Thailand ends hunt for monk at temple

Thai monks and representatives of the National Office of Buddhism were present as DSI officers searched inside Wat Dhammakaya temple yesterday.
Thai monks and representatives of the National Office of Buddhism were present as DSI officers searched inside Wat Dhammakaya temple yesterday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Search for abbot widens to rest of country after 4,000 personnel come up empty

Thailand has ended a 23-day search for a fugitive monk at the massive Wat Dhammakaya temple after about 4,000 soldiers failed to find any trace of him there.

The army, however, is expected to keep a lookout for him in other parts of the country.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) conducted its latest search for honorary abbot Phra Dhammachayo at the unfinished Boonraksa Building, north of the temple complex, where he was believed to be hiding. The authorities now believe the monk is not ill, as he has claimed, and is on the run.

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 told reporters it might take years and that the defendant must be physically present during the process. He urged Phra Dhammachayo 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 allegedly stopped ambulances there.

Dhammakaya has millions of followers and branches overseas, including in 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 those staking out at the Khlong Luang Market outside the main gate.

"But if we are not going to defend it, who will? We cannot wait for the UN to do it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2017, with the headline 'Thailand ends hunt for monk at temple'. Print Edition | Subscribe