Thai security forces vowed to continue their search for the controversial former abbot of Dhammakaya temple today, after an initial sweep of its premises using unprecedented powers came up empty.
Citing ill health, 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo has repeatedly defied summons over the past year for allegedly receiving funds embezzled from a credit union as well as his alleged involvement in meditation centres said to be built on public land.
The Buddhist Dhammakaya temple is a significant node of influence in military-ruled Thailand, boasting overseas chapters and counting rich and influential people in the kingdom among its followers. Yet critics regard it as a deviant sect that has expanded by courting donations aggressively.
Fears of its growing influence had even clouded the recent nomination process for the supreme patriarch, the most senior monk in the kingdom. The seat was filled only on Sunday, more than three years after the death of the previous monastic leader.
Twice last year, police had gathered by the 320ha temple just outside Bangkok, which unlike traditional Thai temples boasts simple lines and a giant stupa shaped like a flying saucer. The police left after being confronted by large numbers of praying devotees whom critics had argued the temple was using as human shields.
About the saga
Misgivings over the influence of Dhammakaya temple delayed the appointment of a new supreme patriarch after the last one passed away in 2013.
Until late last year, the monastic leader was supposed to be nominated by a council of elder monks called the Supreme Sangha Council. The council had chosen 91-year-old Somdet Chuang, the abbot of Wat Pak Nam in Bangkok, who was also standing in as acting supreme patriarch during the interregnum.
Somdet Chuang belongs to the Mahanikai, one of the two denominations of Thai Buddhism to which the majority of monks belong. The other is Thammayut, an influential order founded by a Thai king.
But Somdet Chuang was embroiled in a motor tax evasion case. Critics of Dhammakaya temple were also uneasy about the possibility that, once installed, he would try to use his position to shield its fugitive former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, whom the senior monk once taught.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha did not submit Somdet Chuang's name for royal endorsement.
Last December, appointed legislators amended a law that would bypass the monastic council's choice. The decision then lay in the hands of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The monarch chose 89-year-old Phra Maha Muniwong, a Thammayut monk, who was formally installed on Sunday.
Tan Hui Yee
But Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gave the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) a fillip by issuing an order declaring the temple a controlled zone and authorised security forces to take control of any type of infrastructure needed to achieve their goal. Overnight, there were road checks in the temple's vicinity and more than 4,000 security officers, including soldiers, were deployed.
DSI spokesman Woranan Srilum said yesterday that only part of the compound was searched and the hunt would resume at 8am today. He was confident that Phra Dhammachayo was within the premises.
"When we filed for the arrest warrant, it meant that we had enough evidence that he was in the area," he said. "We still have days left for this operation. It will go on until we achieve what we planned."
The spokesman did not say if the authorities would activate special powers under PM Prayut's order since officers on the ground did not encounter strong resistance yesterday.
Many reporters were not allowed to enter the temple yesterday but videos uploaded online by eyewitnesses inside showed hordes of monks escorting security officers slowly through the temple grounds.
Outside, devotees and other monks who had been barred from entering after returning from their morning alms rounds were made to sit in tight rows by police officers.
Temple spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano told The Straits Times he could not confirm if Phra Dhammachayo was inside the temple. But he complained that temple staff were unable to keep a proper eye on some 20 vehicles allowed to enter the temple compound earlier as they "spread around the place".
"We are worried about third parties too," he said, referring to unrelated parties that may try to inflame the situation. He added that some 10,000 devotees as well as 3,500 monks and novices remain in the temple, though these figures could not be independently verified.