Thailand: Debate ordered for Buddhism row

The Bangkok Post, Feb 18, 2016

PM promises to ease tensions over top monk

Bangkok, Thailand -- Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has promised to hold a formal debate over the appointment of a new supreme patriarch to hose down the volatile situation.

<< A new so-called "network" of monks demonstrated and scuffled with the military on Monday at the Phutthamonthon Buddhist park to demand that Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn (inset) or "Somdet Chuang" become the next supreme patriarch immediately. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
He said the move was to defuse tensions between groups supporting Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn to become the new supreme patriarch and their opponents.

The promise came Wednesday along with a call by Gen Prayut for both sides to refrain from making any further moves. He stressed during his trip to attend the US-Asean Summit in the US that the debate will be held when he returns. 

"As a Buddhist myself, I don't want to see the religion become disgraced," Gen Prayut said. "But [sometimes] to overly suppress something can only lead to a new problem. This is a matter of the faith of the people."

Both the supporters of Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, who was nominated by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) as the new supreme patriarch on Jan 5, and the opponents of the nomination would be invited to the debate to have their viewpoints heard, he said.

After the debate, members of the public should then have sufficient information to decide which side to believe, he said.

Gen Prayut, however, did not elaborate as to how public opinion about the appointment of the new supreme patriarch would be assessed or taken into consideration when any further decisions on the matter are made.

He simply said all sides concerned -- the SSC, the government and those groups involved in the dispute over the supreme patriarch appointment -- would have to sort out this problem together.

"If the monks' code of conduct is still found to be insufficient to resolve this matter, it will probably be then decided on by means of law," he said.

The SSC's nomination of the new supreme patriarch still awaits Gen Prayut's submission for royal endorsement.

"I've already made it clear that if something is likely to affect the [high] institution, I have to clear it up first," said Gen Prayut, adding that such serious matters should never be proposed to the King to consider endorsing, especially while he is receiving medical treatment in hospital.

Gen Prayut was responding to calls by a network of monks and devotees calling itself the Sangha and Buddhists Alliance of Thailand, comprising roughly 1,200 monks and supporters, for him to present the nomination of Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, or Somdet Chuang, the 90-year-old abbot of Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen, to His Majesty for royal endorsement as the new supreme patriarch.

The call was made on Monday when the group gathered at Phutthamonthon Buddhist park in Nakhon Pathom to attend a seminar titled "Block the plot to overthrow the Sangha's administration", which ended up in a scuffle between them and soldiers who stepped in to prevent a possible confrontation between the group and its opponents. No one was injured.

Phra Methee Dhammacharn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, who is also assistant abbot of Wat Maha That in Bangkok and who led Somdet Chuang's supporters on Monday, said he was ready to attend the debate Gen Prayut has promised to organise.

Deputy police spokesman Krisana Pattanajaroen said police were preparing to summon Phra Methee Dhammacharn for allegedly violating the 2015 public gathering law.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya said anyone who has questions regarding the Department of Special Investigation's (DSI) conclusions on its investigation into a luxury car owned by Somdet Chuang can attend a news conference scheduled to be held today.

The DSI found that the vintage Mercedes-Benz is linked to a luxury car tax-evasion scam.

DSI chief Pol Col Paisit Wongmuang  briefed Gen Paiboon Wednesday about the DSI's findings before the minister spoke to reporters about them.

Pol Col Paisit also showed the minister charts showing details of the money trail in the alleged luxury car tax-evasion scam and how the vintage car was falsely declared as being locally reassembled.

The police colonel also said the DSI will next week begin pressing charges against those groups of people found to have received 878 cheques, worth over 11 billion baht, from the scandal-hit Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative (KCUC).

The cheques involved in the investigation were paid by the KCUC and authorised by the cooperative's chairman Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, suspected of siphoning money from the organisation.

The DSI has divided the recipients into seven groups, including the Wat Phra Dhammakaya network, and Phra Dhammachayo.

Paiboon Nititawan, ex-chairman of the defunct National Reform Council's committee on religious affairs, claimed Wednesday he had obtained a video clip in which Somdet Chuang admitted he had received about 30 million baht in donations from Wat Phra Dhammakaya between 2011 and 2013.

He said he wanted a probe into whether Somdet Chuang received the money during the period when Wat Phra Dhammakaya received cheques from the KCUC as that would be a serious offence.