PATHUM THANI — One day after a man publicly hanged himself in protest, the junta chief insisted Sunday it was necessary to use his absolute power to continue the siege of Wat Dhammakaya.
Responding to Saturday night’s suicide, junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said it was necessary to use Article 44 of the junta’s constitution to allow officers to act with legal impunity as the laws had proved ineffective to bring to justice the sect’s former abbot, who is wanted on money laundering and other charges.
Prayuth also took the chance to point out that without the military running Thailand, no such law could be used to go after offenders. Police tried unsuccessfully for some months to arrest Dhammakaya’s spiritual leader, Dhammachayo. It was never explained why they were unable to do so after obtaining a court warrant.
Two weeks after the temple’s sprawling campus in northern metro Bangkok was declared a restricted area and encircled by officers, a protester on Saturday evening held a sign protesting the use of Article 44 from a cellphone tower for several hours before hanging himself in front of the gathered crowd.
He has since been identified as Anawat Thanacharoennat, 64.
A government spokesman offered condolences to Anawat’s family Saturday night but said the blame should not be placed on Article 44, as the raid was only initiated after the order’s spiritual leader refused to turn himself in.
“They should not have let this kind of thing happened,” said Sansern Kaewkamnerd. “And they should not use the faith of innocent people to protect a few offenders.”
Dhammakaya has said the charges were politically motivated and Dhammachayo, 72, was too ill to surrender.
Politically Aware, but not Active
A temple representative denied Saturday that Anawat was one of its followers and said it did not condone his actions. Regardless, prayers were offered for him as a “hero of Buddhism” in front of two main gates leading into the temple on Sunday.
At the religious gathering, one banner read, “Uncle died because of Article 44 bullying Buddhism. Junta must be held accountable. Funeral for the hero of Buddhism.”
Anawat’s family declined to speak to reporters when they came to claim his body at the Police General Hospital on Sunday for his funeral.
Police said his wife, Nawaporn Thanacharoennat, told them that Anawat departed their Khlong Sam Wa district home in a pickup truck around midday Saturday. She did not know where he was going.
The 64-year-old often came to buy dried fruit for resale from Talaad Thai wholesale market, a big agricultural market not far from Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani province.
Nawaporn said Anawat used to make merit at Wat Dhammakaya nearly 10 years ago. She did not know his motive, saying he was an active news consumer but never went to any political gatherings. She added that he had been taking prescription medication to relieve stress.
Anawat’s suicide came as Gen. Prayuth issued another urgent order Saturday evening, effectively punishing the head of the national spiritual authority.
Also using Article 44, Prayuth sidelined the director of The National Office of Buddhism, Phanom Sornsilp, who had recently repeated publicly the temple’s claim that no one has seen Dhammachayo for a long time. Prayuth’s order moved Phanom to an inactive post, a common administrative punishment.
Prayuth replaced him with a police official from the agency tasked with bringing Dhammachayo to justice.
Lt. Gen. Pongporn Pramsaneh of the Department of Special Investigation or DSI, now sits atop the government religious agency.