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Monks charged over temple violence

BBC News, 24 December 1998

South Korean police have charged 28 people, most of them monks, after a day of pitched battles to oust members of the order from occupying a temple.

A total of 77 people were detained after up to 1,000 riot police were brought in to storm the Chogye Temple on Wednesday.

Around 100 monks had barricaded themselves inside for 43 days. During the battles, some threatened to commit suicide rather than surrender.

Police said some of the 28 had prior arrest records or had been excommunicated from their temples.

They face jail in expected trials for obstruction of justice.

Police are also planning to press charges against 45 others who staged violent acts in a rally at the temple in Seoul in November.

The dissident monks took over the temple last month after ousting a rival faction in a bitter dispute over who manages South Korean Buddhist funds worth millions of dollars.

Reports say the victorious faction gets to control an annual budget of $10m, millions of dollars in property and appoint 1,700 monks.

Suicide threats

Police fired tear gas and turned water cannons on the occupied administrative building.

Grey-robed monks, some wearing yellow construction helmets, fought back against riot police hurling rocks, bottles and furniture.

A few stripped themselves half-naked, soaked their bodies with petrol and threatened to commit suicide if police moved in.

Two of the monks slit their stomachs with knives and shouted through loud-hailers that they were prepared to martyr themselves.

Eighteen people, mainly riot police, were hospitalised and many others received treatment for various injuries.

One riot policeman is in serious condition after a ladder collapsed during the pre-dawn raid.

Long-running dispute

The ancient Chogye order, which emphasises meditative practices, is South Korea’s largest Buddhist sect with eight million followers.

The raid came after the monks ignored a court ruling obtained by their rivals ordering them to leave the building by Saturday.

They had moved into the temple after driving out supporters of former leader Song Wol-ju when he announced his candidacy for a third four-year term.

Dissidents said that violated a 1994 rule limiting the chief monk to two terms.

Mr Song argued that his first term did not count as it was interrupted by military rule in South Korea in the 1980s.

He has now withdrawn his candidacy for Most Venerable Monk after protests.

The two factions still have not agreed on how to continue elections.