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Thais Hope Good Comes From Temple Tragedy

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While Orange County’s Thai community remains stunned by last weekend’s discovery of nine people dead in a Thai Buddhist temple in Phoenix, leaders said Wednesday they hope greater cultural understanding results from the tragedy.

“We are reverberating from the shock of this extreme act of violence but there’s increasing dismay at sensationalized media coverage that has led to people asking whether or not this resulted from a ‘religious sect war,’ ” said Nampet Panichpant-Michelsen from Santa Ana, a coordinator of the United Thai Council.

To the contrary, Panichpant-Michelsen said, Thai Buddhists are extremely nonviolent and injuring another person is a “great offense.”

“We’re not Buddhists that self-immolate as an act of protest. We Thais are very peaceful but we often get lumped with other Asian groups, like the Vietnamese, especially here in Orange County,” she said.

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As one of the coordinators of the Thai council, Panichpant-Michelsen is meeting with other Southern California Thai leaders and planning emergency relief efforts, including transportation of the bodies back to Thailand, she said.

The grisly discovery of nine bodies, some hit with shotgun pellets but each shot execution-style once in the back of the head, was made Saturday when a Phoenix temple member brought in the morning meal. In addition to the six monks, who were from Thailand, the dead included an elderly nun and two young men.

The victims included 71-year-old Foy Sripanpiaserf and her 16-year-old grandson, Matthew Miller, who was to be ordained a monk this weekend.

The rites were to be performed by Phra Thanchao Khun Whichien, abbot of a North Hollywood Buddhist temple of the same lineage in Thai Buddhism, the Mahanikai. The other line is called Thammayut but the two religious traditions are essentially the same. The Thai temple in North Hollywood is the nation’s largest.

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“The Thai community is normally very responsive to needs, but usually the tragedies have been typhoons or other disasters in Thailand,” Panichpant-Michelsen said. “The shock of this event has mobilized people faster than ever before.”

“Actually many groups have spoken in support of our concern here. We have heard from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodians and non-Asians, who empathized with us,” she said.

She estimated there are 70,000 to 100,000 Thai residents in Southern California. The 1990 census reported that 2,227 Thais live in Orange County, but that figure, Panichpant-Michelsen said, “was very low.”

A communitywide memorial service will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday at the North Hollywood temple, although temple officials have asked representatives of other Buddhist groups and the public to arrive an hour early. The temple will hold private rites earlier in the day.

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Meanwhile, authorities in Arizona said that neither motive nor assailant in the crime was known. They sought information on a vehicle that was seen leaving the scene hours after the time of death.

Maricopa County Medical Examiner Heinz Karnitschnig said that the victims were killed between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Saturday, about eight hours before the bodies were discovered.

Karnitschnig said four of the victims apparently had their hands raised above their heads when they were hit with blasts from a shotgun, but all were face down on the floor of their temple when they were killed by .22-caliber pistol shots to the head.

Other victims included the abbot, Pairuch Kanthong, and a 21-year-old acolyte, Chirasak, who recently arrived from Thailand.

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