Media-savvy Thai monks wage PR war to defend scandal-hit abbot

AFP

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Phra Dhammachayo (C), abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple and founder of the Dhammakaya Foundation, leads a religious ceremony at the temple in Bangkok Phra Dhammachayo (C), abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple and founder of the Dhammakaya Foundation, leads a religious ceremony at the temple in Bangkok

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An embezzlement charge against a powerful Buddhist abbot has unleashed his super-rich temple's PR machine, with Twitter-using Thai monks orchestrating his defence over a scandal that has opened a bitter rupture at the heart of the nation's faith.
"There has never been a temple of this size in Thai history," orange-robed Phra Pasura Dantamano says as he gestures towards Dhammakaya temple's pristine, 1,000-acre compound north of Bangkok where peacocks roam the lawns and white-clad devotees meditate.
But the affable monk's comments apply to more than the temple's enormous, futuristic architecture -- including a building that famously resembles a gigantic UFO.
Dhammakaya is also regarded as the wealthiest in Buddhist-majority Thailand, thanks in part to tech-savvy devotees who have cultivated a fervent following, raised tens of millions of dollars and set up outposts in dozens of countries across the globe.
Phra Pasura, the monk in charge of the temple's 60-member International Affairs Department, is part of the fine-tuned public relations operation that is now firing on all cylinders as it seeks to quash the latest scandal to dog the temple since its founding in 1970.
Dhammakaya’s modern, and some say "cultish", approach to Buddhism riles traditionalists, with critics accusing the clergy of peddling a pay-your-way to nirvana scheme.
The temple’s abbot Phra Dhammachayo, venerated as a saint among his followers, is wanted by police for allegedly accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht ($33 million) from the owner of a cooperative bank who was jailed in March.
The temple has denied its abbot conspired to launder the money, calling the charges "groundless and unconscionable".
A stalemate has set in.
The temple claims the 72-year-old is too sick to meet with officers, and police do not want to confront him on the temple grounds, fearing clashes with devotees.
Monks and temple staff have been vigorously live-tweeting the drama, churning out detailed press releases and fact sheets, and making use of their slick 24-hour TV channel to bat back the allegations against their revered abbot.
Modern times
The temple boasts a TV studio and editing bays inside its two-story media department, with other offices adorned with signs such as "Corporate Image Division," and "Printed Media Section."
Phra Pasura, a former flight attendant with a degree in international relations, says the overheads are minimal.
"Much of the animation and editing is done by monks," he says of the TV channel, which broadcasts across four continents and airs everything from meditation teachings to cartoons and daily news.
Buddhist monks from the controversial Dhammakaya movement carry their tents as they set out on a march on a continuous bed of flower petals at the Dhammakaya temple in Bangkok on January 2, 2016.
"And a monk's salary is only two meals a day", he adds with a smile.
Dhammakaya’s rise comes as mainstream monasteries in Thailand struggle to stay relevant to younger generations swept up in the rapid economic development that has frayed traditional community networks and ways of life.
They have also been rocked by a series of their own controversies featuring badly behaved monks riding in private jets and disgracing the faith with sex and drug scandals.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, who writes on religion in Thailand, said Dhammakaya offers an appealing alternative to urban Thais by mixing "old beliefs and materialistic values".
Its emphasis on order and community -- on display during stunning mass gatherings of followers meditating in ruler-straight rows -- also provides an antidote to the alienation of the modern age, she adds.
And the temple's early embrace of technology has played a key role in building its sweeping global presence, with overseas centres scattered across Asia, several US states and nearly a dozen European countries.
"Dhammakaya has been very active, very smart, very modern in its way of using technology to grow a support base," Sanitsuda said.
Politics at play
While much of the criticism has focused on the temple's teachings and assets, the abbot's embezzlement scandal is also tangled up in Thailand's treacherous politics.
Police have attempted to nab him on similar grounds before, but the case was dropped a decade ago under ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled but still influential telecoms tycoon at the centre of the kingdom's political schism.
Buddhist devotees meditate during a ceremony at the Dhammakaya Temple in Bangkok.
That history has fanned speculation that Thaksin and the wealthy temple are in league, with police now renewing the case as part of the ruling junta's wider crackdown on Thaksin allies.
The temple denies any political affiliations.
The case against the abbot has also gained momentum ahead of a protracted change of leadership in Thailand's ruling council of Buddhist clerics, a body known as the sangha.
The position of Supreme Patriarch -- or top monk -- has been left open for years and mainstream Buddhists are fearful that Dhammakaya is poised to take over the council and alter the religion for good.
A rapprochement appeared close this week when Phra Dhammachayo agreed to meet at the police station near the temple to discuss the arrest warrant against him.
But the parley was cancelled at the last minute after the abbot fainted on his way to the car.
Authorities retreated and are now plotting their next move as the game -- and the media coverage -- continue.

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