Doomsday cult: is it fading away?

The Age (Australia), October 2, 1999

When Armageddon is looming, you need ``a strong mind immovable to any external interference''. This is what Aum Supreme Truth, the doomsday cult that earned international notoriety after its 1995 murderous nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, preaches to members via its Website. But it seems even spiritual stoicism has its limits.

This week, the Tokyo-based cult startled many Japanese by declaring that it would halt its external activities, including recruitment and property acquisition, and temporarily suspend the use of its name.

The retreat, explained in a bizarre news conference in its soon-to-be-vacated headquarters, came only 10 hours before the Japanese legal system delivered the organisation another serious blow.

It came via a death sentence for Masato Yokoyama, one of the five-man Aum death squad that unleashed sarin gas during the subway rush hour in March 1995, killing 12 and injuring around 5000. Yokoyama, 35, is the first cult member to be given the death penalty over the incident. Japan's notoriously slow legal system is turning its screws on Aum in other ways.

In separate court proceedings last week, Aum founder and ``master'', Shoko Asahara, made his first reference to a link between the cult and the gas attack.

While denying any personal involvement, Asahara said his former intelligence chief, Yoshihiro Inoue, had brought up the idea and discussed it with another member of the cult's inner circle. This admission of Aum complicity flies in the face of the cult's steadfast refusal to apologise for its past misconduct on two main grounds: that court proceedings had not fully unwound and the ``master'' had yet to offer his explanation on that and other alleged crimes.

So what does all this mean for Aum's future?

A conventional reading would have the cult firmly on the road to oblivion. History shows that doomsday cults usually have a short life span, combusting with their leaders, often in grisly circumstances. Aum has additional baggage; its complicity in a string of serious crimes confirmed by the courts.

But Aum has always defied rational analysis and few are willing to predict its death. The general consensus among Japan's legion of Aum watchers is that the cult is carefully planning a strategic retreat, aimed at ensuring its survival.

``Going underground,'' as one Aum expert described it, is a perfect way for Aum to deal with the multitude of threats.

Prodded by public demands for action, the Obuchi administration is drawing up Aum-specific legislation that would either outlaw the organisation or drastically curb its activities.

While it has successfully stripped Aum of its religious status, confiscating its assets and denying it the lucrative tax breaks that accompanying a religious designation, the Japanese Government has failed to have the cult declared illegal. This is because the independent Public Security Commission ruled in 1997, that the organisation had not fallen foul of the Anti-Subversive Law.

While the Government has vowed to press ahead with its legal curbs, it may be chasing a shadow.

The cult's front office admitted on Wednesday that the decision to suspend its activities and its name had been partially forced by public animosity. Sustained by a steady flow of profits from computer stores and other business ventures, the recast Aum, a separate legal entity from its predecessor, has been quietly expanding its operations, setting up new bases outside Tokyo. Membership, which fell after the subway murders to just a handful of the faithful, has rebounded, aided by some aggressive recruiting tactics.

The National Police Agency and the Public Security Investigation Agency claim the number of core members has risen to about 2100 - roughly 20 per cent of its peak during Asahara's reign.

But the cult's new prominence has come at a cost, pitching its members into escalating feuds with local governments and public communities. The anti-Aum hysteria, which reached its peak mid-year, has increased the pressure on authorities to step in. Aum properties have been routinely raided and prosecutions launched over its clandestine efforts to buy new properties to replace expiring leases.

Suspending the cult's public activities, such as conducting seminars (a big money-raiser), leaflet-dropping and soliciting new followers, is seen as a way of removing the ``heat'' from around Aum.

Ms Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has watched Aum closely, refuses to believe the cult is fading away. She points to its refusal to apologise for its past conduct; an apology many had expected this week as a result of the Asahara court testimony.

Aum's acting leader, Mr Tatsuko Muraoka, would say only that Aum was ``carrying out a comprehensive investigation'' of its policies and would present its findings later.

``We need to keep watching them,'' Ms Egawa said. ``No one knows whether they really intend to suspend their activities. By refusing to take any responsibility for what happened, they missed an opportunity to restart their real life.''

Ms Egawa suspects that Aum is simply lying low while it waits for the charismatic Fumihiro Joyu, Asahara's former protege and cult front person, to emerge from jail in November.

While the cult denies any contact with Joyu during his imprisonment on perjury charges, he is seen as a key figure in the Aum's inner leadership.

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