Followers from an influential Buddhist temple have thwarted an attempt by Thai investigators to nab its abbot, prolonging a month- long stand-off.
Officers from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) who tried to search the 320ha Wat Phra Dhammakaya for fugitive monk Phra Dhammachayo had to call off their operation after followers refused to grant them access.
This is despite temple spokesman Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso promising that the temple would fully cooperate with the DSI, which was armed with a search warrant valid for just one day.
"We are willing to cooperate," the orange-robed spokesman told reporters. "But there are some followers who didn't want to let the officials enter. I begged them repeatedly to let them in."
Phra Dhammachayo, 72, is accused of accepting money stolen from a credit union but has so far not appeared before investigators to hear his charges.
His followers say he is suffering from a range of illnesses, including deep vein thrombosis that could prove fatal if he moves too much. Yet, he has refused treatment outside the temple. A warrant for his arrest was issued on May 17.
DSI deputy chief Suriya Singhakamol, in a joint press conference with Phra Sanitwong, warned that followers who had obstructed his team could face legal action.
Phra Dhammachayo has been linked to Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, the former chief of Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative, who was jailed for 16 years in March for his role in an embezzlement case involving more than 11 billion baht (S$421 million) from the organisation. According to the DSI, Supachai wrote cheques worth more than one billion baht to various parties linked to the temple.
The temple's administrators argue that it is inappropriate to question the source of donations.
Yesterday was the first time that the DSI tried to enter the temple grounds after weeks of failed attempts to summon Phra Dhammachayo. The drama was aired live on several television channels, given the fast-expanding temple's large following.
Though the temple has been accused of skewing Buddhist teachings, its mass processions and ordinations often attract thousands of participants. Its spaceship-like headquarters in Pathum Thani province houses some 2,000 monks.
Thousands of white-robed followers had gathered in the temple compound over the past few days in expectation of a raid. When the DSI team arrived, it came up against followers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the wide roads inside the temple. They did not budge when it rained.
A statement issued by the devotees said they "unanimously" agreed that the abbot "should turn himself in and enter the judicial process, but only when the nation has returned to normal conditions - that is, when full democracy has returned". "This is solely because the lack of a demo- cracy in a nation inevitably leads to an absence of civil liberties in the judicial process," it added.
The country has been administered by a military government since a coup in May 2014.
While the temple has tried to cast itself as an apolitical organisation, Dhammakaya has been outspoken about the need to protect the monastic order from state interference.
One of the devotees, Dr Watjana Suriyatham, told The Straits Times she had rushed to the temple at 3am yesterday when word of the possible raid got out. "We are very determined because we know what is right and what is wrong."