BANGKOK • Thousands of followers of Thailand's biggest Buddhist temple defied orders to leave its grounds yesterday to enable police to seek out their former abbot, who is accused of money-laundering.
Police had ordered worshippers to leave the Dhammakaya Temple by 3pm yesterday (2pm Singapore time) so that they could intensify the search for former abbot Phra Dhammachayo. But his followers, who want the authorities to suspend their siege, flocked into the 400ha compound.
Many held rudimentary placards in English and Thai calling for police to stand down and appealing for international help.
Thailand's ruling junta had used a special emergency law on Thursday to let police explore the scandal-hit temple after months of failing to get it to hand over its former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo.
"We have cooperated with the government every step of the way but this is one step too far," temple spokesman and senior monk Phra Pasura Dantamano told Reuters. "We're asking the authorities to suspend the emergency law and lift their siege. Our supplies are low and we have been without power or water for three days."
Thailand's Department of Special Investigations ordered all non-residents to leave the premises because temple activities were hindering police in their search. Monks who live in the temple were told to gather separately. The department also ordered 14 temple elders to give themselves up.
The temple has been a rare institution in defying the military government. Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced since a coup in 2014.
Phra Dhammachayo faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. His aides say the accusations are politically motivated. Although the temple has no overt political affiliation, the former abbot is widely believed to have had links with populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. A government led by his sister was toppled by the army in 2014.
The Dhammakaya Temple's brasher approach to winning adherents jars on conservatives, who say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money.
The temple says it is as committed to Buddhist values as anyone else.