Whistleblower faces down threats in tiger temple cat fight

Whistleblower faces down threats in tiger temple cat fight

No freedom: With 147 tigers at the temple, many are forced to spend most of their time in cell-like cement structures, even though there is space to run and play.
No freedom: With 147 tigers at the temple, many are forced to spend most of their time in cell-like cement structures, even though there is space to run and play.

The threats began almost immediately after Soochaphong Boonserm went to the police.

"The next time I see you I'm going to beat your face," read one of the private Facebook messages.

They were being sent by dek wat -- temple boys -- from Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno in Kanchanaburi, better known as the Tiger Temple.

Mr Soochaphong, a lawyer who had done pro bono work for the temple for several years, had just handed over a large body of evidence which he says proves the temple's involvement in wildlife trafficking.

That was in February last year. Today, the threats are not only physical: the Tiger Temple has sued Mr Soochaphong for professional misconduct and is attempting to have his legal licence revoked.

Temple representatives failed to show up for a hearing on the case last week, and a new date wasn't immediately set. But Mr Soochaphong is not concerned: he believes the temple is scared to push him too far.

Mr Soochaphong first became involved with the Tiger Temple in 2008, drawn there by what he said was respect for Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, one of Thailand's most revered monks who lends his name to the Tiger Temple despite having no direct affiliation with it.

Mr Soochaphong said he was asked by the temple committee to help with a case, and while he was never its formal lawyer, he continued to perform legal work for the temple as a way to make merit.

He soon took on other roles, such as publicist and event MC, as he grew closer with the temple's inner circle, particularly Phra Vissuthisaradhera, better known as Phra Ajarn Chan, the temple's founder and abbot.

But at the end of 2014, Mr Soochaphong said, the temple's long-time veterinarian came to him with some startling allegations.

The vet, Somchai Visasmongkolchai, said three tigers had been smuggled out of the temple, and he had evidence to prove it -- including CCTV footage which suggested temple staff were involved.

Mr Soochaphong needed more convincing. And so he began a covert investigation, both to satisfy himself -- and, if necessary, the authorities -- that the allegations were true. He said he confronted one of the temple workers whom he recognised from the CCTV footage. The worker said "Luang Por" had ordered the operation, using a term of endearment for temple abbot Phra Ajarn Chan.

Mr Soochaphong recorded the conversation without the worker's knowledge.

He also uncovered evidence that the Tiger Temple had transferred money to purchase plots of land in Germany and the Czech Republic, purportedly to build new temples. But both land plots were registered in Phra Ajarn Chan's name.

In early February last year, officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation seized illegal hornbills from the temple, and returned around a month later to confiscate six endangered Asian black bears. On Feb 22, Mr Soochaphong said he was called to a meeting with temple staff and accused of not doing enough to protect them.

He cut ties with the temple three days later. Soon afterwards, videos were posted on YouTube attacking him for being disloyal.

Around that same time, Dr Somchai resigned and went to the authorities. He handed over three microchips, which he said had been cut out of the missing tigers.

Mr Soochaphong said it is impossible to know what happened to the tigers, but he was told by Dr Somchai it would be almost impossible to remove the chips without killing them. The lawyer said his investigation had indicated the temple was slaughtering cats and sending the carcasses to Laos for sale.

The DNP investigated the temple in April and confirmed that the three tigers were missing. Mr Soochaphong said he was told that as many as 40 tigers could be unaccounted for.

Dr Somchai and Mr Soochaphong also went to Sai Yok police station to file a report. Both men soon received threats, both legal and physical, from temple figures.

It was then that Mr Soochaphong was contacted by Cee4Life, a conservation group headed by former Tiger Temple volunteer Sybelle Foxcroft. He gave them the evidence he had collected.

Cee4Life used the evidence to compile a comprehensive report on the temple. Ms Foxcroft, an Australian, said she had more evidence proving international trafficking of tiger parts by the temple, but preferred not to discuss it in detail as it is in the hands of the DNP.

Mr Soochaphong said he decided to tell everything he knows to Cee4Life because he was sick and tired of people using faith and religion as a tool to deceive.

"I still give my full respect to Luang Ta Bua, but I don't want anyone to use his name to destroy the good image he built," he said. "Phra Ajarn Chan is only using Luang Ta Bua's name to trick people into believing him. This is why I am still standing here to fight against the temple."

The investigation into the missing tigers is ongoing. Mr Soochaphong said more than 12 months after he handed over the evidence to Sai Yok police, they have yet to follow it up.

"I will be here with all my evidence waiting for the day that the whole world will know the truth about the temple. I don't want faith and belief in religion to fool anyone the way I was fooled before," Mr Soochaphong said.

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