BANGKOK – Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation has ended it’s three-week siege of Wat Dhammakaya temple for honorary abbot Phra Dhammachayo an elderly monk wanted for suspected fraud, thwarting a much-trumpeted dragnet ordered by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha.
On Feb. 16 Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha invoked special powers under Article 44 to seal off the the 1,000-acre grounds of the Wat Dhammakaya temple on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Since then thousands of DSI police officers and 4000 soldiers have laid siege to the temple in a bid to arrest 72-year-old monk Phra Dhammachayo, who was believed to be heled-up inside.
The former abbot, who founded the breakaway Buddhist order in 1970 and steered its rise to riches, is accused of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth $33 million from the jailed boss of a cooperative bank.
The monk’s followers say he is innocent and deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, instead accusing Thailand’s Military junta of a witchhunt against a popular and legitimate Buddhist institution.
The monk’s disappearing act has transfixed the Thai public, spinning out questions of religion and politics and leaving Thailand’s military rulers struggling to explain away the challenge to their authority.
On Saturday police said Phra Dhammachayo may have left the temple in the early days of the weeks-long siege.
“I believe that he escaped between February 16-18,” Paisit Wongmuang, director-general of the Department of Special Investigation told reporters.
“We found the temple wall had been destroyed, it was possible someone helped him escape,” he said.
Police ended their siege late Friday but they will maintain a presence in the area which remains under special powers.
The DSI said it will reduce its presence at the temple but continue to monitor the situation there daily. It also said it will ask that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Feb 16 order for the search to be revoked.
Their three week operation lurched into farce as defiant monks led them around secret tunnels, empty rooms and even to the fugitive abbot’s quarters where police found a bed with pillows arranged under a sheet in a poor imitation of a sleeping person.
Critics accuse the Dhammakaya sect of promoting a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy, burnished with “cultish” mass shows of devotion and a sophisticated PR machine.
He faces more than 300 separate charges of money-laundering, accepting stolen items, obstructing police officers and illegal construction.
There have been two temple-related deaths over the last three weeks: a man protesting the siege committed suicide outside the complex and a female follower died of asthma after troops allegedly stopped ambulances there.
Dhammakaya has millions of followers and branches overseas, including in Singapore. Followers have been flocking to the temple since the siege began.
Last week, King Maha Vajiralongkorn stripped Dhammachayo of his monastic rank, but the abbot has not been defrocked. Neither the monarch nor the government has the power to do that.
The Supreme Sangha Council has been asked to defrock the abbot but the council said that will be a long process.
Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Kreangarm told reporters it might take years and that the defendant must be physically present during the process. He urged Phra Dhammachayo to emerge from hiding.
The temple is also mired in Thailand’s messy politics, with the Military alleging it has links to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 Military coup and still hated by the Bangkok elite and their military allies who have spent years trying to expunge the influence of his super-rich clan on Thai politics.