.

However, to do this it first needs the land deed stating its ownership of the temple.

But the process is far from simple, as the original land title deed has been lost and locals resent the involvement of Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok, which they claim wants to take control of the entire island and turn it into a branch of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, complete with a Buddhism education centre.

''There is no concrete evidence that Wat Don Sawan ever existed,'' insisted Prasat Tongsiri, a former member of the Sakon Nakhon provincial committee on Education, Religion and Culture, who has led the protests.

He said that old documents did not clearly state the temple's status, nor the area it covers. ''The old locals do not recognise the temple,'' he said.

At a recent meeting of monks' representatives and provincial authorities it was agreed that Wat Don Sawan was constructed on the island in 1929 and listed as an abandoned temple in 2004. But its status as a gazetted legitimate temple is in dispute.

Mayor Komut Teekathananond.

Opponents want the local Buddhist governing body to permanently withdraw its request for the land title.

Chatchai Chucheu, the director of the Sakon Nakhon office of Buddhism, said that the Office of National Buddhism had sole authority over the issue.

A subcommittee on abandoned temples under the the Commission of Religion, Art and Culture has also become involved in the controversey after conducting a study and offering its support to the issuance of a land title.

Prakob Jirakiti, chairman of the subcommittee that conducted the study, said the ecclesiastical body had requested that his panel examine the case.

''Wat Don Sawan is listed as an abandoned temple with the Office of National Buddhism,'' he said. ''We, the subcommittee on abandoned temples, take responsibility for the issue. Wat Don Sawan is one of many abandoned temples we have worked on.

''Since the temple's land title deed was lost, a new one is needed to show the location, the area and the ownership,'' he said.

Ekkaporn Rak-khamsuk, a former Sakon Nakhon MP, said locals were most concerened by the expansionist ambitions of Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Two years ago, a foundation under Wat Phra Dhammakaya submitted a proposal to the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry to rent 80 rai on Don Sawan for 30 years. Its objective was to establish a Buddhism education centre. However, the proposal was rejected.

''The foundation faced strong protests from locals when it made a similar request to rent forest land in Chiang Mai in 1999 to establish a Buddhism centre,'' Mr Ekkaporn noted.

However, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has denied the allegations, saying it is up to the 8th Ecclesiastical Regional Governing Body to solve the problem of abandoned temples.

Mr Prakob said the land title, if issued, would belong to Wat Don Sawan and the ecclesiastical provincial body would be responsible for assigning monks to the temple.

Mr Ekkaporn accepts a temple was built on the island in 1929, but insists it was never legal.

''It was not reported in the Royal Gazette that the temple was granted royal approval to become a temple as required by the Buddhist Monk Act [RoSor 121],'' he said, adding that the subsequent issuing of a land title would be illegal.

But Mr Prakob said the legality of the temple was not an issue. He said that the Royal Gazette No46, dated Aug 18, 1929, stated that the district chief gave his personal money and asked for public donations to help construct the ubosot (chapel) at Wat Don Sawan. He said that while the Buddhist Monk Act requires royal approval it could be argued that the district chief and ecclesiastical district officer at the time were acting on behalf of the King.

When building work took place, and the age of some of the temple buildings are also in dispute. At present, the temple falls under the responsibility of Wat Srisumung, also in Sakon Nakhon.

In 1980, renovation of the monastery building was reportedly planned when some artefacts were found. In 1993, a provincial committee was appointed to examine the temple but only the base of the monastery was found.

In 2000, the committee inspected the site and found that new buildings have been constructed, including a monastery, a viharn (sermon hall) and monks' houses.

Monks from various temples regularly come to stay at Don Sawan, and at present 30 monks ordained under the sponsorship of Wat Dhammakaya are staying there.

Mr Chatchai from the Sakon Nakhon Office of Buddhism said confusion over Wat Don Swan had been compounded by its remoteness and by not keeping locals informed of developments.

''Since there is no community on Don Sawan, only the concerned provincial authorities and representatives from the ecclesiastical body have attended meetings on the issuance of the land title deed,'' he said.

Mr Chatchai said Wat Don Sawan is one of 55 abandoned temples in Sakon Nakhon province. More than half do not have any documents of land ownership and have been encroached upon by local authorities and the public.

''Officials are processing land ownership documents,'' he said. ''Temples which have been encroached upon must be officially rented. Those with monks will be withdrawn from the list of abandoned temples.''

Komut Teekathananond, mayor of Muang Sakon Nakhon Municipality, said his organisation and local people have not been directly informed of the process of granting a land title deed to Wat Don Sawan.

Since it is a public place, Nong Harn is the responsibility of the Muang municipality, he said.

''Anything done in the area needs our approval as well. There are a large number of small-scale fishermen in the Nong Harn area. They are stakeholders because they will be affected if Don Sawan becomes sacred ground. At present, fishermen on Nong Harn are not allowed to fish near the island. ''The monks there said it is a sanctuary for the fish,'' he said.

Mr Komut said that the best solution was to keep Don Sawan island as public land.

EARLY ARRIVALS: The pier on Don Sawan. Some 30 monks from Wat Dhammakaya are staying at Wat Don Sawan.

Where the spirit no longer moves: wats left behind

The number of abandoned temples has been on the rise in recent years. As of April this year, the Office of National Buddhism reported that there were 6,081 abandoned temples nationwide, an increase from 5,937 in 2009. Prakob Jirakiti, chairman of the subcommittee on abandoned temples under the the Commission of Religion, Art and Culture, said that the number of monks is decreasing.

Normally, they are ordained and enter the monkhood for a short time. But in rural areas, young men are leaving villages to work in cities. This means there are fewer to enter the monkhood and stay in local temples, he said, adding that many rural temples have only one monk.

THORNY ISSUE: Prakob Jirakiti, chairman of the subcommittee on abandoned temples.

Under a scheme to resurrect abandoned temples, many problems have been encountered. Abandoned temples have been encroached upon for houses, farm land or even by local government agencies, said Mr Prakob.

He cited the example of Wat Liab in Buri Ram's Nang Rong district. Over the past few years, monks have been sent to stay at the temple. Most villagers want monks at the temple, said Mr Prakob. However, the temple land has been encroached on by farmers.

District officials have been unable to stop the encroachment, and now the monks are confined to living in an area of one rai. The subcommittee is discussing the problem with the relevant local authorities and those who have encroached on the temple grounds, but it will take time to resolve the problem, he said.

To develop abandoned temples, he said, certain procedures need to be followed. People who want to develop a temple should submit a request to the district chief or ecclesiastical district officer. The temple must be in good condition and be on a plot of at least six rai, and be suitable for at least four monks to stay. There must be no other temple with monks within two kilometres and there should enough nearby locals to support the temple and monks. The district chief will submit suitable requests to the ecclesiastical provincial body and the Office of National Buddhism for consideration. The Sangha Supreme Council will give final approval.

About the author

Writer: Tunya Sukpanich
Position: Reporter