NOB transfer harms govt anti-graft drive

Pol Lt Col Pongporn Pramsaneh, right, then-director of the National Office of Buddhism, holds a press conference in March on the former abbot of Wat Dhammakaya, Phra Dhammajayo. He was removed from the post on Aug 29. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)

Pol Lt Col Pongporn Pramsaneh has been widely recognised as an honest and straightforward officer in the Department of Special Investigation – a rare breed in the police force. It explains why he was ordered shifted from the DSI's head of the Tax Litigation Office to lead the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) on Feb 25 by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to do an unenviable mission. His task was to clean up the mess concerning the misappropriation of government funds for the renovation of temples and for schools on temple grounds.

The misappropriation is known as ngern torn (which literally means "small change") because it is a practice in which authorities approved and allocated the state's funds to certain temples in excess of their actual needs. After that the excess amounts were personally given back to the authorities as "small change".

The wording, ngern torn, may be misleading. The total amount involved in the misappropriation each year is not chicken's feed, but comes to billions of baht.

Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.

In the less than six months since he was moved, Pol Lt Col Pongporn has proven his worth and reputation. It was reported he had unearthed substantial evidence in the mishandling of ngern torn by several temples, with the connivance of Religious Affairs Department officials and temple abbots.

While his findings are praised by those who want to see good governance and transparency being practiced in the clerical community, several senior monks are panicking they may be exposed if the police lieutenant-colonel moves on to investigate the use of the ngern torn funds by big temples in Bangkok.

As a matter of fact, the appointment of Pol Lt Col Pongporn as head of the NOB was not welcomed by several members of the Sangha Supreme Council and its supporters known as the Federation of Thai Buddhists whose leader was reported to be a supporter of Wat Dhammakaya.

The federation also once advocated for Somdet Chuang, the abbot of Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen and acting supreme patriarch who was implicated in the vintage Mercedes-Benz controversy, to become the new supreme patriarch.

All of his predecessors at the NOB were senior officials of the department who were mostly "yes" men of the Sangha Supreme Council and supporters or sympathisers of Wat Dhammakaya mainly because of the temple's generous financial support for temples, drawing on its huge war chest.

This explains why Wat Dhammakaya was untouchable until the government started probing into the shady financial transactions of the temple and its former abbot, Phra Dhammajayo.

All of a sudden, on Aug 29, the cabinet dropped a bombshell by transferring Pol Lt Col Pongporn to the Prime Minister's Office as an inspector-general, reportedly at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.

The government claimed the transfer was a promotion with Mr Wissanu saying Pol Lt Col Pongporn has now done his part of the job and it is time for him to pass on the duties to a newcomer because he is not supposed to be doing the job of an investigator, a prosecutor and a judge all by himself.

Mr Wissanu said the probe would go on, but it should be done internally rather than from the outside.

Pol Lt Col Pongpong defied the transfer order, claiming his transfer from the NOB did not have his consent and it was not yet royally endorsed. However, Gen Prayut later issued an order transferring him to the office of the permanent secretary of the PM's Office.

He has been assigned as an inspector-general to oversee the affairs of Region 8 which covers Songkhla and the four southernmost provinces, Yala, Pattani, Satun and Narathiwat.

Whether the transfer is a promotion or a demotion is debatable, but it was apparently influenced by pressure from someone in the Sangha Supreme Council who may not be comfortable with his probe into the ngern torn fund.

The transfer amounts to a backtrack on the government's declared goal to clean up the mess in the government's budgets for temple renovation and educational programmes.

Government spokesman Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd made it clear the NOB director must be someone who has earned the trust of the Sangha Supreme Council.

In other words, the new NOB director must be obedient and submissive to the wishes of the Sangha. Simply put, he must be a yes man.

Mr Wissanu added the director also must be involved in arranging religious activities concerning the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, must solve the Alpine land controversy and must work closely with the Sangha, the police and Religious Affairs Department.

The question arises, how can the new director carry on the investigation into the ngern torn issue effectively, if at the same time he must have the trust of the Sangha?

Pol Lt Col Pongporn did a good job in digging up dirt in the misuse of the funds and he was kicked upstairs because of it.

The new NOB director, Manas Taratjai, director-general of the Religious Affairs Department, seems to fit the wishes of the Sangha -- obedient and submissive and able to earn its trust.

Mr Manas will certainly be welcomed by the Federation of Thai Buddhists which declared a victory for the Sangha and themselves when Pol Lt Col Pongporn was moved to the deep South.

But the federation has made more demands, among them that any abbot implicated in the ngern torn investigation must be kept as a witness, and that the law placing management of education funds in the hands of lay officials must be repealed.

That makes Mr Wissanu's pledge that the investigation will continue a laughing stock.

The probe is a complete waste of time because you can anticipate the result -- all the implicated abbots will escape scot-free.

The way the government is treating Pol Lt Col Pongporn while protecting the "rotten eggs" in the monastic order is indeed a shame and demoralising for the likes of the police officer who honestly served the country.

Whatever the real motive, the government is driving away many of its supporters with its shortsightedness and distorted logic. What a pity!

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