Protect us from greed, Amen

Protect us from greed, Amen

The Sangha Supreme Council (SSC)'s decision to regulate the leasing of land or buildings owned by temples to prevent the misuse of monastic property is commendable, at least in principle.

The new regulation requires temples to seek approval from the council and the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) before any lease contracts are granted or extended.

The rule, which goes into immediate effect, is aimed at streamlining lease contracts, with a view to protecting monastic property and protecting abbots from criticism for mishandling temple assets, said Sipbaworn Kaewngam, inspector-general and deputy spokesman for the NOB.

According to Mr Sipbaworn, every request to lease land, buildings or the construction of buildings on temple land will first have to be vetted by NOB's central budget committee and then approved by the SSC before the contract can be signed.

The committee will also vet construction blueprints and business plans detailing temples' financial returns.

Once a lease is signed, the temple will have to inform the NOB of the deal's details.

This rule aims to do away with the practice of lessees sub-leasing temple land or reaping profits from the buildings they put up.

The NOB deputy spokesman said this rule will also prevent individuals from using temple property to engage in illegal or improper activities.

He cited the case of tour companies renting space in temples to sell religious items at inflated prices to tourists.

It is known the Sangha is one of Thailand's biggest landowners, with many hectares of land under its jurisdiction.

Most abbots, meanwhile, have no management knowledge or skills to handle the property properly. Worse yet, few have conservation awareness.

It is important the SSC and NOB do not put too much weight on gains or profits when they apply the new rule, because in reality a lot of temple land is occupied by people from the low-income bracket.

The agencies should also take into consideration the social context of regulating temple land and nurturing harmonious coexistence between temples and old communities.

The property boom over the past few decades has dealt a heavy blow to tenants, some of whom are already stricken by poverty, as they were booted out by some greedy abbots who chose to welcome rich land developers as they offered better money.

A case in point is the outrageous 2005-2007 land dispute involving a temple in Yannawa, which resulted in the eviction of one of the oldest Chinese communities in Soi Wanglee of Sathorn district.

The temple bluntly dismissed calls for the preservation of the so-called Wanglee community, which played a historical role in developing Thai-Chinese trade in the early Rattanakosin era.

The community's shophouses, which were well-known for being built to look like a vessel, were the temple's namesake -- Yannawa stands for vessel or boat.

While negotiating with the temple, the well-to-do community residents tried to convince the temple that they were willing to pay higher rents.

However, the temple ignored Buddha's teaching of empathy and chose to extend its hand for the bigger lump sum offered by real-estate developers.

The Wanglee dispute turned ugly when a group of men dressed in black stormed the shophouses at night to intimidate the tenants, who were described by the abbot as "stubborn".

Now, while this part of city heritage is part of the past, several other temples chose to follow the Yannawa temple's controversial development model despite public criticism.

These temples chose to ignore the traditional belief that communities are based on monastic land so residents can perform their role as devout Buddhists, supporting monks and temples, nurturing the country's main religion.

There have been recent reports that several temples in Thon Buri are getting ready to evict tenants and bulldoze communities, so the area can be turned into parking lots. It is a real pity that monks, who are supposed to be kind, have put material gains ahead of people.

With Bangkok's rail network expanding, another property boom is emerging, with rising concerns that temple land along these networks will gain attention from real-estate developers and old tenants will become vulnerable and face the same fate as the old Wanglee community.

To help prevent this, the SSC and the NOB should incorporate the people's sector and community representatives to ensure that old communities are better protected and do not become victims to pure greed.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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