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Out of the woods: Thai 'hermits' harness web to go global
By Sally MAIRS
Khon Kaen, Thailand July 17, 2017

Thailand to check monks' bad habits with 'smart ID cards'
Bangkok (AFP) July 14, 2017 - Thailand's Buddhist monks could soon be issued "smart ID cards" flagging any drug or criminal records, in the latest move by the junta to restore the tarnished image of the men in orange robes.

The kingdom has around 300,000 monks, who are held in high regard as keepers of the national religion.

But in recent months the clergy has been plagued by a series of high-profile scandals ranging from sex and drugs to murders taking place at temples.

The junta, which took power in 2014, wants to reorganise Thai Buddhism with misbehaving monks first in their crosshairs.

"Monks across the country already hold the paper-based cards but the information is out-of-date, which makes it hard to verify their background," Ormsin Chivapruck, an official at the Office of the Prime Minister, told reporters on Thursday.

Digitalised smart cards would enable up-to-date tracking with the monk's monastic history recorded alongside any criminal offence or report of drug use, he added.

The move is "to prevent fake monks using religion, or suspected wrong-doers from hiding their illegal acts behind orange robes," he added.

Details will be discussed next week at a meeting of the Supreme Sangha Council, the body governing the national faith.

But rollout of smart cards may be complicated as all Thai men are expected by social convention to ordain for at least a few weeks.

Critics say the rigid hierarchy of the Supreme Sangha Council makes it unable to counter corruption or embrace change.

The government has already forced more than 46,000 temples to submit their financial accounts, amid claims of widespread irregularities.

The most famous monk scandal played out earlier this year as troops searched the temple of the mega-rich Dhammakaya sect on the outskirts of Bangkok, to arrest the controversial former abbot who is accused of money-laundering.

The abbot remains at large.

From communing with forest spirits to whipping up love potions, Thailand's cave-dwelling hermits once conducted their supernatural endeavours with just ancient magic and ritual as their guide. But today's sorcerers are more connected than ever: armed with smart phones, Facebook profiles and business-savvy, a new crop of mystics are harnessing tech to cultivate followings across Asia. "Woah," Toon says ominously as he peers down at an astrological chart on his smartphone, the tips of his scraggly grey beard dangling just above the screen. "You will have some kind of accident by the end of the month," he tells an AFP reporter, offering to conduct a ceremony to counteract the bad karma. Surrounded by a cornucopia of glittering Buddha statues, eerie dolls and other spiritual trinkets, the 57-year-old uses sacred powders and ointments to conduct his 'good luck' ritual. Several other hermits -- known in Thai as "reusee" -- are gathered in the teak-wood room in his spacious home in northeastern Thailand. But hundreds of other disciples abroad are also hanging onto his every word, with a Taiwanese client broadcasting the ceremony on Facebook Live and translating for viewers back home. "His customers and students want to see. They miss him," the Taiwanese woman, Ann Liu, explains as Toon wraps protective string around her husband, a regular client. "He has over 200 students there." - The jet-set - A former bank employee, Toon is at the forefront of a growing number of 'new age hermits' to crop up in Thailand's spiritual underworld -- a densely populated scene of shamans, exorcists and astrologers. While the kingdom is overwhelmingly Buddhist, there is still widespread belief in animistic spirits and ghosts. Toon was called to the spiritual practice 16 years ago, swapping his secular garb for white robes, growing out his beard and decorating his arms in hand-etched tattoos. Using Facebook and LINE to advertise his services, he has tapped a deep well of overseas intrigue -- especially among ethnic Chinese -- for rituals and charms aimed at boosting business prospects and mending relationship woes. He now has hundreds of followers in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Malaysia and Singapore, and travels far and wide to offer spiritual solace. But his jet-setting is on his clients' tab, in a luxury lifestyle that could not be further from the solitary, forest-dwelling existence of his predecessors. Thailand's traditional hermits were ascetics who disavowed worldly excesses and spent most of their time alone in the jungle, engaged in deep mediation. "Now hermits have to live in towns so they can help people easily," Toon explained to AFP outside his luxurious home -- a decorated compound that merges a traditional Thai sala with a modern house, replete with a shiny black SUV in the driveway. "Also, I have a wife and I'm worried she couldn't live in the forest," he added. - Supernatural boom - Anthropologists say Toon and his 21st century peers, whose numbers are estimated to be around 200 in Thailand, are only the latest players to profit from a "supernatural boom" in Asia. Free-market forces and technology have abetted, rather than diluted, superstitions that can dictate everything from daily routines and business moves to high-level political decisions. Thailand is renowned for its coterie of occult figures and spiritual fads. Unlike other governments in neighbouring countries like China and Vietnam that have suppressed folk religions, Thai authorities have given fringe practices a free reign to flourish. From life-like 'angel dolls' to limited edition protective amulets, superstitious crazes routinely sweep the kingdom, fuelled by celebrity endorsements and media coverage. Many of the must-have charms are aimed at promoting wealth and other modern aspirations. "The reusees (hermits) fit into the recently emerging popularity of this kind of practice," said Thai anthropologist Visisya Pinthongvijayakul. "A lot of customers, especially business owners, now come to Thailand to seek auspicious power from alternative people other than monks," he added. It is undoubtedly a lucrative business for people like Toon, whose clients pay hundreds of dollars for the ceremonies. Thanks to the power of the web, he now has more foreign customers than Thais. But he claims his practice hasn't changed at all. "All of my followers are human... and so their thoughts are the same: they want love, they want good luck, and they want to be rich."

Apple to invest $900mn in Danish data plant
Stockholm (AFP) July 10, 2017
Apple on Monday said it would invest nine billion Danish kroner ($920 million, 810 million euros) in a data centre in Denmark, its second in the country to run entirely on clean energy. Ground-breaking at the plant in Aabenraa, which will employ between 50 and 100 people, will start in the final quarter of 2017, with construction due to be completed in early 2019. The facility will help ... read more

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