BANGKOK • An elderly monk wanted for massive fraud may have escaped a three-week siege of his temple, Thai cops have admitted, thwarting a much-trumpeted dragnet ordered by the kingdom's junta.
On Feb 16, the Thai junta invoked special powers to seal off the 405ha grounds of the Wat Dhammakaya temple on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Since then, thousands of police officers have laid siege to the temple in a bid to arrest 72- year-old monk Phra Dhammachayo, who was believed to be holed up inside.
The former abbot, who founded the breakaway Buddhist order in 1970 and steered its rise to riches, is accused of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth US$33 million (S$46.6 million) from the jailed boss of a cooperative bank.
The monk's followers say he is innocent and deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, instead accusing the junta of a witch-hunt against a popular and legitimate Buddhist institution.
The monk's disappearing act has transfixed the Thai public, spinning out questions of religion and politics, and leaving Thailand's military rulers struggling to explain away the challenge to their authority.
We found the temple wall had been destroyed... It was possible someone helped him escape.
MR PAISIT WONGMUANG, director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, on how Phra Dhammachayo may have escaped.
Yesterday, cops said Phra Dhammachayo may have left the temple in the early days of the weeks-long siege.
"I believe that he escaped between Feb 16 and 18," said Mr Paisit Wongmuang, director- general of the Department of Special Investigation. "We found the temple wall had been destroyed... It was possible someone helped him escape."
Police ended their siege late Friday, but will maintain a presence in the area.