Falungong under pressure over proposed Thailand meeting

BANGKOK, Feb 21 (AFP) -

Falungong followers in Thailand have come under pressure after the authorities warned the group that they must respect Thai law if they wish to hold a meeting here, organisers said Wednesday.

"At first we didn't know we had to ask for permission, and now that we know, there is some pressure," said local Falungong spokesman Nappadol Eakabutr.

The group had planned a meeting of some 500 Falungong practitioners for April before Thailand's foreign ministry urged caution Tuesday.

"We have not decided yet what we will do. We will have a meeting among members this week to consider the issue," Nappadol said.

Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said the government would consider a request by members of the spiritual sect to meet here on the condition that they do not use it as an opportunity to attack China.

"We will tell them what kind of activities they can undertake and which ones they cannot," he told reporters Tuesday.

"But legal action will be taken if they violate the agreement," Surakiart added.

The Falungong has yet to make a formal request for permission to gather in Bangkok, he said.

Thai police chief General Pornsak Durongkaviboon said officers were keeping a close watch on the activities of Falungong members in Thailand.

Pornsak stressed that Thailand does not have a law banning the group from the country, but urged the sect not to hold a meeting in Thailand.

"They should not hold the meeting here if it is not necessary," he said.

"We want to keep good relations with China," Pornsak added.

The Thai-Chinese community and Buddhist associations recently called on the government to prevent such a meeting from going ahead here.

"Falungong is an evil cult. Their presence here will destabilise Thai society," said Norrarat Tangpakorn, president of the Thai-Chinese Journalists' Welfare Foundation.

The Thai foreign ministry said last week that China had lodged an official protest over the planned conference, which would be attended by both Thai and overseas Falungong practitioners.

Nappadol said the conference was organised in good faith, and that it would be open to the public, including the press and government officials.

"The theme of the meeting is an exchange of views and experiences among us and it will have nothing to do with politics at all," he said.

The group says there are about 1,000 Falungong followers in Thailand, who hold regular sessions in parks around Bangkok to practise the movement's trademark breathing and exercise routines.

The Chinese government views the Falungong, which claims 70 million adherents in China alone, as the biggest threat to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

It banned the movement as an "evil cult" three months after it gathered 10,000 followers for a silent protest at the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing.

Falungong members, who follow the Buddhist-inspired teachings of guru Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile in the United States, insist they have no political agenda and members are taught how to attain high moral standards and physical well-being through meditation.