BANGKOK (The Nation/Asia News Network, AFP) - More than 2,200 police and military personnel will be deployed to arrest the abbot of a Buddhist temple accused of accepting embezzled funds, a source said, in the latest development in a scandal that has opened a bitter rupture at the heart of the nation’s faith.
The troops will be deployed to guard the 15 entrances of the Dhammakaya temple’s pristine, 1,000-acre compound north of Bangkok where peacocks roam the lawns and white-clad devotees meditate, said the source from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI).
A drone and a police chopper flew over the compound on Saturday to survey routes in and around the temple as part of a DSI plan to arrest controversial abbot Phra Dhammachayo.
The 72-year-old monk 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.
DSI officials said Supachai made out cheques worth more than 1 billion baht to various parties linked to the temple. The temple has denied its abbot conspired to launder the money, calling the charges “groundless and unconscionable”.
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 Koomchaya revealed the DSI had established five steps leading to the abbot’s arrest, though the exact date of the arrest would be determined by the authorities so as to prevent an escalation of tensions.
It would send a letter to the Sangha Council in a bid to get senior monks involved in trying to resolve the issue, Paiboon said, adding that the case report would be concluded soon and submitted to the public prosecutor to decide whether to indict the monk.
The source said investigators were analysing money transactions of the people who provided financial support to the temple to cover the cost of transport, meals, and around-the-clock security in order to propose impounding their assets.
The source said these people may be charged with assisting someone alleged to have committed an offence to avoid prosecution.
Meanwhile the super-rich temple has unleashed its PR machine, with Twitter-using Thai monks orchestrating Phra Dhammachayo’s defence over the scandal.
“There has never been a temple of this size in Thai history,” orange-robed Phra Pasura Dantamano says as he gestures towards Dhammakaya temple.
But the affable monk’s comments apply to more than the temple’s enormous, futuristic architecture – including a building that famously resembles a gigantic UFO.
Dhammakaya is also regarded as the wealthiest in Buddhist-majority Thailand, thanks in part to tech-savvy devotees who have cultivated a fervent following, raised tens of millions of dollars and set up outposts in dozens of countries across the globe.
Phra Pasura, the monk in charge of the temple’s 60-member International Affairs Department, is part of the fine-tuned public relations operation that is now firing on all cylinders as it seeks to quash the latest scandal to dog the temple since its founding in 1970.
Dhammakaya’s modern, and some say “cultish”, approach to Buddhism riles traditionalists, with critics accusing the clergy of peddling a pay-your-way to nirvana scheme.
Monks and temple staff have been vigorously live-tweeting the drama, churning out detailed press releases and fact sheets, and making use of their slick 24-hour TV channel to bat back the allegations against their revered abbot.
The temple boasts a TV studio and editing bays inside its two-story media department, with other offices adorned with signs such as “Corporate Image Division,” and “Printed Media Section.”
Phra Pasura, a former flight attendant with a degree in international relations, says the overheads are minimal.
“Much of the animation and editing is done by monks,” he says of the TV channel, which broadcasts across four continents and airs everything from meditation teachings to cartoons and daily news.
“And a monk’s salary is only two meals a day”, he adds with a smile.
Dhammakaya’s rise comes as mainstream monasteries in Thailand struggle to stay relevant to younger generations swept up in the rapid economic development that has frayed traditional community networks and ways of life.
They have also been rocked by a series of their own controversies featuring badly behaved monks riding in private jets and disgracing the faith with sex and drug scandals.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, who writes on religion in Thailand, said Dhammakaya offers an appealing alternative to urban Thais by mixing “old beliefs and materialistic values”.
Its emphasis on order and community – on display during stunning mass gatherings of followers meditating in ruler-straight rows – also provides an antidote to the alienation of the modern age, she adds.
And the temple’s early embrace of technology has played a key role in building its sweeping global presence, with overseas centres scattered across Asia, several US states and nearly a dozen European countries.
“Dhammakaya has been very active, very smart, very modern in its way of using technology to grow a support base,” Sanitsuda said.
While much of the criticism has focused on the temple’s teachings and assets, the abbot’s embezzlement scandal is also tangled up in Thailand’s treacherous politics.
Police have attempted to nab him on similar grounds before, but the case was dropped a decade ago under ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled but still influential telecoms tycoon at the centre of the kingdom’s political schism.
That history has fanned speculation that Thaksin and the wealthy temple are in league, with police now renewing the case as part of the ruling junta’s wider crackdown on Thaksin allies. The temple denies any political affiliations.
The case against the abbot has also gained momentum ahead of a protracted change of leadership in Thailand’s ruling council of Buddhist clerics, a body known as the sangha.
The position of Supreme Patriarch – or top monk – has been left open for years and mainstream Buddhists are fearful that Dhammakaya is poised to take over the council and alter the religion for good.
A rapprochement appeared close this week when Phra Dhammachayo agreed to meet at the police station near the temple to discuss the arrest warrant against him.
But the parley was cancelled at the last minute after the abbot fainted on his way to the car.
Authorities retreated and are now plotting their next move as the game – and the media coverage – continue.