By CS Thana and Max Constant
More than 100 Thai police officers failed in an effort Thursday to have the abbot of a controversial Buddhist temple arrested, after they were blocked by around 10,000 followers.
The attempted arrest of the 72-year-old abbot of the sprawling Dhammakaya temple was the latest episode in a months-long financial scandal involving the temple.
Suriya Singhakamlol, the deputy-chief of the department of special investigation, told a press conference that the operation was launched early Thursday to find Phra Dhammachayo on charges of money embezzlement.
Four riot police outfits besieged the temple in Pathum Thani province -- around 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Bangkok -- and investigators equipped with an arrest warrant entered the compound in order to locate Dhammachayo.
There, they were blocked by a thick crowd of thousands of Buddhist monks and white-clad followers.
“He has not fled anywhere,” Phra Sanitwong, a Dhammakaya monk in charge of public relations, told Khaosod news. “We insist that we will fully cooperate with the police in their search."
Singhakamlol said that the mission to have Dhammachayo hear the charges would continue, but did not give any specific details or time frame.
The months-long “Dhammakaya saga” began after Dhammachayo was accused earlier this year of having received around 1.2 billion baht (around $37 million at the time) from a credit cooperative which collapsed, leaving hundreds of its members ruined.
Since early May, police have asked him to report to authorities, but the monk has missed all the deadlines, representatives claiming he suffers from severe thrombosis and cannot leave the special room where doctors take care of him within the temple compound.
At the end of May, the Bangkok criminal court issued an arrest warrant and the department of special investigation fixed a deadline of May 26 for the monk to report to police.
According to the Dhammakaya, the controversial abbot was about to leave in an ambulance to answer the summons that day but “fainted” when climbing into the vehicle.
Dhammakaya temple is by far the wealthiest and the most influential Buddhist temple in the country. It exerts control over hundreds of temples nationwide and has 85 overseas branches in 33 countries.
The temple, founded in 1972 by Phra Dhammachayo and a group of nuns and monks, has been mired in controversy since the mid-1990s.
It has been accused of propagating a materialist version of the Buddha teaching, preaching that practicing meditation properly helps followers to enrich themselves. It also uses multi-level marketing techniques to attract followers, giving a special status to a person according to the number of followers he manages to bring to the temple.
Dhammachayo, a self-confessed admirer of Adolf Hitler, has also been accused of accumulating assets and money.
Authorities, however, have been forced to deal cautiously with the issue, because of the popularity of Dhammachayo and the Dhammakaya temple among the urban middle classes.
On May 25, junta leader-cum-Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha warned that the case could “lead to conflicts”.
“Don’t let this case cause a split among Buddhists,” he said. “The government does not side with any party. My request is that there should be no attempt to incite people to fight each other.”
In a demonstration of how sensitive the Dhammakaya issue and more generally Buddhism’s involvement in politics are inThailand, police sent Wednesday a letter to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) to pressure it into canceling an event on “Buddhism and Politics” planned for June 22 because they fear “disruptions to national security”.
The Club’s deputy-president, Jonathan Head, said in a message sent to Anadolu Agency that the FCCT “believes these fears are unfounded” and said that the club is waiting to hear from the junta ruling Thailand since May 2014 “whether they will order us to cancel the event”.