YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar Buddhist nationalists rallied outside the Thai embassy in Yangon on Friday (Feb 24) to condemn the Thai government's siege of the controversial Dhammakaya temple as officers search for an elderly monk accused of massive embezzlement.
The sprawling Bangkok temple, which houses the headquarters of the breakaway Dhammakaya sect, has been flooded this week with thousands of police and soldiers hunting for its 72-year-old former abbot Phra Dhammachayo.
The elderly monk, who is accused of money-laundering and accepting millions of dollars of embezzled funds, is believed to be hiding inside the temple's labyrinthine complex on the city's outskirts.
Scenes of security officers scuffling with monks trying to block their search have ricocheted across the web this week raising alarm in neighbouring Myanmar, another devoutly Buddhist country.
On Friday more than a hundred people, including dozens of robe-clad monks, gathered waving Buddhist and national flags and chanting: "May the teachings of the Buddha and Dhammakaya temple stay alive forever." "If the monastery is destroyed, the Buddhist religion will disappear in Thailand," protesting monk Thu Mingala told AFP.
Earlier the group handed the embassy a letter addressed to Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha saying they were "worried and deeply saddened" by the raid.
The show of solidarity came as Thai police on Friday ordered mobile operators to cut off internet signals around the temple compound to prevent monks and disciples from spreading "false information" about the raid.
While Dhammakaya is Thailand's largest and richest temple, it is far from mainstream and has drawn ire from conservative Buddhists for years.
Critics accuse the sect of promoting a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy and encouraging a cult-like devotion to Phra Dhammachayo, who founded the temple in 1970.
Temple officials say the sect's sole focus is teaching meditation and insist the former abbot is innocent.
They have also denied any links with Myanmar's hardline Buddhist nationalists, who have stoked their own controversy in recent years with virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Last year Dhammakaya raised eyebrows after welcoming Myanmar's firebrand preacher Wirathu, the face of the ultra-nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement, to the temple for a religious ceremony.
He was reportedly given an World Buddhist Outstanding Leader Award at the event, which a Dhammakaya spokesman says the temple played no part in.
"There is no link with Ma Ba Tha... the monastic members of Ma Ba Tha expressed their concern as they saw (the) action of (the) Thai government on Thai Buddhists and monks," the spokesman told AFP by email.
On Thursday Wirathu led a prayer session and protest at the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay to condemn the Thai government's raid on the Dhammakhaya temple, which he claimed on Facebook was attended by 200 people.