BANGKOK - Thailand has ended a 23-day search for a fugitive monk at the massive Wat Dhammakaya temple after some 4,000 soldiers failed to find any trace of him there, but is expected to keep a look-out for him in other parts of the country.
The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) conducted its latest search for honorary abbot Dhammachayo at the unfinished Boonraksa Building, north of the temple complex, where he was believed to be hiding. Authorities now believe the monk is not ill, as he has claimed, and is simply on the run.
"We did not see Dhammachayo in the temple (on Friday) so we consider him a fugitive. The relevant authorities will attempt to arrest him later,” DSI director general Paisit Wongmuang said.
A special case officer from the DSI, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that immigration and embassies in Thailand had no record of the 72-year-old monk leaving the country or asking for a visa for foreign countries either.
The DSI said it will reduce its presence at the temple but continue to monitor the situation there daily. It also said it will ask that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's Feb 16 order for the search to be revoked.
About 4,000 soldiers, police and other security officers had surrounded the 336ha complex since then. The authorities say they will start drawing down their personnel at the temple.
Last week, King Maha Vajiralongkorn stripped Dhammachayo of his monastic rank, but the abbot has not been defrocked. Neither the monarch nor the government has the power to do that. The Supreme Sangha Council has been asked to defrock the abbot but the council said that will be a long process.
Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Kreangarm also told reporters it might take years and that the defendant must be physically present during the process. He urged Dhammakaya to emerge from hiding.
Despite repeated summons and a warrant, the controversial monk has refused to answer his charges, claiming that he is in poor health. He faces more than 300 separate charges of money-laundering, accepting stolen items, obstructing police officers and illegal construction.
There have been two temple-related deaths over the last three weeks: a man protesting the siege committed suicide outside the complex and a female follower died of asthma after troops alledgedly stopped ambulances there.
Dhammakaya has millions of followers and branches overseas, including in the United States, Canada and Singapore. Followers have been flocking to the temple since the siege began.
"The temple had grown big but there is nothing political about the teachings," said Ms Thadchawan Wisespan, 47, who was among the followers staking out at the Khlong Luang Market about 500m away from the temple's main gate. "But if we are not going to defend it, who will? We cannot wait for the UN to do it."
The temple's followers were allowed inside the complex again on Friday night (Mar 10).