By Kalinga Seneviratne
A 76-year old Buddhist monk living on his own in his forest monastery in North-eastern Thailand has appealed for international help after receiving death threats from illegal loggers according to a report in Bangkok Post.
In neighbouring Cambodia, monks who are mobilizing under the banner of ‘Independent Monk Network for Social Justice’ have regularly put their lives in danger in fighting illegal logging operators who sometimes have the protection of government officials. They also spoke out July 2016 in an appeal via the German television network Deutsche Welle (DW).
The Germans were given access to film a workshop the monks conducted near Prey Lang – one of Cambodia’s largest and evergreen woodlands. In the workshop the monks taught the local people how to use social media to protect themselves and the forests. Large parts of the forest has already disappeared paving the way for plantations and those that remains, illegal loggers are at work cutting tree after tree as government agencies that are supposed to protect the environment turn a blind eye.
In Thailand’s Si Songhram district, illegal loggers are threatening to cut down trees in a forest that has over 1,000 old trees, which is ironically a part of a royal project to promote conservation. The monk, Luang Pu Kittiphong Kittisophon, abbot of Wat Pa Kham Sawang temple in Tambon Nakham has formally petitioned the local authorities asking them to help save the forest surrounding his temple that has over 1,000 Siamese Rosewood trees that are believed to be 2 to 3 centuries old.
The monk wants the provincial governor to step in to protect the trees, and has also called upon the local media to help him fight the logging gangs after shots were fire at night into a hut near to his own. He believes this is a warning for him to leave the forest temple so that the loggers can have their way.
Both in Thailand and Cambodia rural monks often “ordain” trees, chanting and wrapping them with the yellow robes so that devout Buddhists will not touch them. The ceremonies are large and well publicized in a hope to discourage loggers who might not want to make the bad karma of cutting down the forest around an ordained tree. But the greedy loggers and corrupt government officials – who sometimes include law enforcement officials – have no respect for such religious traditions.
In Cambodia – which has one of the world’s highest de-forestation rates – Buddhist monk Buntenh who has been a monk for 16 years, told DW that he is trying to convince the people that the world cannot exist without trees. “The people who cut down the forest think they are superior, but in reality they are stupid. Only the forest is superior,” he argues. “No one has told me that I should go out there to protect the forest, but for me it was a logical thing to do. I am doing all I can to save it. I plant new trees, I help the people who live from the forest, I am reminding the government of the promises they’ve made.”
Bhikku Buntenh’s network consists of over 5,000 monks, and they believe that saving the forests needs to be fought with the same passion and determination as the fight for independence against the French in the 1950s. But, this time they may have to fight their own government that is indifferent to the environmental concerns of the people.
In Cambodia, Buddhism has undergone a miraculous revival after it was almost destroyed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Today over 90 percent of the people consider themselves as Buddhists and the orange-robed monks enjoy great respect.
Thus, as activists they enjoy a certain amount of protection from government crackdowns against civil society protest groups. As Bhikku Buntenh told DW, the monks are speaking out because it is the peoples’ right to live in a healthy environment with trees and nature. It is what their religion also encourages.
Cambodian strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen has spoken publicly in support of the monks’ concerns and he even gave the police permission to use rocket launchers and helicopters in the fight against illegal logging. The monks, however, remain sceptical.
Meanwhile in the Buddhist kingdom Thailand, following Bhikku Kittisophon’s petition to the provincial governor Somchai, he has visited the temple accompanied by local police, military and forest protection officials to discuss with the monk measures to protect him and the surrounding forests.
In 2017, the 120-rai forest has become part of a forest protection project implemented by the Royal Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, but the monk has told the Bangkok Post that although he has complained to the local police about logging activities there, no serious attempt has been made by the police to deal with he logging gangsters. Instead the loggers have made threats against the monk, which made him to go public regarding the issue.
The governor has asked the rural community to work with the local authorities to share information to fight the loggers and emphasized the importance of the local community taking an active role to save the environment.
In Asian Buddhism, forests have been a tangible part of Buddhist practices for centuries. The monks see the forest as one of their closest connections to the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha spent over 6 years in the forests of India gathering wisdom, and was enlightened under the Bodhi tree. For centuries monastics have used the forests as a way to truly understanding the Buddhist path and the spiritual well being of the population.
But, in the modern world of greedy consumerism, these monks need international support in identifying the perpetrators of these environmental vandalism, who are usually foreign companies working in tow with corrupt local politicians and government officials, and perhaps mounting international campaigns to boycott their products – some of the forests are cut for palm oil plantations – and businesses. International organisations and media could also help to name and shame corrupt politicians, whom the local monks may not be able to do.