BANGKOK, Thailand — After Cyclone Nargis left a trail of corpses along Burma’s coast in May 2008, foreign aid workers clamored to enter the military-controlled backwater.
Despite the world’s pleading, Burma’s paranoid generals forbade most foreign relief workers from entering the disaster zone. A frustrated U.K. threatened unauthorized air drops. The U.S. Navy was forced to float vessels loaded with life-saving supplies offshore.
But among the few who managed to access Burma’s worst-hit areas included adherents of the California-based Church of Scientology.
According to the church, miracles ensued after Scientologists touched down. Their team sought out traumatized Burmese for Scientology’s touch-healing techniques, professed to revive the spirit.
The infirm recouped strength, they said, and Burmese kids who’d lost their families regained their smiles. As the church tells it, even the surgeon of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s revered pro-democracy icon, wanted his personal relief troupe to adopt Scientology techniques.
“He goes, ‘This is amazing! I’m a doctor and I can’t even do this!’” said Andy Ponnaz, 57, a Bangkok-born Scientologist of mixed Thai-Swiss blood.
“I said, ‘Sir, I can teach all of your crew tomorrow. How many? 40? OK!’”
The far reach of Scientology
Those who know of Scientology through media exposes, or South Park’s stinging cartoon parody, may wonder what interests Scientology could possibly have in one of Asia’s most remote jungles.
The Western media has largely focused on Scientology’s celebrity followers, its secret scriptures and its costly hierarchy of enlightenment. Defectors’ tell-alls have shaken the religion’s public image. An internet campaign known as “Anonymous” vows to do much worse: destroy the church entirely.
But while Scientology endures scrutiny in America, the faith’s influence is quietly expanding in countries that lie beyond the Western media’s glare. In Burma, there is no South Park. Nor does the din of criticism reach non-English speakers in Indonesian cities ruined by earthquakes. Or poor hamlets in Ghana. Or crumbling city blocks in Chile.
Scientologists reach all these places and more. The faith has dispatched its yellow-clad “Volunteer Ministers” to almost every major global disaster in the last decade: from the 2001 World Trade Center attacks to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to Japan’s earthquake-ravaged coast.
Ten years ago, this relief brigade was estimated at 6,000 people. Now, according to church stats, it’s up to 350,000 and growing. Within the past 12 months, the church’s volunteer ministers claim to have treated 3.1 million people in 185 nations and territories.
Scientologists call their volunteer ministers “the largest independent relief force on earth,” an assertion that rivals the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies claim of 97 million volunteers. But this is hardly the two groups’ only point of distinction.
What is an "assist"?
Scientology relief work is largely focused on delivering “assists,” a menu of touch-healing techniques said to reconnect ailing bodies with immortal spirits.
The healing promised by assists is radical: limbs purged of aches in minutes and minds freed from trauma on the spot. Using only their hands, and instructions from the Scientology Handbook, ministers swear they can even render a drunk man sober in minutes.
Is this tent revival-style faith healing? According to Scientologists, no. It’s described as a spiritual science, developed by their founder, the sci-fi novelist-turned-religious leader L. Ron Hubbard.
Mainstream psychiatry is uneasy with Scientologists’ forays into trauma relief. But in the church’s eyes, they are often the only force with the spiritual expertise disaster relief requires.
“When people are walking around like zombies, we can cut through that and say, 'You, come here. Just lie down,'” said Ponnaz, the organization executive secretary of the church’s Bangkok foundation.
“They get results. Then the tables turn and they go, ‘Give me more!’”
To an Asian villager in a disaster zone, a Scientologist is not Tom Cruise or John Travolta, the faith’s best-known believers. It’s a guy like Gary Bromwell, a tanned and silver-haired Australian from Perth.
Bromwell, one of the church’s most-traveled volunteer ministers, has missed few of Asia’s recent calamities. He recalls Indonesian troops weeping when afternoon rains stirred tsunami flashbacks. He’s encountered a boy whose face was dragged against the ground by waves until teeth showed through his cheek.
“Have you ever seen someone in shock? Their eyes are sort of vacant like no one’s home,” said Bromwell via phone from New Zealand, where he led a Scientology team in Christchurch. The city was rocked by a 6.3-magnitude quake in February.
“Their lights are out,” he said. “That’s because the majority of their attention is stuck back in time, on wax, at the point of trauma.”
Bromwell’s objective is to bring survivors back to “present time,” he explained. In Scientology lingo, the person’s “thetan,” or immortal spirit, is hung up on the traumatic event, leaving the body unable to properly heal.
If spotted by a Scientologist, a dazed disaster survivor is asked to lie down on a padded folding table beneath a tent. The person’s trauma-stricken spirit is then reconnected to the body, so say the Scientologists, with a combination of verbal instructions and touch techniques.
Physical injury is often handled with a “nerve assist.” The injured person lies belly-down, then supine, while a Scientologist traces fingers along their spine and strokes their limbs. The motion, according to the Scientology Handbook, unclogs blocked energy “improving communication with the body and bringing the being relief.”
Mentally trauma is treated with a “contact assist,” in which a survivor is asked to re-enact a troubling event at the location where it occurred.
A tsunami survivor, for example, may be asked to revisit the sea, coming closer and closer to the water until they can bear to dip their toes in the surf. (But Scientologists must “never forcibly drag the person up to the spot with the injury or accident occurred,” according to the handbook.)
Testimonials of touch healing
“These people have seen some nasty things and often that stays in their mind,” Bromwell said. “We do assists to relieve that. Then they can go home, sleep, and they don’t have those pictures stuck in their minds.”
In New Zealand, Bromwell found a boy who obsessed over the quake and suffered constipation for seven days. After applying Scientology’s healing powers, Bromwell said, the boy was suddenly able to relieve himself and play outside without fear.
Katrina Gregory, another Australian Scientologist, recounted her own miracles from rubble-strewn Christchurch. One man’s ankle was struck by a falling cable. Gregory, who is 33 and works as a personal assistant in Tasmania, restored the man’s ability to walk, she said.
“They’re pretty much jumping on the table because they’re hurting and sore and just want to feel better,” Gregory said. “I’ve done a thousand of these things and it amazes me how it always works.”
Other accounts are even more spectacular. In the book “After the Tsunami,” written by a Danish Scientologist, British actor and Scientologist Robbie Scandrett recalled treating an 11-year-old Indian girl who “had not slept since the tsunami and kept hearing the waves, creating a deep fear of the sea.”
Scandrett offered a “touch assist,” which requires touching parts of the girl’s body while saying “feel my finger.” Five minutes into the session, the girl “lost consciousness and slumped into her chair,” according to the account.
Another 45 minutes passed before “her eyes opened very slightly and tears streamed down her cheeks ... her response was that she no longer felt any fear of the sea.”
But several people who have received assists, when contacted by Global Post, likened the nerve assist to a massage: pleasant, but not life altering.
“It was quite formal. They didn’t say much, only ‘I’m going to do a nerve assist on you,’” said Lalan Susanti, an Indonesian translator who worked in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami. “I laid down and they just used their fingers, going up and down the spine, then back up again.”
“After a few days, looking at all the debris and dead bodies, you feel tired inside and out. It was relieving,” said Susanti. “They were doing it to all the locals and they never said a word about religion.”
Back to the beginning with L. Ron Hubbard
“When I was a very young man, I spent most of my teens in Asia,” said Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, in an interview released by the church before his 1986 death.
Hubbard claimed in the interview to have “slept with bandits in Mongolia” and “hunted with pygmies in the Philippines.” His experiences led him to know Asia as “an area of the world where human misery and want are very visible, where man has reached perhaps the lowest states of degradation.”
His solution to this pervasive misery? A sweeping re-think of the mankind’s mind and soul called “Dianetics,” published in 1950. It was his first major genre departure from science fiction and is now revered by the church as a founding text.
In "Dianetics," Hubbard asserts that most physical and mental ills are “psychosomatic” or induced by the mind. Negative experiences, he said, create mental images that get stuck in an unconscious vault of pain: the “reactive mind.”
If the images aren’t confronted and purged, Hubbard wrote, they lie in wait to trigger self-destructive behavior or even physical illness.
“Discharge the contents of this mind’s bank,” Hubbard wrote in Dianetics, “and the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears, stomachs function properly and the whole catalog of ills goes away and stays away.”
An electronic trauma detector?
Out in the field, volunteer ministers try to clear out this mental muck with assists. But their preferred method uses an electronic device to detect bad experiences, some of which they believe took place in previous lives.
The device is called an “e-meter.” The breadbox-sized unit, studded with dials and knobs, sends five electric volts into the body through two metal handles gripped by the person being “audited.” A trained “auditor” asks the person to recount painful memories over and over in vivid detail.
Those memories — believed by Scientologists to have actual energy and mass — can be detected on the e-meter’s dials, according to Hubbard. As the person confronts their pain, the bad experience will lose its sway over the mind.
“It’s a very precise machine,” said Ponnaz, popping open his e-meter’s heavily reinforced black travel case. “Any bit of pain or trauma is like a mass in your mind. And it registers.”
Science community speaks out
Psychiatrists, however, have largely dismissed all this as pseudo-science. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled the e-meter is “not medically or scientifically capable of improving the health or bodily functions.” And many psychiatrists have a dim view of Scientologists using these techniques on traumatized villagers.
“The Red Cross requires psychiatrists to take considerable training before they’ll allow them to go into a disaster site,” said Nada Stotland, a Chicago-based psychiatrist with Mental Health America, a non-profit advocacy group based in northern Virginia.
“They’re untrained,” said Stotland, who is also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. “They have completely untested methods of dealing with people’s problems. These techniques have never shown results in scientific tests of any kind.”
Mental Health America even warned Scientologists to “stay out of mental health” after volunteer ministers rushed to New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The church’s view of psychiatry, however, is equally harsh.
Well-funded Scientology campaigns denounce psychiatry as an “industry of death” that peddles worthless therapy and spirit-clouding pills. Scientologists warn that “psychiatry kills” — they are particularly disdainful of shock therapy — and forbid one another from taking psychoactive pills.
“Has anyone been to a psychiatrist and actually gotten better?” Ponnaz said. “Our technology is available, written in normal terms, not high language. A guy on the street can read and understand it.”
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.”