For Thais, following the ongoing police-military blockade of Wat Dhammakaya by the regime is like watching a movie unfold. The problem is two competing sagas are unspooling in tandem, depending on your political and religious predispositions.
Which do you prefer?
Movie A: ‘Downfall of the Evil Sect’
Plot Summary: This cult classic is about the evil but charismatic monk Dhammachayo. He’s a flim-flam man who’s been duping and ripping off his followers for decades with his pseudo Dhamma “teachings,” which boil down to: Give him more money; get more heavenly merits. He built a gigantic, golden UFO stupa to remind followers of the glory of adhering to his teachings and one-tonne solid gold statues of the order’s late master to impress.
Through his insatiable thirst for wealth, Dhammachayo ended up on the wrong side of the law and faces 13 charges, chiefly that of money laundering. After months of failed negotiations by the authorities to have Dhammachayo surrender himself at his luxurious abode to face charges, he now uses his followers as human shields to place himself above the law. The military government is left with no choice but to exercise its power under Article 44 of the provisional constitution to blockade the sprawling 2,300-rai temple compound in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok, in the name of justice.
After a fortnight’s blockade and sporadic skirmishes, the Department of Special Investigation, or DSI, cut communications and supply lines to coax out the monks and brainwashed holdouts letting themselves be used as cannon fodder.
They now wait for a final confrontation between the righteous good and insidious, cult evil.
Movie B: “Envious Dictator Strikes Back”
Plot Summary: Two and a half years after dictator Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha staged a coup and made himself prime minister, he’s subdued all his greatest enemies but for one. The hyper-rich Dhammakaya temple boasts a million-strong following and 100 branches abroad, rivaling the number of Thai embassies abroad.
The temple has the support of anti-junta Redshirts and his existential nemesis: ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was once photographed making merit at the temple.
The influential temple is arguably the last large organization not supportive of the junta, and it must be neutralized if not dismantled.
Dhammachayo and the temple quickly found themselves on the receiving end of more than 300 criminal charges lodged against the ex-abbot and temple, including that of money laundering.
Prayuth doesn’t like rivals, especially ones with influence and power of their own. Anyone with a million followers who isn’t a friend is clearly an enemy and arguably a security threat to his military regime.
Snubbing orders to vacate their temple last weekend under threat of arrest was a clear challenge from the followers to the dictator. Refusing to kowtow to his absolute power under Article 44 of the military’s provisional constitution is tantamount to challenging Prayuth’s power and calling its limits into question.
Meanwhile, the junta fans the flames of division it claims to be snuffing out by drumming up its supporters’ antipathies toward Redshirts and the temple’s “fake Buddhism.”
Soldiers were deployed Thursday and food and communications blocked Friday in an attempt to starve out the thousands of monks and lay people holding out for the attention of international human rights bodies or the United Nations.
The faithful now hold out for a final good-vs-evil showdown between freedom and dictatorship.
Which Film Are You Watching?
Both films have the makings of good-vs-evil epics. Which side is which may depend on the viewer’s political and religious inclinations, however.
Those impartial to the Dhammakaya saga are probably those who are indifferent to what’s happening in Thailand. If one is not indifferent to what’s happening in the kingdom, one probably has a stance toward the junta, which is now on the opposite side of the temple.
Rightly or wrongly, the temple has become a new fault line for the political divisions which have plagued Thailand for over a decade.
What’s missing in these cookie-cutter discourses is the nuance of things not black and white, genuine debate about what constitutes “true” Buddhism and insistence on the use of appropriate force and means in pursuit of justice.
In a land big on symbols but lacking in principles, good-vs-evil narratives prevail. In Thailand, the Oscar, yet again, goes to overly dramatic oversimplification.