Beam me up please, Scotty
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Beam me up please, Scotty

Gullible at risk as so-called miracle workers spread their magic dust

A woman who claims she can channel 'celestial frequency'.
A woman who claims she can channel 'celestial frequency'.

With a rhonchi-like sound in their throats as a signal from five Lord Buddhas, a man and a woman duo in Udon Thani claim they can cure sick people using a celestial frequency.

In Surat Thani, an eight-year-old boy claims he possesses a telepathic power that can connect people's minds as he was a son of Lord Buddha in a previous life.

Meanwhile, a man in Buri Ram is praised for his therapeutic power to cure all diseases by placing an aluminium pot over a patient's head and chanting.

Phrases like phalang boon, or "merit power", chueam jit, or "mind connection", and perd ta thip, or "to open the third eye" were used to cultivate spiritual credence.

For sceptics, these schemes are a sham, if not a scam to take advantage of people.

Despite controversies, followers remain deeply devoted to these healer figures.

The Bangkok Post asked experts to discuss these tales of supernatural powers and miraculous healings.

EDUCATION IS THE KEY

Asst Prof Teeranun Vichaidit, a lecturer at the Department of Thai and oriental languages, Ramkhamhaeng University's Faculty of Humanities, said beliefs are a fundamental part of people's life and serve as an emotional support system.

Some beliefs and rituals are not rooted in reason, but people are willing to accept them if they meet their psychological or physical needs, he said.

Scammers know and capitalise on this, and in many cases people allow themselves to be victimised, he noted.

"They don't listen to any warning until troubles worsen such as sexual harassment. In the case of Nong Nice (the eight-year-old boy), the scandal began to unearth when people were told to pay more," he said.

Mr Teeranun said the popularity of "mutelu" (superstition, black magic and witchcraft) can be attributed to uncertainties people face and their need to feel protected.

Media coverage about this superstitious phenomenon allows those searching for reassurance to connect with what fits their needs, he said. Media outlets should be more careful when covering practices or rituals that are against religious principles, he said.

Asked why such paranormal beliefs remain part of many people's daily lives despite growing scientific knowledge, Mr Teeranun said social media plays a role in fuelling the spread of those beliefs.

People who get what they ask for share their stories on social media platforms and word spreads, he said.

"In a broader picture, the problem is with the education system. If you want people to start questioning beliefs without rational grounds, telling them not to isn't effective," he said.

According to the National Office of Buddhism's website, more than 25,700 temples were registered nationwide in 2021. Unfortunately, such a large number of temples cannot guarantee that people will correctly understand the core principles of Buddhism.

Teeranun: Social media fuels beliefs

Phrakhru Palad Suvaddhanasaccaguna, assistant abbot of Wat Rajadhivasvihara and deputy secretary-general Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, agreed that people are looking for a pathway free from misery.

But beyond faith, people should have the wisdom to truly understand the teaching in Tripitaka; otherwise, the teaching might be distorted and descend to a misunderstanding that turns society chaotic, he said.

"We need cooperation from all stakeholders to take the Lord Buddha's teaching as a guideline, together with empowering people's knowledge through education.

"Educating people is key," said the abbot.

Phrakhru Palad: People avoid misery

CATCHING UP WITH THE CONS

Jaturong Jongarsa, a Buddhist scholar and theologian, said tales of divine reincarnations and people with supernatural powers are a worldwide phenomenon.

Some popular cults were found to be engaged in illegal activities. One example is the Falun Gong sect which is outlawed in China, not because of political reasons but their engagement in criminal activities, he said.

Mr Jaturong called on authorities to study the Chinese government's approach in regulating religious groups and belief-based activities including fortune-telling, where operators must pass background checks to be granted licences to operate.

"Here we have people who claim to have mystic powers and who sexually assault or swindle people out of their money. Shouldn't these people be examined to see if they know Pali or pass dhamma exams, or have criminal records," he said.

The government and state agencies have failed to address the problem and let the courts settle such matters. "The authorities will take action only when there are complaints about fraud or sexual abuse. In fact, the government must regulate from the start," he said.

"We must keep in mind there is a possibility that a spiritual group can grow and develop into a religion. Beliefs that don't respond to society or people's needs or break the law will diminish and disappear," he said.

Mr Jaturong also the number of vulnerable people with mental problems from emotional stress or substance abuse is growing, and the Ministry of Public Health and police should get in on an act.

He cited the so-called "Phra Bida", or spiritual father, whose bizarre treatments for illnesses included having his followers drink his urine and eat flakes of his skin. "There are mentally ill people who believe themselves to be divine beings and solicit money and we let them do that to us. Cases like Phra Bida or Nong Nice should be probed by public health authorities and police," he said.

Regarding the Udon Thani duo claiming psychic therapeutic ability, the Ministry of Public Health said legal action would be taken against the couple because they don't have a medical treatment licence. However, action has yet to be taken in the case of the eight-year-old boy.

Jaturong: Govt failed to address problem

SAVE THE VULNERABLE

Meanwhile, Dr Varoth Chotpitayasunondh, spokesman for the Department of Mental Health, said people should strive for balance, adding family should play a key role in keeping them from unhealthy beliefs.

Varoth: Family should play a key role

Pol Lt Col Kritsanapong Phutrakul, chairman of the faculty of criminology and justice administration at Rangsit University, said people are motivated by a desire to be better and exploiting people's religious beliefs for personal gains is just wrong.

He said the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) needs to come up with measures to keep people safe from scammers.

Concerned parties must quickly correct misunderstandings about Buddha's teachings before it is too late, he said, adding people need a healthy dose of scepticism especially when social media is full of scams.

Kritsanapong: Keep people safe

Pol Maj Gen Atip Pongsivapai, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division, said belief-based exploitation and manipulation are rampant, adding his office is investigating several scandals in which spiritual mentors or life coaches behave no differently from call-centre gangs.

For cases that leave a digital footprint, scammers face an initial charge of entering false information into the computer system which is a violation of the computer crime law. If money is also involved, they face additional charges. Pol Maj Gen Atip said people must build immunity, exercise judgment, consult people they trust and keep themselves up to date. Police are trying their best to warn the public about scams and give them signs they should look for, he said.

On the Nong Nice case, investigators are questioning witnesses and will ask the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) to set up a working committee. "It is a sensitive case. It deals with people's beliefs and the most important thing is that a child involved," he said.

Atip: Belief exploitation 'rampant'

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