Thailand: Devotees block arrest of Dhammakaya temple abbot

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe temple has proved very attractive in a fast-changing society, and become wealthy on the back of generous donations

Thousands of supporters of an influential Thai Buddhist abbot have blocked his arrest in a police raid.

Phra Dhammajayo is accused of money laundering and embezzling funds from the huge Dhammakaya temple in Bangkok.

But his supporters blocked officers from searching parts of the compound.

The 72-year-old abbot has stayed inside the temple for months, saying he is too ill to face officials. He denies the allegations and says they are politically motivated.

In a statement, the devotees of the temple said Phra Dhammajayo was severely ill and would enter the judicial process only when the country returned to democracy.

Thailand has been run by the military since a coup in 2014.

image copyrightEPA
image captionMonks blocked the road leading up to the temple on Thursday morning

Police say they have paused an operation to arrest Phra Dhammajayo after devotees blocked their way.

A temple spokesman said monks were co-operating with police, but could not stop some followers from acting.

However, Suriya Singhakamol, deputy chief of the police department of special investigations, said: "Our operation has not ended. The [arrest] warrant is still valid so we will have authority to carry out the operation. According to our information, he is still inside."

One 58-year-old female supporter told Reuters: "Arresting him is uncalled for. It's not like he killed someone."

The raid is the latest flashpoint between secular authorities and Buddhists in Thailand, and follows a raid on the controversial Tiger Temple.

Analysts say police do not want to appear confrontational towards Buddhist monks or enter a temple by force, given their revered status in Thailand.

Police said they had delayed Thursday's raid against the Dhammakaya temple in northern Bangkok until the monks had finished their lunch - their only meal of the day.

Jonathan Head, South East Asia correspondent, Bangkok

What is the Dhammakaya Temple?

image copyrightAP
image captionDevotees from the controversial Buddhist sect have camped outside the sprawling temple

Founded in the 1970s, the temple contrasts starkly with the informal, tradition-bound character of most Thai temples, which are often integrated into the local community.

It has more of the character of a charismatic cult, offering tightly choreographed mass meditations at its bizarre, flying saucer-like central chedi, and encouraging intense loyalty from its followers.

Why is it so controversial?

Partly it is due to its size, the devotion of its followers, and its unusual interpretation of Buddhist practice.

It has proved very attractive in a fast-changing society, and become wealthy on the back of generous donations. Critics have accused it of distorting the traditional teachings of Buddhism, and taking followers away from local temples.

Wat Dhammakaya is controversial for another reason too - its alleged close links to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the red shirt movement which supports him.

What do its followers say?

They deny the Thaksin links. They say the temple attracts Thais from all walks of life and all political persuasions.

But in Thailand's polarised political climate, such a powerful religious sect has inevitably been drawn in, with opponents of Mr Thaksin and his party making the loudest calls for action against the temple's abbot.

The potential for huge numbers of the temple's followers to be mobilised in mass protests must also weigh on the minds of a military government obsessed with maintaining tight control of the country as it navigates a difficult political transition.

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