Thai police raided the head temple of a controversial Buddhist sect but failed to find and arrest the abbot, who faces criminal charges over accepting $40 million in embezzled money. The action yesterday followed several earlier failed attempts to seize Phra Dhammajayo, 72, head of the Dhammakaya sect. Police were previously thwarted when crowds of monks and followers blocked the way, risking a violent confrontation. The prime minister of Thailand’s military government, Prayuth Chan-ocha, this time invoked an emergency order declaring the area around the temple a temporary “restricted area” to stop people from entering. Police deployed about 3,000 personnel to surround the temple before dawn, blocking hundreds of monks and followers who sat outside the compound’s gates, chanting Buddhist texts in protest.
The temple’s senior monks agreed around noon to admit some police. Several hundred officers swept the grounds, honing in on an inner residence compound where intelligence suggested the abbot resided, but he was nowhere to be found.
“We found nothing illegal, we couldn’t find him,” said Kolvit Bunnag, director of special operations at the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s FBI. “We expected to find him, but the news spread around. He could (have) run away.”
Some devotees believe the raids are politically motivated because the temple and its followers are seen as supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.
The Dhammakaya sect is controversial for fusing Buddhism theology with what critics call a bourgeois, money-friendly ideology. It appeals to Thailand’s burgeoning middle class.
Temple spokesmen claim they haven’t seen Dhammajayo for months at the temple, which is known for its vast golden dome that appears to hover over the grounds like a gilded UFO.
“(The police) tried to make it as smooth and peaceful as possible,” said Phra Pasura Dantamano, a Dhammakaya spokesman.
However, he said it was an “excessive use of force for nearly 4,000 police to come and block the road just because someone did not appear for a summons.”
Pasura said Dhammajayo was innocent and estimated that 10,000 followers came to support him at the vast compound, which covers an area almost 10 times the size of Vatican City.
One of Dhammajayo’s followers, the head of a credit union, was convicted of embezzling money to donate to the temple, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Dhammajayo was charged with money-laundering and receiving stolen property.