BANGKOK: Soldiers and police surrounded a scandal-hit Buddhist temple on Bangkok’s outskirts early Thursday (Feb 16) in apparent preparation for a raid to arrest the sect’s spiritual leader after Thailand’s military leader invoked special powers to put the site under military control.
A cat-and-mouse game between investigators and the powerful Wat Dhammakaya temple in Bangkok has played out for months over allegations its former abbot accepted illicit funds.
Authorities have so far been reluctant to raid the super-rich temple’s space-age 1,000-acre compound.
Previous attempts saw thousands of devotees of the breakaway order turn out to defend the septuagenarian monk who is believed to be holed up inside.
The monk, Phra Dhammachayo, is accused of accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht (US$33 million) from the owner of a cooperative bank who was jailed.
Early on Thursday, hundreds of police and soldiers were bussed into the site, locking down roads leading to the vast temple, following a sudden order endorsed by junta leader and prime minister, Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
The order invoked special powers, known as Section 44, putting the area under military control.
“Authorities can prevent people entering the area, evict them … demolish or destroy buildings,” it said. Anyone obstructing efforts to “effectively implement the law” faces one year in jail and a fine.
In an emailed statement the temple said “4,000 police and military” had been deployed with blockades “now prohibiting anyone from entering or leaving”.
Images circulated on social media showed unarmed police arriving to cordon off the temple. Thousands of sect supporters are believed to be inside the temple.
There have been several failed attempts to persuade the former-abbot to leave the temple.
Historically, secular authorities have been reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the clergy in the Buddhist-majority country.
Critics among the conservative mainstream Buddhist establishment accuse Phra Dhammachayo of promoting a buy your way to nirvana philosophy.
The temple is also accused of having close links to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
The administration of his sister Yingluck, who was also prime minister, was also toppled by the military again in 2014.
The sect runs a sophisticated PR operation, including its own channel as well as hosting several spectacular gatherings of orange-robed monks each year.
In the last 30 years the Dhammakaya temple has grown exponentially, raising tens of millions of dollars.
Last week Thailand’s new king chose an 89-year-old abbot to become the country’s new Supreme Patriarch – or top monk – ending a three year impasse over the position.
The selection of Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong also saw a Dhammakaya-linked abbot passed over for the top job.