Around 150 Burmese residents of Chiang Mai protested on Monday against plans by Thailand’s Department of Religion (DOR) to hand over the Wat Sai Moon monastery to a Thai abbot.
The monastery, which has been a cornerstone of the local Burmese community for generations, has had a long succession of Burmese abbots. According to its record book, the last 10 abbots have been Burmese. The latest, U Arthaba, died last year.
“U Arthaba resided in the monastery for about 65 years,” Ashin Wathyhta, a monk from Wat Sai Moon, told The Irrawaddy.
On Monday, over 150 Burmese, including Wat Sai Moon trustees, staged a peaceful protest calling on the Thai authorities to let a Burmese abbot take care of the monastery.
Soe Win, the chairman of the Buddhist Association in Chiang Mai, said that the protest was organized because DOR officials and Thai monks are preparing to replace the late U Arthaba with a Thai abbot in accordance with Thai law.
“This is the last Burmese monastery in Chiang Mai. Where would Burmese here go if we lost it? We are worried,” said Soe Win.
According to Thai law, a Thai monk can be appointed to succeed as abbot in the event of the death of his Burmese predecessor. Only one monastery in Thailand, located in the northern Thai city of Lampang, is officially recognized as a Burmese monastery.
“It will be much easier for Burmese if we have a monastery taken care of by a Burmese abbot. We can enjoy more freedom if we have a Burmese monastery. We can go there on holidays without any hesitation, so it becomes part of our social community. That’s why we are trying to protect Wat Sai Moon,” explained Soe Win.
He added that properties belonging to the monastery—16 apartments, two million baht (US $63,000) deposited in the bank and some vehicles—are under the care of its Thai trustees.
“I can’t accept it at all if this suddenly becomes a Thai monastery. I have been in Thailand for over 10 years and this is the only monastery I regularly come to,” Kan Chon, a regular donor to Wat Sai Moon, told The Irrawaddy.
After a three-hour discussion on Monday, DOR officials and Thai monks reportedly agreed to meet again in order to talk about the proposal submitted by the Burmese community with regard to the appointment of a Burmese abbot to the monastery.
An official from the DOR told The Irrawaddy that the next meeting date is still undecided, but local Burmese will be informed one week in advance after it has been fixed. He said investigations will be carried out with regard to the monastery-related properties.
Nearly 50 Thai police with three prison trucks arrived at the protest scene on Monday, but no arrests were reported.
“If they [Thai officials and monks] want to administer the monastery they can do so, but we don’t want a Thai abbot to reside here. They can administer it from a distance. We are trying to contact upper-level authorities since we don’t expect this issue can be resolved locally. I think it will be settled only if the Thai and Burmese governments cooperate,” said Soe Win.
In recent months, the Burmese community in Chiang Mai reportedly sent two requests to the Burmese government and the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Burma, to mediate in the Wat Sai Moon dispute.