BANGKOK: Thai police entered a sprawling Buddhist temple complex Thursday, wading through thousands of devotees camped on the grounds, to arrest a popular abbot accused of embezzling $40 million.
The operation at Wat Dhammakaya, a monastery north of Bangkok known as one of the wealthiest in Thailand, began at 5 a.m. and was broadcast live on TV in a dramatic climax to a months-old standoff.
Abbot Phra Dhammachyao, accused of money laundering and links to embezzling 1.4 billion baht ($40 million) from a now defunct credit union, has brazenly rejected police demands to report for questioning. He has barricaded himself inside his temple, ignoring three summonses and an arrest warrant. He has avoided arrest for over two months, claiming he was too ill to report for questioning.
It is the latest in several scandals in recent years that have cast a shadow over the Buddhist clergy in Thailand.
Nine hours after the raid began, police told reporters that search and arrest warrants had been served but they were still looking for the abbot.
"We have entered the compound, but there is a last area we could not access because the followers would not allow us in. Our operation has not ended," said police Maj. Suriya Singhakamol, the deputy director-general of the Department of Special Investigations, the country's highest investigative authority.
The abbot's whereabouts remained unknown but police did not believe he had fled, Suriya said. "We believe he is still inside."
Earlier in the day, he said the raid would be peaceful: "Today's operation must be carried out in an orderly manner, nobody should be injured, and everything should be done according to the law. As you can see, officers are not carrying at weapons."
Outside of Thailand it may seem odd that a monk should be able to defy law-enforcement officials so brazenly. But a law which forbids a monk in his robes from being arrested for fear it would mar the sanctity of the clergy has repeatedly put police in an awkward position. Authorities are also reluctant to force a showdown with his thousands of supporters, fearing violence.
Buddhism, the national religion, is one of three core pillars of Thai society along with the monarchy and nationhood. Monks occupy a privileged position and are granted many concessions, including not paying taxes and being exempt from arrest until they are defrocked.
This was reflected in the police operation — they paused the raid to allow the monks to eat their once-a-day meal at 11 a.m.
"Since this morning, we have given full cooperation to the police," Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso, a spokesman for the temple, told an afternoon news conference on the temple grounds. But he said groups of followers were refusing to let police enter certain areas. "A number of followers, no matter what we tell them, they will not listen. They are asking (police) for consideration, because the abbot is ill. He has not fled the temple."
The main gates to the temple, a futuristic construction resembling a golden UFO-like dome, were blocked with shuttle buses brought in by the monk's followers. Police still managed to go in as thousands of devotees held up signs condemning the police for what the devotees say is a politically motivated investigation.
The leader of the religious sect has a cult-like following, the largest in Thailand. He first got into trouble two years ago when it became known that the former head of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative, a Dhammakaya devotee, had donated such large sums to the temple that it sent his business into insolvency.
The official was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 16 years in prison.