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LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This ragtag parade in northwest Thailand, in the area known as the Golden Triangle, is a celebration of sorts, but it also has a very serious purpose, and one that has had dangerous consequences.
(speaking to Thai man): How was he killed?
PIPOB UDOMITTIPONG: He was stabbed to death.
SEVERSON: You think that he was killed because of his environmental work?
UDOMITTIPONG: Of course, definitely.
UDOMITTIPONG: Because there was no other reason. He’s such a nice man. If you meet in person, he’s a very amicable man. He has no enemies whatsoever.
SEVERSON: What was so unusual about the killing was that the victim held a position of great respect in Thai society. The victim was a Buddhist monk, an environmental activist.
Susan Darlington is writing a book about Thailand’s environmental Buddhism.
PROFESSOR SUSAN DARLINGTON (Hampshire College): There were 18 human rights and environmental activists who were assassinated in Thailand in a three-year period, none of whose murders were solved. So somebody was feeling threatened and had the power to push back and try to send perhaps warnings or to stop these people altogether.
SEVERSON: Sulak Sivaraksa is a noted Buddhist scholar who has written over a hundred books. He claims he knows who was pushing back against the monks who were trying to protect the forests: international corporations with financial ties to some corrupt generals in the Thai military.
SULAK SIVARAKSA (International Network of Engaged Buddhists): Unfortunately the big loggers, in cooperation with generals, they don’t care. They cut the trees, and the monks protested, and they even arrested monks. Not before in history that monks had been arrested.
SEVERSON: Darlington is a professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. She says it wasn’t until the late 1980s, after whole forests had vanished, that monks became activists.
(speaking to Professor Darlington): We’re talking about whole forests, clear cutting?
DARLINGTON: Clear cutting to either get the logs—the teak forests were going at a rapid rate, other hardwoods—or cutting down forest to make room for intensive agriculture.
SEVERSON: The forests went away, and the animals, too, and then in 1988 catastrophic floods caused people to reevaluate what they had been told was progress.
DARLINGTON: Up to three hundred people were killed from the floods, and most experts pointed to this and said the flooding would not have occurred if there hadn’t been such severe deforestation.
SEVERSON: Sulak Sivaraksa founded the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He says Buddhism’s views of the environment are both moral and spiritual.
SIVARAKSA: Buddhism believes that we are all interrelated, not only among human beings but to all sentient beings, including animals, nature, the river, the trees, the clouds, the sun, the moon, we all related. We are brothers and sisters. So if you harm any of these you harm yourself.
DARLINGTON: Buddhists’ primary motivation, primary goal is to end suffering, and destruction of the environment causes suffering on many levels. Therefore as monks it is part of our role to make people aware of this and to undertake actions to prevent this and to protect the forests that still exists.
SEVERSON: To protect to the forests, one monk did something radical, just as they are doing here now. He started tying orange robes around trees, in effect ordaining the trees.
DARLINGTON: He was called crazy, and a national newspapers called for him to disrobe from the sangha [community or order], that this was not appropriate behavior for a monk, he’s misusing the religion. But meanwhile other monks began to do tree ordinations as well. “You can’t ordain a tree. What does that mean?” So people started debating, what does it mean to ordain a tree?
SEVERSON: To the monks, it meant making the forests sacred, off limits to exploitation. The idea has caught on with some villagers, like these. The forests rangers with the guns are not official rangers. They’re volunteers who patrol the mountainside looking for timber poachers. Senior monk Anek took us to an area near his village that was clear-cut in the dark of the night. August 21st there was a forest here. August 22nd it was gone. Three acres of prized hardwood disappeared overnight. Anek says he doesn’t think monks’ robes wrapped around trees would have prevented this.
INTERPRETER (translating senior Buddhist monk Anek): He says it might not deter them because they are investors from outside, they have no respect for the culture, they have no respect for the tradition. He’s saying that he feels sad because it took them many years to preserve this.
SEVERSON: Anek says he still gets threats for ordaining trees but not as many as before and not as severe. He doesn’t think this area was clear cut for the trees, but instead for the land, which foreign companies are using for huge farming operations, like the tangerine plantations that stretch for miles along rolling hills that were once covered with pristine forests. Unfortunately for the locals, the companies are hiring cheap labor from nearby Burma. So they’re losing the land and their ability to live off it. In the middle of the plantations there is a Buddhist monastery that acts as a buffer against development. The senior monk here is also an environmental activist. His name is Abbot Kittisap.
(speaking to Buddhist abbot): But you’re not fearful?
Because of his activism, and because he is testifying in the trial of the murdered monk who was his friend, Abbot Kittsop has 24-hour-a-day police protection, the gentlemen you see here. The abbot says he is still fearful for his safety, but his conscience keeps him going. Even though it’s been four years since the controversial killing, no one has been convicted of the crime, and recently the chief investigator confirmed many people’s suspicions when he accused the police of tampering with the evidence. Many here don’t think justice will ever be served, but Susan Darlington says that doesn’t mean the monks have not made progress. The Thai government, for instance, has cracked down on illegal logging.
DARLINGTON: I think the role of Buddhism in protecting the environment has come a long way. These monks really do, they put a moral standard into the environmental movement that makes people really stop and think. It brings a spiritual element to it.
SEVERSON: Others like Sulak say spirituality also requires action.
SIVARAKSA: Spirituality is not merely personal contemplation, not only meditation, that you feel peaceful and then you feel “I’m alright, Jack.” I think that’s is dangerous. It’s escapism.
SEVERSON: Sulak Sivaraksa, who received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize, says many Westerners and many Buddhists alike do not understand the meaning of engaged Buddhism.
SIVARAKSA: In fact, meditation only helps you to be peaceful. But you must also confront social suffering as well as your own personal suffering, and people suffer now because of the environment.
SEVERSON: The generals and the developers still have the upper hand, but the battle for the land, and the hearts and mind of the people is not over. Ordinary people are now beating a drum for the monks.
For Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, I’m Lucky Severson north of Chang Mai, Thailand.