PATHUM THANI, Thailand (AP) — Thai police raided the head temple of a controversial Buddhist sect Thursday but failed to find and arrest the abbot, who faces criminal charges over accepting $40 million in embezzled money.
The action followed several earlier failed attempts to seize Phra Dhammajayo, 72, head of the Dhammakaya sect. Police were previously thwarted when crowds of monks and followers blocked the way, risking a violent confrontation.
The prime minister of Thailand's military government, Prayuth Chan-ocha, this time invoked an emergency order declaring the area around the temple a temporary "restricted area" to stop people from entering.
Police deployed about 3,000 personnel to surround the temple before dawn, blocking hundreds of monks and followers who sat outside the compound's gates, chanting Buddhist texts in protest.
The temple's senior monks agreed around noon to admit some police. Several hundred officers swept the grounds, honing in on an inner residence compound where intelligence suggested the abbot resided, but he was nowhere to be found.
"We found nothing illegal, we couldn't find him," said Kolvit Bunnag, director of special operations at the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's FBI. "We expected to find him, but the news spread around. He could (have) run away."
Some devotees believe the raids are politically motivated because the temple and its followers are seen as supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup.
The Dhammakaya sect is controversial for fusing Buddhism theology with what critics call a bourgeois, money-friendly ideology. It appeals to Thailand's burgeoning middle class.
Temple spokesmen claim they haven't seen Dhammajayo for months at the temple, which is known for its vast golden dome that appears to hover over the grounds like a gilded UFO.
"(The police) tried to make it as smooth and peaceful as possible," said Phra Pasura Dantamano, a Dhammakaya spokesman. However, he said it was an "excessive use of force for nearly 4,000 police to come and block the road just because someone did not appear for a summons."
Pasura said Dhammajayo was innocent and estimated that 10,000 followers came to support him at the vast compound, which covers an area almost 10 times the size of Vatican City.
One of Dhammajayo's followers, the head of a credit union, was convicted of embezzling money to donate to the temple, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Dhammajayo was charged with money-laundering and receiving stolen property. The sect says he did not know the money was tainted.
In an evident effort to put pressure on him, three unrelated charges of land encroachment were later filed against him.
The sect was founded in 1970 and ballooned in Thailand's 1980s economic boom. Dhammajayo was forced to temporarily step down as the temple's abbot following embezzlement accusations in 1999 and 2002. He resumed his post in 2006 after clearing his name.
The DSI first summoned Dhammajayo last March in connection with the money-laundering charges. After he repeatedly failed to show up for questioning, saying he was ill, a criminal court issued an arrest warrant last May, prompting police to try to raid the temple several times.
The raids have been complicated by a law which forbids the arrest of a monk in his robes, for fear that would mar the sanctity of the clergy. Buddhism is the national religion and a core pillar of Thai society.
Police said they would be back Friday and Saturday to continue the hunt, after which their search agreement with the monks will expire.
The temple's supporters, too, will be back.
"Lots of things happened to the temple, it's not fair," said Tiparaphan Up-prakan, a decades-long Dhammakaya devotee from Bangkok. "I think Dhammakaya will be OK. We will fight for that."