BANGKOK (AP) — Thai police put more pressure Tuesday on a wealthy, politically influential Buddhist temple where the leader is wanted for alleged money laundering and related crimes involving millions of dollars of embezzled funds.
At dawn about 400 police moved to surround the Dhammakaya temple north of Bangkok to remove a fence said to be blocking public property.
They had tried to raid the temple in June and detain the chief monk and head of the Dhammakaya sect, Phra Dhammachayo, but withdrew after devotees blocked their way. The authorities still seek to arrest Dhammachayo and search the temple for evidence.
The government says the temple is involved in financial shenanigans but the temple's supporters believe it is being persecuted because it is considered close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown by a military coup in 2006. Thailand is currently under military rule after the army in 2014 ousted an elected government that had been led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The sect has repeatedly rebuffed the authorities' efforts to summon Dhammachayo, saying he is too ill to meet with them. While he remains the sect's leader, he was recently replaced as the temple's abbot by another monk, Phra Withespawanajarn, who also faces legal charges. One of the cases holds him responsible for the temple having illegal structures that obstruct public roads, which was the basis for Tuesday's police action.
The government has been defending its go-slowly approach to the temple.
"For this issue, the officials are doing everything in accordance with the law," Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said. "They will do whatever they can. If they can talk, they will talk. There has to be no harm done to anyone and no timeframe is set. If there is conflict, it will be damaging to the country's image."
The main criminal case against Dhammachayo involves 1.4 billion baht ($40 million) embezzled from a credit union that was donated to the temple. The former chairman of the now-defunct Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative is serving a 16-year prison term for embezzlement.