Tensions soar as Thai abbot faces arrest

Buddhist monks and novices gathered to receive alms at the Dhammakaya temple last month. An arrest warrant was issued for its abbot, who has failed to report to police over accusations that he received illegal donations that had been embezzled from a
Buddhist monks and novices gathered to receive alms at the Dhammakaya temple last month. An arrest warrant was issued for its abbot, who has failed to report to police over accusations that he received illegal donations that had been embezzled from a cooperative bank.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • Tensions between Thai police and a powerful Buddhist sect have spiked this week after an arrest warrant was issued for an abbot at the centre of an alleged multimillion-dollar scandal.

The controversy over the wealthy Dhammakaya temple, which is renowned for its influential allies and colourful displays of mass devotion, has revived fears over the state of Buddhism in a nation where 95 per cent of the population adhere to the faith.

The kingdom's Buddhist clergy has been mired in controversies ranging from allegations of undeclared gifts of luxury cars to sex and drug scandals.

Critics say the Dhammakaya temple is closely linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former premier at the heart of the country's political rupture. They accuse it of trying to dominate the Thai faith with prosperity theology-style teachings that promote donations in return for good karma.

A court late on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant for Phra Dhamma- chayo, who has failed to report to police over accusations that he received illegal donations worth 1.2 billion baht (S$46 million) that had been embezzled from a cooperative bank.

The temple, which boasts a sprawling and futuristic-looking headquarters in northern Bangkok, denies the allegations and insists the 72-year-old abbot is too sick to report to the authorities.

But that has not dimmed fears of a showdown between police and the temple, which says it has millions of supporters, some of whom clashed with soldiers in February.

"We regret that the authority has issued the arrest warrant... but Dhammakaya disciples do not want to use mob rule over rule of law," Mr Ong-art Dhamnitha, a representative of the sect's followers, told reporters yesterday.

Last April, the Dhammakaya temple returned some US$20 million (S$27 million) given by a company executive later accused of embezzling the cash. It says the money was received in good faith and without knowledge of the executive's crime.

The temple defends itself against its theological critics, saying it provides a modern and accessible form of Buddhism.

Investigators say the abbot has to surrender by next Thursday to hear charges of money laundering and handling stolen money, which carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2016, with the headline 'Tensions soar as Thai abbot faces arrest'. Print Edition | Subscribe