BANGKOK (AP) — A Buddhist abbot whom police are seeking to arrest for accepting donations of embezzled money has been stripped of a royally bestowed religious title.
A statement from the Royal Palace said King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has approved stripping the honorary title from 72-year-old Phra Dhammajayo, head of the Dhammakaya sect, because of the criminal charges against him, which also include land encroachment. He remains in the monkhood.
"He has refused to turn himself in to hear the charges and has fled, which means he is unfit for this monastic status," the statement said.
Police on Monday continued a three-week siege of Dhammakaya's massive headquarters temple north of Bangkok, seeking to detain Dhammajayo because he has refused to turn himself in since early last year, pleading ill health. Seeking to avoid violence and bad publicity, they have avoided storming the complex, instead tightening access bit by bit. However, it is not clear that Dhammajayo is inside.
The government has put an extraordinary effort into trying to catch Dhammajayo, even invoking an emergency law allowing it broad powers to search property and make arrests deemed necessary to enforce public order and unity.
The Dhammakaya sect is controversial for what critics say is a money-friendly ideology. But critics of the military government believe it sees the sect as a political enemy, a stronghold of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 army coup.
Dhammajayo was given the title by former King Bhumibol Aduyadej in 2011, an honor bestowed on monks by the monarchy for service to Buddhism and the nation. The government does not have the authority to defrock him — only Thai Buddhism's highest council can do so.
But the government has moved in recent weeks to assert itself in the Thai Buddhist hierarchy, appointing a police official as the chief of the National Office of Buddhism and sidelining a Dhammakaya-friendly monk who had been next in line to become the top leader of Thai Buddhism.
"I respect the decision of his majesty, though I am sad," said Phra Pasura Dantamano, a Dhammakaya spokesman. "I hope everything will be back to normal after the allegations are cleared."