Spiritual movement causes deep ill ease

The new government is under increasing pressure to take a stand on the Falungong meditation sect amid growing controversy over the group's plan to hold an international conference here in April.

Those against the meeting include Thai-Chinese communities and China experts who fear that foreign members of a group China has condemned as an "evil cult" might cause unrest and use the opportunity to offend Thailand's powerful "friend".

Strongly in favour of an open door are Sulak Sivaraksa, the outspoken social critic, and Somchai Homla-or, secretary-general of Forum Asia, a leading advocate of human rights.

Mr Sulak maintains that Thailand must stand up for its sovereignty and resist bending to China's wishes.

Falungong practitioners in Thailand, he said, have every right to exercise their religious belief according to the Thai constitution.

"This is a basic human right of Thai citizens. Whoever disagrees can also express his opinion but the Thai government has to ensure that the rights of Falungong should be respected," he said.

Thailand, he maintained, must not cower under threats from Beijing. "We must have our own dignity and this is our sovereignty. We should not chicken out."Mr Somchai said today's borderless world "compels Thai society to learn to co-exist with people who have different views so long as they do not lead to violence".

Thailand, he said, must stand up as a democratic country and resist any interference from China, which has used diplomatic as well as covert means to press for compliance with its wishes.

Noppadol Ekabuse, an organiser of the Falungong conference, said the aim was only to exchange views among Falungong members and spread the word about the spiritual movement. He maintained that the conference, planned for April 21-22, was still on even though he had not been in contact with the authorities.

Special Branch Police, who have been monitoring the activities of local practitioners since China outlawed the movement in July 1999, however, have become increasingly wary about the conference.

They fear anti-Beijing feelings might rise and unrest ensue if the conference showed video films carrying a message from Li Hongzhi, the movement's US-based leader, and of the recent self-immolation in Beijing which members maintain did not involve their Chinese brethren.

The absence of direction from the new government on the matter is not helping.

Surakiart Sathirathai, foreign minister, has merely reiterated his predecessor's line on the matter, saying Thailand would not allow anyone to engage in activities harmful to neighbours.

"If I were the foreign minister, I would clearly state that Falungong should not hold its conference here," said Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of East Asian Studies. "I would say so right after I assumed the post, rather than wait for more protests and unrest."Beijing's strong opposition to the conference, communicated informally and formally to Thai authorities, has found ready support among Thai-Chinese communities in Bangkok.

The Business Relations Associations of Thailand plans to petition Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to ban the meeting. The Association of Pharmaceutical Retailers and Federation of All Saes (Chinese families) have published an anti-Falungong message in Chinese-language newspapers, backing views expressed earlier by the Thai-Chinese Journalists Welfare Foundation, Thai-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Buddhist Charity Foundation and Thai-Taechiu Association.

This is a rare case of Thai-Chinese communities taking a common stand against a specific movement. They represent ordinary Chinese as well as businessmen, proponents of the Mahayana Buddhist sect, and people who practise muay chin and taikek at Lumphini park.

It is these pressures rather than the ambiguous message of Thai authorities that has put organisers of the meeting, who are trying to keep a low profile, at a loss.

In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Noppadol said he was confused by the opposition to the meeting from almost every quarter, and would like to consult with friends on what were their options.

"We don't want to confront or challenge anyone. We might not convene the meeting if the law says we can't. But right now we can't say if it will be postponed or cancelled until we have talks with the authorities," he said.

Since Beijing outlawed Falungong, Special Branch Police have watched local members' activities at Lumphini, Benjasiri and Chatuchak parks. Although local members say there are about 100 known practitioners, the Chinese embassy claims the movement has a following of 1,000 people in Thailand.

Thai authorities "are afraid that we are part of the Dhammakaya sect which caused headaches for the Chuan government for a while. But we are not. We just meditate and practise movement in order to attain greater serenity. It's for our health and our mind," said an unidentified woman, who exercises with her son at Benjasiri park.

Mr Noppadol said the conference would allow practitioners from around the world to exchange experiences, with the majority likely to come from Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong due to the closer contacts with the group in Bangkok.

"Master Li Hongzhi will not come to open the conference, so the conference should do no harm to China or undermine the good relations between Thailand and China," Mr Noppadol said.

"It will only be a get-together among us. But a by-product is to help make known to the Thai public the true essence of the Falungong discipline: truth, compassion, forbearance."Phuvadol Songprasert, a social scientist specialising in China at Kasetsart University, said human rights was the name of the US game to pressure China, and the Falungong issue was just another tool.

"The Thai government should not be trapped in the rights battle between these two major powers. Rather, we should think of our national interest and should not risk jeopardising the strong and friendly ties we have with China," he said.

If Thailand allowed Falungong to bloom, he said, this would not be fair to other local spiritual movements such as Santi Asoke, whose freedom has been restricted.

Mr Vorasakdi agreed. He said Thailand, by limiting Falungong activities, would not be siding with China but showing an understanding of a "friend's" phobia about any threat to its political regime.

"In fact, opposition against Falungong has deeper grounds, not just to appease Beijing, but to preserve peacefulness in society. What if 10,000 Falungong followers gather at the Royal Plaza?" he asked.

The China expert said it was foreign practitioners, not Thai members, that gave cause for concern.

"We cannot anticipate or control what will be discussed [at the conference]."In addition, he said, government permission for the conference to proceed would "imply official recognition which would send a wrong signal to Chinese communities in other Asean countries, whose governments have not allowed this spiritual movement to blossom at the expense of their cordial relations with China".

Recognition of Falungong raises cultural and religious debates that could lead to social discord, he said.

An intelligence official said Falungong was different from groups that authorities have allowed to convene on matters like East Timor or Burma.

"Falungong has yet to take a political stance in the international arena, unlike the East Timor activists who we allowed entry when we learned that they would become leaders of an independent nation," said a state official who requested anonymity.

"In the Falungong case, it is not worth risking harm to Sino-Thai relations by advocating the rights of the spiritual movement, which has yet to gain a footing inside Thailand."The controversy might not have blown up if the Chuan Leekpai government had persuaded local organisers to lower their ambitions about foreign participation.

The prospect of as many as 600 foreign members of such a little-known movement here so strongly opposed by Beijing can only raise alarm bells among Chinese Thais whose prime concern is a peaceful way of life.