Fringe group must respect wishes of local people

opinion September 13, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

The Dhammakaya Buddhist sect will have to think twice about its plans to appropriate land that is considered to be a public amenity by northeastern villagers.


Without the consent and buy-in of local people, Dhammakaya, a controversial Thai Buddhist sect, is unlikely to be able to set up a successful operation in northeastern Sakon Nakhon province. Dhammakaya was reportedly close to concluding a deal with local land officers to claim ownership of 85 rai at Don Sawan. It planned to set up a new branch in the province, but is facing strong protests from local people.
Prompted by the Sakon Nakhon Mayor Komut Teekathananond, several thousand citizens have signed up to protest against the transfer of land ownership to the sect. In addition, many in the province feel uncomfortable with some of the practices of the sect, which allegedly has a policy of encouraging its followers to make substantial and regular cash donations. Recently the sect’s preaching caused controversy after it “analysed” the afterlife of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Critics say the sect was simply capitalising on the late electronics guru’s fame in order to encourage its followers to hand over more money.  One telling photo showed a protester in Sakon Nakhon holding a sign reading, “We don’t want UFOs here”, alluding to the architectural shape of the memorial hall of the sect’s headquarters in Pathum Thani province. 
The protesters say they plan to ask the Constitution Court to suspend the transfer of ownership of the common area in Don Sawan to Dhammakaya. The site previously featured a deserted temple but now serves as open public space, with trees and waterways. The serene setting has become popular with both local people and visitors. Sakon Nakhon residents feel a connection to the place and want to maintain it as public property.
However, feelings were stirred when it was reported that Dhammakaya came to an agreement with the local land office to use the public area to set up another branch.
The plan to give the sect ownership of the property should be reviewed carefully. Judging from the reaction of the protesters, there is strong feeling in the community about the sect moving in. 
The villagers are uncomfortable about the presence of Dhammakaya and they are right to have raised questions about the officials in charge and why the transfer of the property has not been subject to a public hearing. 
The establishment of a branch of Dhammakaya is not a small matter. The presence of a large number of the sect’s followers could affect local livelihoods. The massive buildings that the sect is known for are unlikely to blend in well with the existing community.
Dhammakaya’s plan is unlikely to be successful without the citizens’ support. They quite reasonably do not want to see their park turned into the exclusive property of a private organisation. 
The sect and the land office should reconsider this plan. Buddhists are taught to be mindful of the consequences of their actions upon others. The timing and the intentions of the Dhammakaya branch may not be right.