Thailand arrests senior monks in temple raids to clean up Buddhism

Buddhist monks are highly respected in Thailand and taking action against them was historically considered taboo. (Reuters)
Updated 24 May 2018
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Thailand arrests senior monks in temple raids to clean up Buddhism

BANGKOK: Thai police raided four Buddhist temples on Thursday, arresting several prominent monks and worshippers in the year’s biggest such operation amid a crackdown on illegal financial dealings by temples.
The raids are the military government’s latest bid to reform Buddhism, which is followed by more than 90 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million, but whose image has been tarnished by money and sex scandals involving monks.
“This is the investigation stage... it will all come down to facts and evidence,” police official Thitiraj Nhongharnpitak, of the Central Investigation Bureau, which is investigating the monks, told reporters.
More than 100 police commandos raided four temples in Bangkok, the capital, and the adjacent central province of Nakhon Pathom, in the early hours of Thursday.
Among those arrested was Phra Buddha Issara, 62, an activist monk who led street protests in 2014 and launched a campaign to clean up Buddhism, but gained enemies by publicly naming other religious leaders he accused of wrongdoing.
He was held over a robbery said to have been committed during the anti-government protest in 2014, police said.
Phra Phrom Dilok, 72, a member of the Sangha Supreme Council, which governs Buddhist monks in Thailand, was arrested over alleged embezzlement of temple funds, they added.
Two other senior monks, Phra Sri Khunaporn and Phra Wichit Thammaporn, both assistant abbots of Bangkok’s Golden Mount temple, were also arrested over alleged embezzlement, police said.
A representative for Buddha Issara, who declined to be identified, expressed concern.
“We are concerned because we do not know what Phra Buddha Issara is being charged with,” he said.
Representatives of the other three monks did not immediately respond to Reuters’ telephone calls to seek comment.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the arrests were about getting to the bottom of the allegations.
“This is part of the investigation,” Prawit said.
Thailand’s temples, which earn billions of dollars every year from donations, have been embroiled in scandals ranging from murder, sex and drugs to shady financial dealings.
Under pressure from the junta, Thailand’s body of Buddhist monks has been trying to clean up its own act since last year, by enforcing tougher discipline for more than 300,000 monks.
The military took power in a 2014 coup it said was needed to restore order after months of anti-government protests, and has promised to hold elections next year, despite postponing the date several times.
Buddhist monks are highly respected in Thailand and taking action against them was historically considered taboo. But recent scandals have forced authorities to rethink how they handle allegations against Buddhist religious leaders.


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.