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Buddhist Sect at Forefront of Thai Protests

Once the premier's strongest supporter, the fringe Santi Asoke group feels betrayed.

March 05, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — Among all the angry protesters trying to oust him from office -- the students, the workers, the farmers and the artists -- it is an army of 10,000 celibate vegetarian Buddhists that may be the most dogged of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's opponents.

When Thaksin rose to prominence in the late 1990s, members of a fringe Buddhist sect called Santi Asoke were among his original foot soldiers -- the Dharma Army. The abstemious adherents counted on him to change Thailand's culture of corruption. They hoped the businessman's billions would shield him from temptation.

These days, however, with Thaksin accused of perpetuating the same old crony capitalism, the Dharma Army has mutinied with the bitterness of one cheated. Willing to sit for days and nights to make their views heard, members of the sect have brought their vegetarian kitchens and their stamina to the protest rallies, trying to stake a claim at the moral sharp end of the anti-Thaksin forces.

Santi Asoke's lifestyle and politics make many Thais uncomfortable. The group is ostracized by mainstream Buddhist sects, whose monks refuse to recognize founder Prah Bodhirak, a onetime TV host and rock DJ, as a legitimate religious figure.

But its best-known member, former military officer-turned-politician Chamlong Srimuang, is a moral pillar of Thai politics. Late last month, Chamlong came off the fence and to the forefront of an anti-Thaksin movement that, lacking the votes in parliament, has tried to drive the prime minister from office with street power. From public stages and on TV, Chamlong denounces his former protege.

The Dharma Army contends it was duped.

"We did not know what he was like," Bodhirak said in an interview at a rally on Bangkok's royal grounds, explaining why Santi Asoke once backed the prime minister it now wants to dump.

"Thaksin has revealed it was a mistake to believe in him," he said. Around him, brown-robed monks and other Santi Asoke members in blue uniforms murmured agreement.

The Dharma Army hardly has the troops to push Thaksin out of office on its own. Santi Asoke is a small sect, with most estimates putting its members at no more than 10,000. They live modest communal lifestyles in nine villages across Thailand, sticking to what they claim is a back-to-Buddhist-basics regimen of vegetarianism, one meal a day, and sexual abstinence.

It is a philosophy built on the principles of humility and sufficiency, shunning excess in a world that indulges it.

Santi Asoke's fundamentalism is not universally admired.

"They can be too puritanical," said Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai social commentator and activist who describes himself as a "critical friend" of Santi Asoke. "They need a little sense of humor."

Yet it is Santi Asoke's moral outrage over what it sees as Thaksin's greed that has helped draw the battle lines in the political crisis now enveloping Thailand.

On one side is Thaksin, a self-made businessman who wants to open the country to foreign investment and ease credit, and believes he deserves a bow for making Thailand one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic economies. When the street protests threatened to paralyze Thai politics, he tried to break their back with characteristic boldness, calling new elections for April 2.

On the other side are those who worry about the cultural costs of the rush to a more Western-style capitalism. They don't like Thaksin's freewheeling talk of free-trade agreements with other countries, nor the proliferation of mall culture and its consumerist ethic. Where the prime minister sees economic growth, they see an elite growing richer but the masses left behind, awash in newly accrued personal debt.

"It is not that debt is moral or immoral," said Sang Kwan, 39, a Santi Asoke member who was at the rally. "It is that debt imposes a kind of suffering because we have to worry about it."

If Santi Asoke's philosophy has caught the public's anti-Thaksin mood, its disproportionate clout in Thai politics comes from its best-known member: Chamlong, who remains a populist hero. He played a leading role in the bloody 1992 pro-democracy rally that toppled Thailand's last military regime, and his modest lifestyle and lack of personal ambition give him credibility with the masses in this country of 65 million.

Chamlong is past 70 and semi-retired now. But he remains a highly regarded moral weathervane in Thai politics.

"He sees himself as the voice of the people and Santi Asoke is his private support group," said Duncan McCargo, a British historian who has extensively studied Chamlong and the sect, which was founded in the 1970s.

In January, when the prime minister sold Shin Corp., his family-owned holding company, to the Singaporean government in a $1.8-billion tax-free deal, many Thais who had been ambivalent decided he had to go.

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