Tension is mounting between the Thai authorities and a powerful temple after its abbot repeatedly defied orders to appear before investigators overseeing a major fraud case.
Phra Dhammachayo, the 72- year-old abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, is accused of conspiring to launder money by accepting cash stolen from a credit union. His followers, however, claim they are victims of a conspiracy to tar the temple's reputation.
The case centres on Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, who was jailed for 16 years in March for his role in an embezzlement case involving more than 11 billion baht (S$425 million) from Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative, which he used to head.
Officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) said Supachai made out cheques worth more than 1 billion baht to various parties linked to the temple. Temple officials said it is inappropriate to question the source of the numerous donations the temple receives.
Despite an arrest warrant issued on May 17, the abbot has failed to turn up to hear charges, citing various ailments, including deep vein thrombosis, which his doctors said would be life-threatening if he travelled too far. He has not sought medical attention outside the temple.
The DSI has indicated that it was considering a search warrant to enter the temple, where about 2,000 monks live.
Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya told reporters yesterday that the authorities would follow all legal procedures so as to avoid the situation escalating out of control.
The temple has invited DSI officers to enter the temple to read the charges to the abbot. "We are not trying to evade (the law)," temple spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano told The Straits Times.
"We could not understand (why) the only thing they want is to take him out of the temple."
Security checks were tighter than usual yesterday at the 320ha temple complex in Pathum Thani province, just outside Bangkok. Only two out of its nine gates were open while police officers were checking visitors entering its main entrance.
One of its gates had been blocked with backhoes, which the temple attributed to followers trying to prevent "third parties" from entering the temple to cause chaos.
But Phra Pasura said the monks living inside would not resist if police tried to storm the temple. "The only instructions we gave to the monks is that if police do charge the temple, they just sit down and chant."
On Thursday, in an apparent compromise, the abbot agreed to hear the charges at a police station near the temple, but did not show up. The temple later announced that he had fainted while being moved from his bed to an ambulance.
The abbot declined an offer by investigators to be treated at a nearby hospital. "It's his wish," said Phra Pasura, adding that doctors had noted that the condition of his left leg was so bad that it needed to be amputated.
The temple has grown rapidly since it was started in 1970 and has an estimated 10 million followers globally, including in Singapore.