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Scientology’s global disaster squad

Inside the religion’s unorthodox healing missions.

Scientology takes hold in Asia

In a church promotional video, Phra Dang, an orange-robed buddhist monk, steps along a forested path. In single file, his faithful follow him into a temple classroom. Inside, he clutches “Dianetics” and his followers read a Thai-language copy of “The Way to Happiness,” an entry-level Hubbard text.

“I am Phra Dang,” says the monk, flanked by a large golden Buddha. “And I use Scientology in Thailand.”

Just as Scientology caters to celebrity “opinion leaders” — figures able to sway public sentiment — its volunteer ministers concentrate on winning over local religious leaders, police chiefs, doctors and varied authority figures.

Outside the Western world, some of these earliest successes are taking root in Thailand, Southeast Asia’s medical hub. At one of Bangkok’s most prestigious public hospitals, Siriraj, a Thai research nurse has proclaimed Scientology’s merit for several years.

“I have seen the effectiveness of these methods,” said Chanakan Boonnuch, speaking to Scientology’s New York branch in 2009, according to a church release. “Now I intend to speak about them in international journals and conferences.”

Experiences in Burma led another Thai doctor, 40-year-old physical rehabilitation specialist Ong-ard Sirikulphisut, to evaluate Scientology techniques scientifically.

On a laptop in Scientology’s Bangkok office, Ong-ard pulled up a photo of a Burmese woman. Her eyes appeared dead. She stared down at the dirt. Only her husband and 6-month-old infant survived the cyclone, he said. The rest of her family was killed.

“She swallowed a lot of sea water,” Ong-ard said, “She was severely stressed to the point of banging her head into the wall. So we gave her a nerve assist.”

In subsequent photos, the woman manages a slight smile that dimples her cheeks. Ong-ard later examined her case and 55 others, publishing the results in a Thai medical journal. His findings: “for the survivors, nerve assist procedure had 73.53 percent effectiveness in physical and mental stress relief in the first session.”

Ong-ard has worked for years at a pubic hospital in Chachoengsao, a province east of Bangkok. He first learned of Scientology eight years ago through a display on one of Bangkok’s busiest avenues. “There was this photo of L. Ron Hubbard auditing a woman,” he recalls. “I later came in for a seminar.”

He has since taught hundreds of his patients’ relatives to rely on Scientology assists to heal their loved ones. “They ask me, ‘Do you have magic in your finger?’” Ong-ard said. “Now that I’ve taught them, they go out to apply it on other sick people.”

This doctor, a graduate of one of Thailand’s most highly regarded colleges, is just one of thousands disseminating Scientology techniques in the developing world.

The church’s press releases boast of bigger and more remote training sessions each month: 40 nurses in Kolkata, 300 villagers in Papua New Guinea, 500 teachers in Ghana, 1,200 “fathers, mothers, nurses and even children” in Pakistan. In India, Scientology is known more as a self-help technique than a religion, but it has attracted thousands of followers nonetheless.

The church even dispatched ministers to wade into Bangkok’s recent color-coded street protests to pass out Scientology texts. “We’ve handed out this book [The Way to Happiness] to the Red Shirts, the Yellow Shirts, when they’re all kicking and shooting at each other,” Ponnaz said.

Scientologists insist their techniques are increasingly favored by public officials. Indonesia’s education department asked Bromwell to teach techniques to students at a primary school filled with traumatized kids after severe quakes, he said.

During Australia’s recent brush fires, Gregory said she was “getting people from the Red Cross, from the Salvation Army asking me what I could do for them.” And in post-tsunami Thailand, Ponnaz said, officials relied on Scientologists to restore order to a panicked public.

“The prime thing is order,” he said. “The pubic wanted to find out if their loved ones were in the morgue. Half were losing it, so they go into assists. They wake up and say, good, I got it. What am I here for? My brother’s body. Instead of flipping out, they’ve calmed down.”

The secret scriptures

A complex chart titled the “Bridge to Total Freedom” details the hierarchy Scientologists must climb to unravel life’s true meaning. “Factually,” it reads, “you’ve been traveling this universe a long time without a map. Now you’ve got one.”

The chart itself is no secret. In Bangkok’s Scientology center, as in many Scientology offices, it’s tacked to the wall for all to see.

But secret scriptures become available to those who reach senior levels, particularly Operating Thetan III, a rank achieved only after passing through what the chart describes as a “wall of fire.”

Ponnaz is an Operating Thetan VII, the penultimate rank. (The final available level, Operating Thetan VIII, is achieved at sea aboard a Scientology vessel.)

“I’m not going to talk to you about anything up there,” said Ponnaz of the bridge’s highest levels. “You’re here,” he said, pointing to the stage of the uninitiated: pre-clear.

“That’s not invalidating you,” he said. “It’s just saying, well, I know some stuff up here that if I just went ‘blah’ to you, it would throw you into a spin.”

The church’s public material tells of an ancient, non-fiction account — the “Space Opera” — that includes “space travel, spaceships, spacemen, intergalactic travel, wars, conflicts, other beings’ civilizations and societies, and other planets and galaxies.”

Whether the space opera is core to Scientology’s advanced scripture, as church defectors allege, is not publicly addressed by the church.

“I am not going to discuss the disgusting perversions of Scientology beliefs that can now be found commonly on the internet,” said Tommy Davis, the church’s chief spokesman, in an interview last year with ABC’s Nightline. Pressed further, he yanked out his lapel mic and walked off set.

Scientology detractors point out that accessing the loftiest scriptures requires coursework that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Via the internet, a number of vocal church defectors have made a game of releasing as many secret documents as they can.

Anyone who punches “scientology” into Google’s search engine will see an equal number of official church sites and critical sites openly detailing the alleged secret scriptures. The church has returned fire in court, where lawyers have argued these texts are protected trade secrets.

Ponnaz, a Bangkok hotelier and aviator, has zero regrets about his investment. Those with less cash to spare, he said, can always earn free or reduced price courses by volunteering to audit fellow Scientologists with the e-meter.

“It’s like saying ‘I want a Porsche, but it’s too expensive.’” he said. “That doesn’t fly.”

Scientology's mixed reviews

Psychiatrists dismiss Scientology’s relief brigade as simply ineffectual. Others allege much worse.

Scientology’s most aggressive enemy is a faceless online movement called “Anonymous,” which first announced its intentions to tear down Scientology in a 2008 YouTube video.

“The extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as leaders has been made clear to us,” said a robotic voice droning over over scenes of swirling skies. “Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed.”

Anonymous — a “hate group,” according to the church — sees sinister intent behind almost every move the church makes. The volunteer ministers are not spared: they’re depicted as “vulture ministers” out to prey on and convert vulnerable survivors.

But recruitment in disaster zones, Bromwell said, is prohibited by the church. “In fact, if anyone is not following the program ... and trying to get people to become Scientologists, they’re instantly shipped out,” he said. “I’ve only had to do that once.”

A former aid worker with the non-profit group Peace Brigades, Paul Zeccola, remembers that Scientologists “stood out as part of the circus that came in to Aceh” after Indonesia’s tsunami. At first, he and his colleagues were highly skeptical of the ministers in yellow.

“But I didn't hear about anything dodgy from anyone,” said Zeccola, now pursuing a political studies doctorate at Australian National University.

“I saw them getting their hands dirty in terms of cleaning up the mess that the tsunami caused,” he said, “unlike a lot of other expats up there who stayed in the comfortable offices writing reports and going across to Sabang for diving and partying.”

To Evi Narti Zain, an female aid worker from Aceh, the Scientologists she met after the tsunami were neither vultures nor miracle workers.

Zain recalls passing by a crew of Scientologists soon after the waves scattered 150,000 water-logged bodies across Aceh and Sumatra provinces. The volunteer ministers had set up camp by the local municipal headquarters and invited Zain into their tent for a nerve assist.

She climbed onto a folding table and lied down. A Scientologist touched her “very gently,” she recalled. It was over within minutes.

“I didn’t feel anything. Even relief,” Zain said. “But I do appreciate their effort. Specifically those who helped pick up the dead bodies.”