Justice fails test in temple stand-off

Justice fails test in temple stand-off

No matter how it turns out, the stand-off between the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and Wat Phra Dhammakaya has underscored a combination of extreme conviction and weak enforcement of the justice system that has underpinned Thailand's many crises.

As the plot thickens on how the DSI could arrest Wat Phra Dhammakaya abbot Phra Dhammajayo and press criminal charges against him, the confrontation is taking on the epic tones of Batman vs Superman.

While the DSI has its laws and immense state power, the 72-year-old abbot is buttressed by immense support from hundreds of thousands of followers, and their money.

As the DSI pressed on to enforce its arrest warrant approved by the Criminal Court against the abbot on charges of money laundering and receiving stolen property worth 1.2 billion baht in connection with the 12-billion-baht Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement case, followers of the sect barricaded the temple entrances to block officials from trying to enter the grounds.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

Tens of thousands of supporters have also gathered inside apparently to serve as a human shield for the high-profile abbot, who has insisted he is too ill to meet the officials.

In response, the DSI sent in a drone to inspect the expansive temple grounds with multiple entrances and egresses including a secret one that will be opened only in case of an emergency, according to news reports. It is also working out plans to raid the premises which reportedly include having commandos roping down from helicopters to arrest the abbot.

With the DSI's showdown with The Sun of Peace, as Luang Por Dhammajayo is described by his temple, it feels The Dawn of Justice must be coming.

Or maybe not. Among the many problems the Dhammakaya controversy has highlighted is a weakness in the enforcement of the country's justice system.

Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya may have insisted the case of Phra Dhammajayo will be dealt with according to due legal processes, but what Thais have seen is how difficult it has been for the authorities to press charges against Phra Dhammajayo.

The struggle seems to have reaffirmed the perception that the rich and powerful can somehow always find exemptions in the justice process.

The infamous former monk Luang Pu Nen Kham, wanted by the DSI not just for money laundering but six other charges including statutory rape and child abduction, managed to leave the country and is reportedly building a new monastery in California where he will launch a new Buddhist sect, free from the control of the Thai clergy.

It has been four years since Red Bull heir Vorayudh "Boss" Yoovidhaya was charged with reckless driving causing death and failing to stop his car to help the victim in connection with a deadly hit-and-run in 2012, but he still failed to meet with prosecutors to acknowledge the charges last week.

He was given yet another chance to show up in a month or so before police file for an arrest warrant.

This comes on top of complaints about the controversial performance of the police and outdated laws that gave rise to calls for both police and regulatory reforms a long time ago.

The perception that the justice process is bendable may have contributed to the "mob rule" we are seeing both in the case of Dhammakaya followers who insist they "believe" the abbot is innocent and among supporters of the DSI who cheer on the authorities to take down the mighty monk because they "feel" his highly commercial temple has behaved contrary to what they believe are Buddhist traditions.

It is the same kind of frenzy that has left the country in a crisis, politically and socially. Whoever comes into power makes the rule of law subservient to their beliefs, whether they be stability for the military regime or ideas of democracy for its opponents, which they often push to an extreme, inviolable level.

The situation becomes even messier at a time when there is a clear lack of moral authority -- in the military government that has used the law at its own whim as well as the the mainstream Buddhist authority widely viewed as being out of touch.

No matter how it turns out, the Dhammakaya confrontation will bring out many more questions and dilemmas that the country will have to face as it goes through a transition. Is society up to it? Not as long as its members remain high on beliefs but low on adherence to the rule of law.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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