VoiceTV21's "Big Dose": Proving one's innocence amidst increasing public scrutiny

Talk show host of Voice TV's Big Dose Program, M.L. Natthakorn, interviews Mr. Sampan Sermcheep, lawyer of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, on May 21, 2016 about the ongoing litigation against the temple and Venerable Dhammajayo.

Thai language source: https://youtu.be/zP1Tdg098tg


Interview Transcript:

Host: Hello and welcome to the Big Dose. Today, we’ll talk about Venerable Dhammajayo, and the case that DSI is working on. This is an important issue that people are following. How will it continue? Where did it all start? And, how is the lawyer of Wat Phra Dhammakaya going to fight this case? All these questions, we’ll ask Mr. Sampan Sermcheep, the lawyer representing Ven. Dhammajayo and Wat Phra Dhammakaya.

Lawyer: Hello, Mr. Pleum.

Host: Mr. Sampan, you know that people have been following this case for quite some time.

Lawyer: Yes.

Host: Quite a while. If we look back at the effort, I’m not sure what word to use, the efforts to attack Ven. Dhammajayo; how many years has it been? It didn’t started during NCPO era, right?

Lawyer: [The attacks against the temple] started in 1997-98.

Host: 1997-98!

Lawyer: That’s almost 20 years ago.

Host: It’s mostly people’s efforts in filing complaints for the government to litigate, or was it politically driven? Could you briefly tell me how it all began? How are you going to fight this case? What is the root cause driving the other party to bring Ven. Dhammajayo to court?

Lawyer: From what I’ve noticed, it began with politics. The government was afraid of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, viewing that the temple’s growth was too rapid, and had too many followers.
Growing quickly and having too many followers is uncommon for most temples.
Concerns arose. How did it go from 10 to 100 thousand to a million followers?
This is the main issue. Normally, for most temples, there are a few thousand followers. But here we have nearly a million and with branches worldwide.

Host: And it happened very quickly.

Lawyer: Growing this quickly raises the fear that if it is not stopped, Dhammakaya will even grow larger.

Host: It seems as though, as people’s faith increased, we are talking about a million people here.

Lawyer: Yes, a million.

Host: Worldwide?

Lawyer: Worldwide.

Host: Is it correct to call them “overseas branches” of Wat Phra Dhammakaya? How many countries are we talking about here? I’ve seen photos in news reports, there are branches in Europe and Asia. How many total branches?

Lawyer: About 50 countries and 80 branches. You can call them branches, but actually they started with monks from Wat Phra Dhammakaya who went abroad to study and propagate Buddhism. People in the area developed faith, and meditation centers were subsequently built. Some of these meditation centers quietly and gradually grew into temples.

Host: Its rapid growth can be attributed to the development of  faith in Ven. Dhammajayo after practicing meditation?

Lawyer: That’s correct.

Host: It didn’t grow quickly because of a very organized fund raising strategy?

Lawyer: No, fund raising came after. Main factors are faith and the teachings of Ven. Dhammajayo. I came because of the teachings and practice of Ven. Dhammajayo. Fund raising came later. Once the temple grew, there was a need to construct facilities to accommodate a million people. Where are you going to have them go? Are you going to let a million people stand in the rain or under the sun?

Host: No, that is not possible.

Lawyer: Right? With a million people, you need to have a place for them, right? There has to be restrooms and parking; everything has to be built.

Host: What you’re telling me is that there is nothing to fear?

Lawyer: No, nothing to be afraid of.

Host: Fund raising efficiently enables you to have funds for building infrastructure. It is not something the government should be fearful of.

Lawyer: No, not in the least.

Host: Not a threat to the government?

Lawyer: Not a threat. About fund raising, people say, “Dhammakaya likes to fundraise?” Let me ask in return, if a million people came, are you going to build anything? Those who make donations can see that they can use the facilities they donated for.

Host: The temple had to build something large in response to the donors’ wishes.

Lawyer: Absolutely, the donors who made contributions get to use these facilities too.

Let’s say I made a donation. I can use the meditation hall, restrooms, everything. If I hadn’t donated, I might be standing out in the sun and without a restroom to use. Actually, people coming together to help with their construction is more accurate. 

Host: From the perspective of a Buddhist who goes to the temple, you have to acknowledge that ceremonies held here tend to be overly systematic and grand as compared to other places - walking in perfect formation?

Lawyer: Mr. Pleum, let me ask you, how else would you manage people of this magnitude? If we don’t do it and just allow people to do whatever, park wherever, walk or sit however they want, it would not be possible to manage. You must have coordination when organizing these activities. This is [what the temple does] when hundreds of thousands or a million attend. 

Host: You’re saying that the temple isn’t trying to be boastful?

Lawyer: No, not at all.

Host: It’s just that everything is so tidy and well-organized.

Lawyer: We have to be organized, right? Let’s think about a soccer game Mr. Pleum, there is a way to organize it as well – exits, entrance, and seating – right? If not, people would park wherever they want, enter and exit the field however they want right? 

Host: If there is nothing to be fearful of, why is there pressure from the anti-Dhammakaya side (former followers, something of the sort) who are lobbying the government to handle Dhammakaya and to move the lawsuit against Ven. Dhammajayo forward. Why is there pressure there?

Lawyer: They perceive Dhammakaya as being involved in politics, but actually, Ven. Dhammajayo always says to me that he doesn’t want to bring politics into the Temple. People are afraid because politicians of several political parties have become his devotees.

Host: Many businessmen as well.

Lawyer: Yes, quite a few. 

Host: Who also make donations.

Lawyer: They wonder if there’s some sort of association between those politicians and Dhammakaya. But Mr. Pleum, if you notice, they come from many political parties. So, political parties do not exist at the temple - there is only one party, the virtuous party, the Dhamma party.

Host: Is it not possible that one day [Ven. Dhammajayo] will start some sort of election campaign to vote for a certain individual?

Lawyer: Not at all. I’ve been there. Ven. Dhammajayo has never gave such orders.

Host: But I’ve heard from former followers - they told me that, I’m sorry to say this, since Mr. Sampan is here today, the ambition is very high. It seems like [Ven. Dhammajayo] wants to monopolize Buddhism. His ambition is far greater than other monks in Thailand.

Lawyer: I’d like to tell you that those followers are not current followers. They came into the organization and they couldn’t stay. This angered them, so they told false stories.

Host: Personal anger? 

Lawyer: Yes, it’s personal anger. They couldn’t remain in the organization. Why could others? Once they couldn’t, they got angry and made up bad stories. I’d like to recommend to anyone who wants to know more about Dhammakaya to just walk in. The doors are always open. Don’t just listen to others. If you walk in, you’ll know.

Host: You are telling me that the image outsiders perceived as Buddhist commercialization is not as they feared?

Lawyer: No, there is nothing to be fearful of. I’d like you to visit as well. Anyone who is curious can just walk in and see for themselves.

Host: Don’t you think, now is a good time to clarify to the public how the organization actually is? Because the anti-Dhammakaya group is working very intensively all the time now. And it seems they are supported by the government. 

I think this is an opportunity for [the Temple] to rebuild their public image?

Lawyer: Yes, we have already started doing so, just as you said. We were thinking that it’s because we weren’t effective enough in giving information to the public. We have to start. But the best way to provide the right information to the public is having people walk in and see for themselves, to see why a number of people have faith in Ven. Dhammajayo, to see what people in the temple are doing, and to see why people have come together to construct this temple. It’s a collaborative effort. When I go to the temple, I contribute to this effort as well. 

Host: The temple has branches in 50 countries, some being former churches. Were they built using funding from headquarters? Or were they investments done by individuals?

Lawyer: No. Ven. Dhammajayo told me that monks have to build [the temples] themselves. He only provides them with a one-way ticket, not even a return ticket.

Host: It has nothing to do with the Temple’s money.

Lawyer: No, it has nothing to do with the money in Thailand, one even one baht. The monks have to build it themselves. If people in the area have faith in them, they can build. If not, they can’t. Everything is based on faith. You know, religious principles continue because of faith.

------------------Commercial Break-------------------

Host: On today’s BigDose, we’re talking to Mr. Sampan Sermcheep, the lawyer of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. 

In regards to the case that DSI is investigating, I’d like to ask about the cheques. Mr. Supachai donated the money in the form of cheques in the hundreds of millions of baht. If you received that money and said that you didn’t know anything, that doesn’t sound reasonable. It’s not a few million, but it’s hundreds of millions, correct?

Lawyer: You must understand that Mr. Supachai is not the temple’s biggest donator. Many others donated more. We also didn’t know the source of Mr. Supachai’s money. I talked to followers at the temple and knew that he was involved in many business enterprises, including mining, airlines, and real estate. He talked about it all the time. Even when he made donations, donations were in the form of cheques, placed in an envelope, and then in a bag. Moreover, when Ven. Dhammajayo accepts donations, he sits here, and sometimes Mr. Supachai offers a donation in front of Ven. Dhammajayo. A monk on the side immediately takes the bag and puts it in a stainless steel box. Ven. Dhammajayo has never seen what the cheques look like.

Host: Did he say how much?

Lawyer: No, Ven. Dhammajayo never knew how much. He never knew how much each person donated.

Host: When offering donations, the donor didn’t say how much?

Lawyer: No, it’s in an envelope. After that the Temple’s finance dept deposited the cheques depending on payee names: Ven. Dhammajayo or the Temple.

Host: You’re saying that donations made by Mr.  Supachai went to these two accounts.

Lawyer: Yes, the temple’s account and Ven. Dhammajayo’s account. It’s only about 300 million that [Mr. Supachai] donated to Ven. Dhammajayo’s account.

Host: More was donated to the Temple’s account?

Lawyer: Yes.

Host: What’s the total?

Lawyer: The total, is approximately 1 billion. 

Host: Imagine that I’m a lawyer on the other side. Do you think there’s a possibility that Mr. Supachai knew that the money was dirty and used the Temple to launder the money?

Lawyer: Mr. Pleum, I’d like to briefly explain the concept of money laundering. A person who gives the money to someone so they can launder it has to get the money back.

Host: Right.

Lawyer: But Mr. Supachai never got the money back, not even 1 baht.

Host: No evidence at all? Is there any special agreement with the Temple or Ven. Dhammajayo.

Lawyer: It’s been examined. Every single baht of the donation was deposited into bank accounts, and the Temple used that money to pay for construction. This is not beyond the capability of the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) to check.

Host: How about money that was deposited into Ven. Dhammajayo’s personal account. Did anyone withdraw it and gave it to Mr. Supachai?

Lawyer: Ven. Dhammajayo has never withdrawn even one single baht from his personal account.

Host: You’re saying…

Lawyer: The AMLO already conducted their  investigation. 

Host: You told me that Ven. Dhammajayo has a personal account and money has never been withdrawn. Is that right?

Lawyer: Has never withdrawn any cash.

Host: We can check at the Bank of Thailand?

Lawyer: Absolutely, Ven. Dhammajayo has never withdrawn any cash. Here is how he withdrew the money. He transferred the funds [from his personal account] to the Temple’s and Foundation’s accounts. We have all the evidence, account detail, cheque detail, everything can be examined.

Host: The evidence of a person getting his money back after laundering is necessary for money laundering accusations, but there is no such evidence?

Lawyer: No, for money laundering, the owner of the money has to get his money back. He made donations, all he received was merit.

Host: If there is no such an evidence, why is DSI working on this case so intensively?

Lawyer: This is the thing, Mr. Pleum, it is a criminal case. The legal system in Thailand is an archaic system. In addition, the Temple’s devotees already raise funds equivalent to the amount donated by Mr. Supachai and gave it to the Credit Union.

Host: Already gave it back?

Lawyer: But DSI sees that it’s a criminal case, so that’s the only thing. DSI sees that it’s national criminal case, so DSI will proceed and doesn’t care that the money was given back already. The Credit Union even wrote a letter to the DSI Director that they don’t want any civil or criminal litigation because the Temple’s followers already gave all the money back. And, you know what, the only group that returned the money was Ven. Dhammajayo and the Temple. Of the 10 billion baht, did anyone return it to the Credit Union? No, the only group to help the Credit Union were the Temple devotees. So why is DSI taking aim only at Ven. Dhammajayo?

Host: All evidence indicating the withdrawal transactions are with DSI?

Lawyer: AMLO already examined it.

Host: AMLO examined it, and then what did they do?

Lawyer: They sent the evidence to DSI.

Host: Ok, overall, I see the effort in pushing forward the criminal litigation about Venerable Dhammajayo involving in money laundering?

Lawyer: Yes.

Host: Is there any sign that AMLO will take over any assets?

Lawyer: No

Host: No signal.

Lawyer: AMLO already declared that all the money from the donations made by Mr. Supachai were used by Ven. Dhammajayo to pay for construction costs - every single baht.

Host: There was no embezzlement.

Lawyer: Mr. Pleum, AMLO is very detailed about finances.

Host: And what’s left for DSI to use?

Lawyer: Criminal case.

Host: Criminal case for receiving stolen money?

Lawyer: Money laundering. DSI sees that it fits the article, fits the law, it’s a criminal case, so that’s what’s enabling them to attack

Host: From your opinion as a lawyer, you think you can fight this case?

Lawyer: Yes, we can.

Host: Within Thailand’s legal system?

Lawyer: Yes, we can.

Host: The counterargument is Ven. Dhammajayo only accept the donations, but together they committed a crime.

Lawyer: Another criteria for money laundering and accepting stolen money - you have to know when you receive the money that it had been stolen. Did we know?

Host: When the donations were received, did you know?

Lawyer: No, we didn’t know. To meet this legal principle, you had to  know whether the money was stolen or not.

Host: That’s it?

Lawyer: That’s it.

Host: When the donations were received, the lawsuit against Mr. Supachai did not yet exist?

Lawyer: That was four years ago.

Host: Four years!

Lawyer: Yes, the donations were made in 2009 or 2010.

Host: And the lawsuit against Mr. Supachai was in which year?

Lawyer: In 2013 and 2014.

Host: I see, so when Mr. Supachai made the donations, he was still in good standing.

Lawyer: That’s right. He even showed a photo of him with a sash, showing that he’s a major businessman. And, he didn’t make donations to only Ven. Dhammajayo and the Temple, but also many other organizations such as the Thai Red Cross and Ramkamhaeng University.

Host: Why is there no litigation against the others?

Lawyer: This, I’d like your help asking [DSI].

Host: Whoever [Mr. Supachai] made donations to, if [DSI] is being fair, [DSI] has to track them all down.

Lawyer: That’s right Mr. Pleum. I’d like your help in asking [DSI] too, please.

Host: You probably think there’s only one standard, but there may not be just one standard. I’d like to ask one thing. They tried to issue an arrest warrant. This time, he could not come due to illness.

Lawyer: Yes, the Venerable is ill.

Host: If an arrest warrant is issued, how is it going to end? They will probably invade with a team of commandos and arrest the monk and bring him out of the temple. Do you think it’s going to be that bad?

Lawyer: We’ve never wanted to see that happen. I’d like to ask that no such thing happen.

Host: As a news reporter, I’m afraid that it will reach that point.

Lawyer: But I don’t want that to happen.

Host: Shouldn’t happen?

Lawyer: No, should not.

Host: To not to reach that point, does that mean Ven. Dhammajayo must report to DSI?

Lawyer: Everything should be negotiable, meaning just and appropriate. If they let it get to that point, does that mean [DSI] is not going to engage in discussion anymore?

Host: Ven. Dhammajayo is ill, but can he come to DSI by car?

Lawyer: No, not all at. He can’t go out anywhere. He has serious allergies. If he leaves the temple, his allergies will worsen, and his wounds will become infected. This is really life threatening.

Host: Ok, I’d like to ask something else. Those who are anti-Dhammakaya say there are branches abroad, much assets abroad - why not escape? This is what people are talking about. Why not escape and go abroad if you think you don’t receive fair treatment from the NCPO, just go abroad.

Lawyer: Ven. Dhammajayo told me, that he will not go anywhere. He plans to die at the temple. This is all he said.

Host: Not going abroad. 

Lawyer: No, he will die at the temple.

Host: What if they use the legal system to attack?

Lawyer: He will die at the temple.

Host: Really?

Lawyer: Yes, that’s what Ven. Dhammajayo told me. He’s not going anywhere. He will stay here and die at the temple.

Host: It has reached this point already?

Lawyer: I don’t know.

Host: From what I heard from you, if DSI doesn’t change its tone, it will most likely reach a breaking point.

Lawyer: That’s why I don’t want to see that happening.  Everything is negotiable. Don’t forget, Mr. Pleum, Thailand’s legal system is based on accusations, right? I’d like to ask - in order to accuse anyone, please check if 1) it’s legal, 2) it’s just (gives chances for counterclaims and presents evidences), and 3) not libel. Make sure there isn’t anyone in the background aiming to push the litigation forward. If these three are checked, it’s ok.

Host: Lastly, I’d like to know about the Temple’s accounting system because there’s so much money. Is there any auditing? How transparent is  it? This is the topic that people talk about a lot, the budget of 10 billion baht.

Lawyer: No auditing is needed. Donors can do the auditing themselves.

Host: They can?

Lawyer: Mr. Pleum, I make donations as well. I have to examine how the Temple uses my donations. Everyone sees and understands that when Ven. Dhammajayo constructs large facilities, it requires a lot of money. But I donated only a little bit. It’s not enough. Today, the temple still owes hundreds of millions to construction companies. We see it with our own eyes. That’s how we do the auditing. Once we make donations, Ven. Dhammajayo builds immediately. The temple has never kept any cash. They only build. And let me ask, when Ven. Dhammajayo builds, who uses the facilities?

Host: The donors.

Lawyer: Not just donors. Ven. Dhammajayo is 72. He will live a few more years, and once he’s gone, who will own these facilities?

Thailand will. All facilities at the temple were built with no government budget - not a single baht. I see that the Temple will belong to Thailand as a whole.

Host: And it was a result of people’s faith.

Lawyer: That’s right! Can Ven. Dhammajayo take all the buildings with him?

Host: And you still trust the legal system?

Lawyer: Yes

Host: We’ll see what happens. There is another side that is challenging the government to finish this case because if it is not this government that does it, they say other governments will not be able to do so, something like that.

Lawyer: I just learned from you that these conditions have been set.

Host: We’ll see how it goes. I will continue following the developments of this case. Thank you Mr. Sampan.

Lawyer: Thank you Mr. Pleum.

Host: It is very clear from Mr. Sampan Sermcheep, lawyer of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. We will see what will happen on each side. 

That’s all for Big Dose. We are here every weekend on Voice TV at 8pm. Mr. Sampan and I bid the audience farewell. Good bye.