Junta accepts monk hunt defeat 

Phra Dhammakaya Fireworks Temple Dhammakaya Pagoda

Traditional Thai Buddhists dislike the opulence of the Dhammakaya movement.

The Thai junta has ended its 23-day siege of the kingdom’s largest temple, where worshippers and monks defied repeated attempts to seize a prominent religious leader wanted on charges of money laundering and accepting stolen goods.

Tearful worshippers re-entered the 400-hectare Dhammakaya temple complex to the north of Bangkok, which thousands of police and soldiers had blockaded in an attempt to arrest Phra Dhammajayo, 72, the temple’s honorary abbot.

“Welcome home. It’s great to see everyone again,” the religious order tweeted. The compound is reportedly 10 times the size of the Vatican. 

Paisit Wongmuang, head of the Department of Special Investigation, said the search for Phra Dhammajayo would continue.

The police and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) were attempting to verify tip-offs about his whereabouts, DSI director-general Paisit Wongmuang said. He added temples affiliated with the Dhammakaya movement were suspected of harbouring him. 

“We have got tip-offs that Phra Dhammajayo may be in hiding at one of those places. The DSI is verifying the information and collecting evidence to apply for a search warrant as soon as possible,” Paisit told the media.

Under an emergency law, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared the temple a “special control zone”, allowing it to be placed under military isolation.

Monks have formed human shields to block police raids during the standoff. There were scuffles but no serious violence was reported. 

“I believe he escaped sometime between February 16 and 18,” he told reporters. “We found the temple wall had been destroyed … it was possible someone helped him escape.”

Electricity and water supplies were cut and food deliveries were stopped.

The Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council said last week that it could not disrobe Phra Dhammajayo after the government’s National Office of Buddhism filed a complaint.

The Dhammakaya organisation was founded in 1970 and has attracted millions of followers in Thailand and across Asia, Australia, Europe and the US, unsettling the traditional religious hierarchy with its endorsement of wealth and unconventional rituals.

Critics accuse him of promoting donations as a shortcut to good fortune and enlightenment.

Cash machines within the sprawling complex have screens that read “Shortcut to making merit”.

“Buddha never taught us to live in hardship,” Dhammakaya spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano said. 

Phra Dhammajayo is accused of embezzling more than US$30 million, receiving stolen property and unlawfully taking land for meditation centres. 

The movement has been linked to self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup and remains bitterly opposed to military rule.

Picture credit: Max Pixel