Bangkok: Foreigners blamed for quieting a temple bell

A small row over a temple bell has become a religious and political dispute in the Thai capital, with conservative citizens blaming foreign residents for not respecting the people's right to worship. Julian Küng reports.

Every morning at 4 a.m., a monk at Bangkok's 300-year-old Wat Sai temple rings a massive bell to announce the start of the day. The bell rings for some 20 minutes, and for many religious Thais in the area, it is part of a sacred ritual. In Buddhism, the ringing of a bell carries a spiritual meaning.

But residents of the newly constructed Star View apartment complex are not happy with this ritual and have complained to the authorities about it.

Last week, Wat Sai's abbot Phreecha Punnasilo received a letter from the district office, urging him to keep the ringing sound to a minimum, as residents of the luxury condos filed a complaint against the noise.

"We cannot simply stop the bell ringing," Punnasilo told DW. "It's our tradition and it serves as a prayer timetable for monks," the abbot said.

After police gave a formal warning to the monks, they had no option but to lower the volume of bell ringing.

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Wat Sai Tempel, 10120 Bangkok

Residents of the Star View luxury apartments reportedly complained about the temple bell

Escalation

But what started as a neighborhood row slowly turned into a major conflict, as local media picked up the temple bell issue.

While some Thais say they support the residents of the Bang Kholaem district, others criticized the authorities for interfering with the Buddhist faith.

Even Bangkok's mayor, Aswin Kwanmuan, became involved. Kwanmuan invited temple authorities, Star View residents and district officers to a meeting planned for next week and requested all parties suggest ways to resolve the issue.

The Buddhist Council of Thailand says it is important to find middle ground to deal with the issue.

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Thai leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha recently warned the temple management and residents to avoid making a "big fuss" out of the bell ringing issue. The junta leader said the monks and apartment residents need to deal with the issue peacefully.

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Wat Sai Tempel, 10120 Bangkok

In Buddhism, the ringing of a bell carries a spiritual meaning

Modernity vs. tradition

The issue took a weird twist when Thai actor Petch Karoonpon claimed only one Star View apartment tenant had a problem with the morning bell.

"The person in question is a foreign resident, who complained to district officials," Punnasilo said, supporting Karoonpon's claims.

What was initially considered as a citizens' rights issue, has for many in Bangkok become a question of "foreigner's ignorance" toward Thai traditions.

Mayor Kwanmuan visited the Wat Sai temple and apologized to the monks on behalf of the district office. The same day, the director of the district office was replaced.

A few days later, police raided the Star View complex and checked the tenants' resident permits.

"You reap what you sow," monk Punnasilo said, responding to the government's action against those who complained against the bell noise.

The bell controversy could have legal consequences for the complainant, as his action could be interpreted as a violation of the right to worship, which in Thailand is punishable to up to seven years in prison.

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Human Rights

Documenting migration

Srikhoon Jiangkratok (on the right) was a first-generation migrant worker who came to Singapore in the early 1990s. Some of the more than 900 photos he took during his stint in the city-state are part of a web exhibition called "Work Men on the Move." The complete gallery including commentary can be found online at storyform.co/@speth-2/-734dab35c6bb.

Human Rights

Dangerous work at dizzying heights

After working on construction sites in Bangkok for eight years, his company sent Jiangkratok to Singapore in 1994 as a foreman to build the famous Ritz Carlton Hotel. Foreign workers often do the so-called "triple-D-jobs" (difficult, dirty and dangerous), are usually organized in groups and specialize in specific work steps.

Human Rights

Crowded camp life

In the 1990s, foreign workers in Singapore slept in over-crowded container camps. 25 men shared one container. "How to call it? It is a box," one Thai worker told German researcher Simon A. Peth (University of Bonn), who put together the online photo exhibition. He says migration was (and is) only worthwhile through overtime work. As a result, 10 to 14-hour days are the norm.

Human Rights

Precarious working conditions

Back in the day, work accidents on the sometimes chaotic construction sites were inevitable — and disastrous for the injured. Then as now, says researcher Peth, immobility due to a broken leg or a similar injury means the end of a labor migration. Although employers must nowadays cover workers with their own health insurance, they are sometimes reluctant to pay the high costs injuries can incur.

Human Rights

Singapore's Central Business District, 1994

In the 1990s, Singapore was one of the top destinations of overseas migration from Thailand. Although the official figure is unknown, what's clear is that the number of Thai migrant workers has dropped considerably, to 15-20,000 in 2016 since its peak period, which lasted from the mid-1990s until 2010/11. In most camps, workers are separated by nationality to avoid conflicts.

Human Rights

Who built the modern city?

"People who go to Singapore have been trained like soldiers, … if it is not the time to sleep, you don't sleep." That's how one Thai migrant worker described his experience. Since 1994, the year of Jiangkratok's arrival, Singapore's skyline and Central Business District (CBD) have undergone a transformation possible only with the help of millions of cheap labor migrants from around the world.

Human Rights

Home away from home?

Located in Singapore's industrial far west, Tuas View is the city-state's largest dormitory for foreign workers with beds for 16,800 men. Its amenities include a mini-market, a beer garden, a 250-seat cinema as well as medical and shopping facilities. Although being hailed as the ideal model for housing workers, they have next to no privacy as 250 cameras monitor them around the clock.

Human Rights

Living on the edge

Singapore's dormitories for foreign workers are strategically situated in non-residential areas on the city's fringe, from where it takes up to three hours to get to the CBD. Getting to Singapore in the first place is expensive: Labor agents demand around 80,000 Thai Baht (roughly €2,000). To put things into perspective: The average monthly household income in rural parts of Thailand is €254.

Human Rights

More than a reception camp

Completed in 1973, the Golden Mile Complex is largely an ethnic enclave for Singapore's Thai population and the central arrival point for buses with workers from Southern Thailand and Malaysia. Thais frequent the vast complex for the some 400 shops as well as a Thai supermarket, restaurants and bars; they also visit the doctor, send remittances home, get a hair cut or meet with their labor agents.

Human Rights

Taking care of business

At the Thai Office of Labor Affairs in the Golden Mile complex, Thai workers can come with individual problems and sort out administrative, health- or employer-related issues. They can even do correspondence courses. In Singapore, daily wages are graded by nationality: According to reasearcher Peth, Thais earn 23 Singapore dollars ($17), Indians $14 and Myanmar citizens $12.

Human Rights

Strict segregation

"I stayed in Singapore for almost 22 years, but Thailand is still my home. Singapore is a place to earn money, but here in Thailand I am happy." Part of Singapore's immigration policy is avoiding the mingling of migrant workers with its citizens. Company trucks haul workers to and from contruction sites. All this leads to a state of "permanent temporariness," as researchers have called it.

Human Rights

Returning home

After having stayed in Singapore for three years supervising a group of 15 workers, photographer Srikhoon Jiangkratok returned to his village in Northeast Thailand in 1995. Talking about his motivation to take the pictures, he told German researcher Peth: "I took these photos because I wanted to show what it means to work abroad. It is tough."