BANGKOK - Thai security forces left the controversial Dhammakaya temple empty handed on Thursday (Feb 16) despite being armed with unprecedented powers to search for its honorary abbot, who is wanted on fraud related charges.
Citing ill health, 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo has repeatedly denied summons over the past year for allegedly receiving stolen property and being involved in meditation centres said to be built on public land.
The Buddhist temple is a significant node of influence in military-ruled Thailand, boasting overseas chapters and counting rich and influential people among its followers in the Kingdom. 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.
Twice last year, police had massed by the 320-ha temple grounds just outside Bangkok, only to leave after being confronted with thousands of praying devotees whom critics had argued the temple was using as human shields.
But Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gave the Department of Special Investigation a fillip by issuing an order that declared the temple a controlled zone and authorised security forces to take control of any type of infrastructure to achieve their goal.
Overnight, road checks around the temple vicinity were set up, and soldiers were also deployed.
Most of the media were kept outside the temple’s gates but videos uploaded 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 sat in tight rows by the police officers, some of whom were packed under the shade of tents.
DSI chief Paisit Wongmuang, who had earlier told reporters that its search warrant allowed the hunt to extend over several days, is expected to speak to the press again later on Thursday.
A spokesman for the temple, Phra Pasura Dantamano, told The Straits Times he could not confirm if Phra Dhammachayo was indeed inside the temple.
But he complained that temple staff could were unable to keep a proper eye on the some 20 vehicles allowed to enter the temple compound earlier in the day as they “spread around the place”.
“We are worried about third parties too,” he said, referring to unrelated parties that try to inflame a situation.
Phra Pasura 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.