Authorities have ended a 23-day siege of Thailand’s largest temple, where worshippers and monks defied repeated attempts to arrest a prominent monk wanted on charges of money laundering and accepting stolen assets.
Worshippers wept on Saturday as they re-entered the 400-hectare Dhammakaya temple complex on the outskirts of Bangkok, which thousands of police and soldiers had blockaded in an operation to arrest 72-year-old Phra Dhammajayo, the temple’s honorary abbot.
“Welcome home. It’s great to see everyone again,” the temple tweeted.
Paisit Wongmuang, head of the Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, announced the end of operation but said authorities would continue to search for Phra Dhammajayo outside of the temple.
Under a special emergency law, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had declared the temple a “special control zone”, allowing it to be placed under military control.
During the tense stand-off monks at times formed human shields to curb police raids.
Authorities cut electricity and water supplies and prevented food being brought into the temple.
Some scuffles broke out but there was no serious violence.
The temple’s actions were the strongest show of resistance to Mr Prayuth’s military government which has acted swiftly against any sign of dissent since the military ousted a democratically-elected government in 2014, after months of political instability.
The Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council also declared on Friday it has no power to disrobe Phra Dhammajayo following a complaint filed by the government’s National Office of Buddhism.
The Dhammakaya organisation, founded in 1970, has attracted millions of followers in Thailand and across Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States, unsettling the traditional Buddhist hierarchy with its endorsement of worldly comforts and its no-nonsense approach to ritual.
Phra Dhammajayo is a magnetic figure who is seen by his disciples as an inspirational teacher and meditation guru.
Critics accuse him of promoting donations as a short-cut to good fortune and a path to heaven, a departure from traditional Thai Buddhism.
Cash machines at the temple have screens that declare “Shortcut to making Merit”.
“Buddha never taught us to live in hardship,” said the temple spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano.
Phra Dhammajayo’s aides dismiss the charges against him relating to more than $US30 million of allegedly embezzled money, receiving stolen property and unlawfully taking over land to build meditation centres, saying the accusations were politically motivated.
Disciples of the Dhammakaya have been linked in the past to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive figure who was deposed in the 2006 coup and lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence on fraud charges.
The complex is 10 times the size of the Vatican.