Thai police fail to find monk in Dhammakaya temple raid

  • Published
Thai police block Buddhist monks at the gate of Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand February 16, 2017.Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The authorities have been in dispute with the temple for months

Thai police have failed to find an influential Buddhist leader, wanted for alleged money-laundering, after searching his sect's vast headquarters.

Police said they found medical equipment in rooms where they had expected to find the group's former abbot, 72-year-old Phra Dhammajayo.

They say they will keep searching the Dhammakaya temple complex, under a 10-day search warrant.

Officers first entered the site, near Bangkok, on Thursday.

Previous attempts to search the complex were thwarted when thousands of the monk's devotees turned up in his defence.

The latest search is being carried out under an emergency law, after the temple for months failed to hand over Phra Dhammajayo, saying he was too ill to be questioned.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The temple is famous for its golden dome and tightly choreographed mass meditations

Phra Dhammajayo, who founded the temple, is wanted on money laundering charges and accusations of receiving stolen goods.

But when officers attempted to search the site last June they were blocked by his supporters.

The abbot appears not to have left the temple for months and has long denied the allegations, saying they are politically motivated.

What is the Dhammakaya Temple?

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Devotees of the sect camped outside the temple during a previous police operation there

Founded in the 1970s, it contrasts starkly with the informal, tradition-bound character of most Thai temples. It more closely resembles charismatic cult, with tightly choreographed mass meditations at its flying saucer-like chedi.

It is controversial partly due to its size, its followers intense devotion and its unusual interpretation of Buddhist practice.

It has become wealthy on the back of generous donations, and critics accuse it of distorting Buddhism at the expense of local temples. They also allege links to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Temple followers deny ties but the potential for huge numbers of them to be mobilised in protests may weigh on the minds of the military government.

Thousands of police and soldiers surrounded the site before dawn on Thursday, blocking the roads leading to and from the temple and putting the area under military control.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Police surrounded the site, blocking roads to and from the Dhammakaya temple

"We are sealing off the temple and after that we will search all the buildings," said Col Paisit Wongmaung, head of the Department of Special Investigations (DSI).

"If [the abbot] thinks he is innocent he should surrender and enter [a] judicial process," he said.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Supporters of Phra Dhammajayo have been praying in front of the temple on Thursday

A spokesman for the temple said he did not know if Phra Dhammajayo was inside.

"I don't know his whereabouts - I haven't seen him in about nine months," AFP quoted spokesman Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso as saying.