About Phra Prachak

-- Foo Hee Boon (Contributed by Vidya Soon)

He was a hard drinking construction worker who loves to gamble. Then he was shot through the jaw while collecting a gambling debt. The bullet entered through his right cheek and exit just below his left ear. Miraculously, he survived and at his hospital bed, vowed to enter monkhood for 2 weeks. He did just that when he was discharged from the hospital but stayed on as a monk for 17 years. The first miracle was surviving a gun shot, the second was the transformation of a ordinary labourer to one of Thailand's most creative and charismatic conservationist.

His name is Prachak Kutacitto, conservation monk extraordinaire. He is someone Thailand should have honoured for his valour and courage. But instead, he was hunted down like a common criminal and forced to fight for his own freedom in obscurity.

He was a Tudong monk, a courageous breed of monks that live, travel and practise Dhamma in the forest of Thailand. Forest monks expose themselves to the wonders and vagaries of a tropical rainforest. Inevitably, a forest monk like Prachak obtained insights about the forest no armchair rainforest campaigner can.

Prachak gave Buddhism a contemporary and tangible symbol of Dhamma in action. He shows what engaged Buddhism is all about. When villagers, whose livelihood was threatened by rapacious timber barons, asked him to lead them in fighting for their land, he obliged. The villagers near Dong Yai forest reserve in Buriram, Northeast Thailand was desperate; the forest where they depend for their livelihood is being illegally logged. Not only that, they are being driven away from the land which previous Thai governments had asked them to stay. Prachak knew he must help the villagers.

Prachak and his followers quickly mobilised the villagers to protect their land peacefully. The most brilliant aspect of this campaign was adapting the traditional Thai Buddhism ritual of tree ordination to forest protection. This ritual involves tying a cloth around a tree and Prachak chose the sacred yellow cloth for Dong Yai's trees. The launching ceremony for this ritual involved 2 months of preparation including boundary demarcation around the 12000 acres forest and discussion with representatives from 12 villages.

In a ceremony attended by 2000 villagers, Prachak mesmerised the crowd with stories from his Tudong experiences when he lived and felled in love with the forest.. Everyone was fascinated with this seemingly simple monk and at the end of his speech, the villagers decided to declare the Dong Yai forest as a Buddhist monastic sanctuary where all living beings are free from harm. Prachak agreed to set up a forest monastery where Dhamma will be vigorously taught and practised in harmony with nature. The illegal loggers greeted these bold initiatives by firing machine guns over the forest area where Prachak was staying that night. This was on June 4th 1989.

The fiery greeting did not deter Prachak. He followed up with an array of initiatives to protect Dong Yai forest and the people that depended on it. He organised a conservation group that patrol the forest on motorcycles armed with walkie talkies and cameras. He and several other environmental protection NGOs introduced the villagers to agro-forestry so that the villagers can earn a sustainable living. Regular courses were also conducted where Prachak would teach the importance of the forest alongside the teaching of meditation. There was also monthly meeting for the conservation group to discuss issues and educate themselves in ecology and forest systems.

Later, as the Dong Yai campaign gained wider recognition, Prachak began to lead deep ecology forest walks for meditation practices. Participants will experience 7 days of wandering and meditating on the wonder of the forest. Prachak applied other Buddhist rituals and ceremonies to his cause including applying the concept of dhana to trees. With support from around the country, he organised a tree donation campaign to rehabilitate the deforested part of Dong Yai forest. He also organised activities to support other conservation monk elsewhere in Thailand.

The Dong Yai campaign caught the imagination of the nation. Remember that Thailand was ruled by a military dictatorship between February 1991 and May 1992. This was the time when the military government massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok in the infamous May 1992 Uprising. To stand up to such a government, as what Prachak did, was bold and courageous nation . Prachak's fearless determination inspired Thailand's environmental and social movement to resist the brute power of the military dictatorship.

Logging was officially banned in 1988 but illegal logging goes on unabated. Often times, illegally logged forest would be classified as degraded land and will be rented out cheaply to eucalyptus companies in the name of reforestation. This was the case with Dong Yai forest which was part of a massive programme called Khor Jhor Khor Project which attempts to resettle 7 million people nationwide to make way for industrial eucalyptus plantations. Villagers were forced out at gun point from their land which the government itself had asked the villagers to settle way back between 1967 and 1980. Thus, the illegal logging in Dong Yai forests was the work of timber barons in collaboration with the authorities.

The timber barons were enraged when the tree cutters employed by the them refused to cut down the ordained trees because to do so is tantamount to killing a monk! Thus, the whole savage forces of the illegal loggers and military were bought in to bring down Prachak.

There were constant threats to the life of Prachak and his followers. Three villagers have been killed in confrontations with loggers, wells have been poisoned and land mines set near the temple. 67 villagers were arrested on serious charges of inciting riot and destroying government property.

On 7th April 1991, Prachak was arrested and ridiculously charged with cutting down Dong Yai forest where he had risked his life in saving. He was arrested again on 5th September 1991 when he hired transport for 400 villagers to witness the forceful relocation of the villagers in Ban Nong Yai by the military. The charge; leading a riot and fighting against arrest. He was released on bail on both occasion.

Prachak was disappointed when the civilian government after the May 1992 Uprising in Bangkok did not fare any better. Politicians in charge of the forest department also had vested interest in the forest. The government even had the cheek to tell him they would be lenient with his court cases if he collaborated with them.

Meanwhile, the military had deviously influenced some villagers to turn against Prachak. It broke his heart when these villagers went to a police station and charged him of cutting down the forest when he was only clearing a old forest path for the motorcycle patrol. He was not arrested because the there was no basis to do so. The harassment on Prachak intensified including a bomb attack where a grenade was thrown into his monastery.

After a series of intense harassment, Prachak quietly disrobed and went into hiding on 19th July 1994. The police gleefully hunted him down as the protection accorded to him as a monk is now gone. He was arrested but escaped through the police station's bathroom window. A massive police hunt, the type usually reserved for hard core criminals, ensued and he was rearrested. He was bailed out by a few Thailand's social activists and is now recuperating in Wongsanit Ashram near Bangkok.

I met Prachak when I was a volunteer with INEB in April 1996. He still retains the charisma and ingenuity of a man that held out for so long against the timber barons and their government stooges. I was impressed by his high spirits even when he is still fighting against the earlier charges. In a blatant attempt to wear him down physically and spiritually, he was required to face the court twice or three times a month. He will be imprisoned if found guilty in any of the five charges bought against him. It is shameful that a government of a rapidly developing country like Thailand would treat one of their great citizen this way.

I went with him to one of his court cases. It was a tedious 5 hours bus ride from Wongsanit Ashram to Buriram where his case was heard. He has been doing these since he was bailed out, most of the time he will be travelling alone. We went to one of the village where he had his campaign before. The villagers that we met were all overjoyed to meet Prachak and would still accord him the honours of a monk. Prachak would protest and begged the villagers not to do so because he is now a layperson. In spite of his own financial difficulties, Prachak would still give some money to some of the poorer villagers. I can understand the respect and love the villagers have for this man.

Prachak is now fighting a personal battle for his freedom but it need not be a lonely one. At present, Wongsanit Ashram and INEB are covering his personal and legal expenses but due to the deliberate prolonged trial, his financial security is diminishing.

Prachak is a socially engaged Buddhist that has related the Dhamma to social work and conservation. He was also responsible in giving Buddhism an indelible image of a robed tree to symbolise the relation between nature and Dhamma; for this alone we owe him an obligation to help him go through this ordeal. I know he still longed to work for the forest and the people in it but he can't effectively plan for the long term with the uncertainty of a prison term still hangs over him. A livelihood fund has been established for Prachak and donation will be gladly accepted. We would also be delighted to discuss what other attempt could be done to help this great man.

Prepared by Foo Hee Boon

For more information and offers of help, please contact Vidya K V Soon at vidya@tm.net.my


MEDIA RELEASE HONORARY AWARDS FOR INEB PATRON SOMDECH MAHA GHOSANANDA AND FORMER BUDDHIST MONK PRACHAK PETHSING

Bangkok, 12 July 1997. The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) has the honor to announce that INEB Patron Somdech Maha Ghosananda, and former Buddhist monk Prachak Pethsing, Thailand, are the recipients of the year's Honorary Awards given by one of the world's biggest Buddhist movements, Sarvodaya, in Sri Lanka. The Awards will be presented during a ceremony at the Sarvodaya Headquarters on August 1.

Sarvodaya, which was founded by AT Ariyaratne in 1958 as a Buddhist movement inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi, is today the largest NGO of Sri Lanka and works in more than 11,000 villages. The organization tries to improve the living conditions of the many poor villagers through the integration of social, economical and spiritual development. The Awards are given annually in order to honor outstanding engaged Buddhists.

Sarvodaya recognizes SOMDECH MAHA GHOSANANDA's outstanding work for bringing peace in war-worn Cambodia. The 78 years old Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism is today widely recognized as the spiritual leader of his country. The annual dhammyietras, or "Pilgrimages of Truth", which he had led since 1992 became a symbol for peace and reconciliation in a country with more than 25 years of Civil war. For the ongoing conflicts all over the world he has one message: "Our journey for peace begins today and every day. Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge." Maha Ghosananda, who's entire family was killed by the Khmer Rouge, never stops telling the people: "Hatred never overcomes hatred. Only love, overcomes hatred. This is eternal law."

Former Buddhist monk PRACHAK PETHSING (known as Phra Prachak Khuttajitto) is honored for his effort to preserve the Dong Yai forest in Buriram District in Northeastern Thailand. For many years he tried to convince the villagers in his area not to cut the trees and to stop the introduction of eucalyptus mono-plantations. "We cannot be truly happy, if beings which surround us, such as grasses, trees, and animals cannot be happy... All beings must attain enlightenment together with us", he says. But for his struggle against the deforestation he received pressure by Government officials and logging companies who feared for their profit. Five charges of violating different laws were brought against him, resulting in his decision to disrobe in 1994. He still has to go to court regularly. Two charges were brought to an end in December 1996 when the court handed down a two-year suspended jail term. But three other charges still remain. For Prachak Pethsing life became very difficult. "After fighting for a long time I got exhausted and lost my way", he wrote in a recent letter. With this Award Sarvodaya likes to encourage Prachak Pethsing and hopes that the Buddhist community will continue to support him materially and spiritually.

For further information contact: Sarvodaya: Ven. Somalankara or Mr. Vinya Ariyaratne Fax: [+94-1] 646 512 or e-mail: ssmplan@sri.lanka.net