From temple to prison: Implications of Buddha Issara’s arrest

Despite close ties with the military government, an anti-election hyper-royalist monk has been detained for criminal association, extortion and counterfeiting a royal emblem. The incident has raised the question of whether the junta is still in full control of Thai politics.
In the early morning of 24 May, fully armed police commandos raided Wat Onoi temple, Nakhon Pathom Province, to arrest its abbot, Buddha Issara, whose lay name is Suwit Thongprasert, while he was sleeping in the monastery. The police pressed three charges against him: leading a criminal association, extortion and forging King Rama IX’s royal emblem.
The first two charges related to Suwit’s role as a core leader of the anti-election People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protests in 2014, while the other charge emerged in 2009 when he performed a ritual to bless Buddha amulets engraved with the monograph of the late King Bhumibol before selling them to his disciples.
He was forced to disrobe and was detained in custody at the Bangkok Remand Prison after the Criminal Court denied his bail request, citing the severity of the crimes. Although Suwit previously claimed that he had verbal permission to use the emblem, he pleaded guilty to the royal forgery charges but vowed to fight the other two accusations.
Suwit is disrobed and sent the the prison (Photo from Matichon)

Who is Buddha Issara?

Suwit is known as one of the most radical and brutal PDRC leaders. He led the PDRC protest camp at the Chaeng Watthana Government Complex where its security guards in February 2014 seriously beat two police officers, Pol. Lt. Somkid Koeykamon and Pol.Sen.Sgt. Sompong Unnuan, and stole their money and cell phones. The two officers subsequently filed criminal association and extortion charges against Suwit.
The most violent incident occurred on 1 February 2014 when Suwit spearheaded a raid into an Election Commission of Thailand office in Bangkok and seized polling boxes in an attempt to prevent the general elections from taking place the following day.
Suwit and his supporters confronted a group of red shirts who were there to protect the polling boxes. Suddenly, a gunman with an M16 emerged from the PDRC side and opened fire at the red shirts. The incident left four people seriously injured and one of them, Akaew Sae-Liew, a 72-year-old street vendor, reportedly shot by the gunman, died in September 2014 after being paralysed for eight months.
Suwit publicly admitted that the gunman, later identified as Wiwat Yodprasit, 24, was a security guard at his protest site and also vowed to provide financial and legal aid for Wiwat throughout the prosecution.

Connection with the NCPO

Despite his violence, he attracted numerous disciples and followers from various circles including politicians, university lecturers and soldiers. According to Bangkok Post senior reporter Wassana Nanuam, the “Junta Big Brothers” -- Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paochinda -- were also his disciples as they joined a religious ritual held by Suwit in 2012. The reporter added that the ritual was aimed to strengthen to the spiritual power of the Royal Thai Army.
However, the military leaders denied being Suwit’s disciples, saying that they joined the ritual merely because they were invited.
The Junta Big Brothers joined Suwit’s ritual in 2012 (Photo from Wassana’s Facebook)
Under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Suwit has never faced charges for his past crimes and repeatedly flaunted his political privilege.
In January, facing a royal defamation allegation, Suwit and his disciples visited the police’s Crime Suppression Division and challenged the authorities to press charges against him. He also asked the police to stop harassing his disciples at the temple, adding that he would go to talk with the police commander himself if the harassment continued.
In November 2016, at a time when all gatherings were supposedly banned, Suwit and his supporters staged a small protest in front of the US Embassy of Thailand, calling for the removal of the US Ambassador Glyn T. Davies for repeatedly criticising Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the l?se majest? law.
Suwit leads the protest at the US Embassy of Thailand (Photo from Thai E-News)
In early 2016, he actively urged the NCPO to raid Wat Dhammakaya temple to arrest its former abbot, Dhammachayo, who was accused of money laundering and illegal land encroachment. Subsequently, junta invoked its absolute power under Section 44 of the Interim Charter to declare Wat Dhammakaya a ‘controlled zone,’ granting security officers the authority to search buildings, make arrests and cut off water or electricity supplies as they see fit.
Despite Suwit’s close connection with the junta, the police arrested him in a quite brutal manner, raising the question “Why did the NCPO not help him this time?”.
After the video clip of police commandos using a sledgehammer to break into Suwit’s rooms went viral on Thai social media, his followers, including the NCPO leaders, condemned the authorities for being too harsh.
Junta head Gen Prayut publicly apologised for the incident, and deputy NCPO leader Gen Prawit said he had never been informed about the commando raid, despite being the Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for national security affairs.
With the military denying involvement in the operation, all the blame goes onto the Police Commander-in-chief Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda, who insisted that the authorities followed proper measures during the arrest.
Suwit’s followers subsequently called for an investigation, and even the dismissal, of Chakthip. On 27 May, Maj. Rienthong Nanna, leader of the ultra-royalist vigilante group called the Rubbish Collection Organisation, posted on Facebook a call for the NCPO to use Section 44 to dismiss the police commander, but the junta refused.
Evidently, Suwit has been a key person in the pro-military movement who not only paved the way for the 2014 coup but also actively rebutted all criticism of the NCPO. Regardless of the results of his prosecution, his brutal arrest shows the NCPO no longer has full control over Thai politics.
Police commandos raid Suwit’s monastery (Photo from Matichon)