Scandal Ridden Thai Buddhists
The Very Bad Abbot With Some Very Bad Habits
In February 1997, the Overseas Investment Commission (OIC) approved The Dhammakaya International Society of New Zealand, a charitable society formed by The Dhammakaya Foundation of Thailand, to acquire 424 hectares of land at Parekura Road, Oneriri, RD 2, Kaiwaka, north of Wellsford, Northland for $2,250,000. The land adjoins the foreshore and "the Society proposes to establish a forestry operation on 80% of the property while the remainder will be used for cattle grazing and the establishment of a religious retreat." Not just your average Thai monks though: "The Commission is further advised that the Trustees have business experience and acumen and that this is evidenced by the manner in which The Dhammakaya Foundation's existing worldwide investments are carried out and managed." Claimed benefits include those everyone makes for jobs, investment, and exports for this kind of project, but also "the creation of a substantive religious retreat for use by New Zealand Buddhists which would otherwise not be available." In April 1998, the OIC further approved Dhammakaya's NZ offshoot to acquire a further 106 hectares of land at Oneriri Road, Kaiwaka, Northland for $1,000,000 for forestry planting. The society is a "non-profit religious, educational and charitable organisation" and the land adjoins 424 hectares "on which the Society is to establish a religious retreat and beef/sheep farming operation before 25 February 1999, and to operate/manage the properties collectively as one economic unit" .
A Thai Buddhist order spending millions buying New Zealand rural land would be interesting enough in itself, but this is no ordinary bunch of monks. CAFCA's attention was taken by a Reuters feature that appeared in the Press (11/6/99: "Thai Buddhists divided over abbot's lifestyle"). "The leader of a Thai Buddhist sect stands accused of preaching heresy, embezzling millions of dollars, and tipping the country's established religion into crisis". Sure enough, the abbot's name is Dhammachayo and he is the founder of the Dhammakaya movement. And he has been accused of spending donations from his followers (which were coming in at $NZ25,000 per day) to "buy large tracts of land in his own name". Dhammakaya has built "a sprawling temple compkex on the outskirts of Bangkok about half the size of the city's nearby international airport". There are various other theological charges against him which need not concern us.
CAFCA took it upon ourselves to draw this to the attention of the media in Auckland, Whangarei and Northland. We're pleased to report that the Northland Times, of Dargaville, decided to cover it in a front page lead "Exclusive" story, with a suitably Watchdog style heading (1/7/99: "Monk-ey business"; Tracey Cooper). The paper pursued the facts in Thailand, such as that Dhammachayo was the first abbot to face criminal charges filed by the Thai Religious Affairs Department, and was banned from travelling overseas. Closer to home, the story established that NZ Buddhist organisations were completely unaware of its existence in this country. We had suggested that the media ask the OIC about whether it would reconsider the Society's "good character", which is about the only criterion needed for approving foreign investors now. The OIC told the Northland Times that if a society does not maintain its good character, "the Commission can make an application to the High Court seeking that they dispose of the property" (ibid). We will believe that when we see it.
There have been further developments. In August, a warrant was issued for the abbot's arrest for massive embezzlement and fraud, of up to $US1.4 billion. A warrant was one thing, actually arresting him quite another. Dhammachayo is believed to have up to 1 million followers, and to now be Thailand's most powerful abbot, with branches or supporters in several other countries. Thailand's ruling monks didn't want to know about it; 20,000 of his own followers gathered outside his temple complex to prevent his arrest. A compromise was effected after several days of standoff - he agreed to leave the complex to be questioned by the cops but not to be arrested. His followers warned that they would resist by force any attempt to arrest him; 300 anti-riot cops and 100 plainclothes cops were deployed for his questioning. He was to be granted bail and, most importantly from his point of view, not be defrocked during the trial. He had already made clear that: "I would rather die in a saffron robe. But if they try and defrock me, I would rather die, and I will die alone" (Press, 11/6/99).
Interesting isn't it who's buying land in New Zealand. The reality of a laissez faire policy of letting foreigners buy land means that any old shonky monk can park some spare money offshore and secure a nice little piece of Aotearoa. Just when the country is at long last apparently getting rid of Tommy Klepto (who's quit his Lilybank resort. See elsewhere in this issue for details. Ed.), along comes a very bad abbot with some very bad habits that prove that Buddhism is also prey to charlatans and crooks on a truly gargantuan scale. It's a fullblown scandal in Bangkok - New Zealand should be ensuring that we're not unwittingly aiding and abetting it.
Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. December 1999.
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