The scale of the Dhammakaya temple complex is regarded as vulgar by other Thai Buddhist groups.
Thailand’s junta is trying to order the scandal-hit Buddhist movement to the north of Bangkok to appoint a new leader as the authorities abandoned their hunt for the chief abbot, who is accused of money laundering.
Around 4,000 police and soldiers have retreated from a three-week siege of the 400-hectare Dhammakaya temple after failing to arrest Phra Dhammachayo, who also faces numerous charges of building on land without permission.
Observers believe the junta’s crackdown is largely motivated by the movement’s close ties to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a military coup in 2006.
“I love him even more,” Sunanta Saekhon, a 46-year-old devotee. She said that far from disrupting the movement, the siege had made the congregation stronger and drawn sympathy from outsiders who had previously viewed the temple with suspicion.
“We have more supporters, because we protested peacefully, and people saw the military’s actions were unjust,” she said.
The National Office of Buddhism proposed to the religious authorities that a monk with no affiliation to the temple be appointed to lead the populist movement, said its chief Pongporn Pramsaneh.
This would help the probe into the temple’s assets and the process of disrobing the 72-year-old Dhammachayo, Pongporn told Reuters.
“The monk in chief should be someone the society can rely on for unbiased action and judgement,” he said.
The giant temple’s acting abbot is Dhammachayo’s deputy, Phra Dattajivo, who faces a police investigation for allegedly using temple money in stock dealing.
The Dhammakaya leadership dismissed the allegations as “fake news”.
The temple complex is nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City. The movement claims millions of followers, although only making up a minority of Thai Buddhists.
But Dhammakaya numbers have allegedly slumped in the last couple of years, reportedly falling from 2 million to around 200,000, with more expected to leave following the siege and infighting for the top job, said Mano Laohavanich, a member of the temple for 22 years until he defected in 1994.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a scholar of Buddhism at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the temple operated with corporate efficiency, running branches in many Thai universities to recruit members and aggressively expanding.
“Many temples have become deserted. Dhammakaya has taken over them and stationed its own monks there,” the legal scholar added.
Other Buddhists claim the movement is dominated by commercialism with followers promised a space in heaven depending on how much cash they donate. The more they give, the higher in heaven they allegedly reach.
Pongporn said the Pathum Thani province Buddhist authorities would audit the Dhammakaya finances at the end of the month.
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