MANDALAY, MYANMAR (REUTERS) - Thousands of Buddhist monks gathered in Myanmar's second largest city on Sunday (Jan 21) for an event partly organised by a scandal-hit Thai temple whose abbot is wanted for questioning on money-laundering allegations.
The Dhammakaya temple's foundation helped organise the mass alms-giving for an estimated 20,000 monks on the runway of an abandoned airport in central Mandalay.
Thailand's largest and wealthiest temple, Dhammakaya has staged similar spectacles at its vast complex north of Bangkok, which police besieged last year in a fruitless search for its fugitive abbot.
The Mandalay event aimed to "tighten the relationship between both Myanmar and Thailand (and) unite the Theravada monkhood" in the region, according to a Dhammakaya Foundation press release.
Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka are predominantly Buddhist countries which follow the religion's Theravada branch.
In Mandalay, a centre for Buddhist learning crowded with temples and monasteries, monks in burgundy or orange began filing barefoot into the old airport before dawn.
Almost all the monks at the ceremony were from Myanmar and there were also thousands of local lay people attending along with about 100 monks and other Buddhists from Thailand and Sri Lanka, according to Dhammakaya temple.
Mandalay is home to the monk Wirathu, the self-styled "Buddhist bin Laden" famous for his anti-Islamic sermons, but there was no sign that he attended the mass alms-giving.
"It's such a wonderful ceremony. I live in Mandalay, and it's never happened like this before," said Ven Ya Ma, 40, who led a group of about 30 monks from the city's Ma Soe Yein monastery.
Ven Ya Ma opposed the actions of the Thai police against the Dhammakaya temple, which he said was only promoting Buddhism worldwide.
"People are worried that Buddhism is in danger," he said.
In March, Thai police abandoned a three-week siege of the Dhammakaya temple's complex, which is nearly 10 times the area of the Vatican City and centres around a giant, UFO-shaped golden stupa.
Police wanted to question the abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, about alleged money-laundering and building violations, but gave up after protests by monks and meditating devotees. His whereabouts are unknown.
Dhammakaya claims millions of followers in Thailand and around the world, and in recent years has forged closer ties with Myanmar's Buddhists.
Wirathu is a leading light in Ma Ba Tha, a religious group accused of whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar.
A brutal military crackdown in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, has driven about 650,000 Rohingya Muslims over the border into Bangladesh since August.