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BANGKOK, Thailand – Thousands of supporters of a wealthy and controversial Thai Buddhist sect rallied at the temple's space-age headquarters Thursday, June 16, to successfully see off an attempt by police to arrest the movement's elderly abbot on fraud charges.
The long simmering spat between investigators and the powerful Wat Dhammakaya temple in northern Bangkok is the latest clash to reveal bitter political ruptures at the heart of Thailand's national faith – and law enforcement's seeming inability to confront monks accused of crimes.
Historically, secular authorities have been reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the clergy.
But a series of recent scandals and corruption probes engulfing various temples – including allegations of monks flying in private jets, having sex, and trafficking animal parts – has generated calls for greater oversight.
The country's equivalent of the FBI has been trying for months to question Phra Dhammachayo, the 72-year-old abbot of the Dhammakaya temple, over allegations he accepted embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht ($33 million) from the owner of a cooperative bank who was jailed.
The temple, famous for its main shrine that resembles a huge UFO, has denied its abbot conspired to launder the money, calling the charges "groundless and unconscionable."
Temple authorities say their leader is too ill to be questioned by police.
After weeks of stalemate, police obtained a court-approved arrest warrant and arrived at the temple on Thursday morning to search for the abbot.
Investigators adopted a non-confrontational approach, holding talks with monks throughout the morning.
But by early afternoon they conceded defeat, saying they had been stopped by devotees from searching some buildings in the 400-hectare (1,000-acre) compound where they thought the abbot might be.
"There were a group of people that no matter how we negotiated they wouldn't let us in," Suriya Singhakamol, an official with Thailand's Department of Special Investigations (DSI), told reporters, adding that the force was keen to avoid any confrontations.
Devotees take aim at junta
Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso, a monk and temple official, confirmed that a group of elderly devotees had stopped investigators.
Throughout the day thousands of supporters dressed largely in white had gathered under heavy monsoon clouds in a show of force opposite the main shrine.
One woman, wearing a white hat, face mask, and sunglasses read out a statement to the media saying the abbot should only be questioned once democracy returns to Thailand, a direct rebuke to the military authorities who seized power in a coup two years ago.
"The lack of a democracy in a nation inevitably leads to an absence of civil liberties in the judicial process," she said.
Many of Thailand's temples, including Dhammakaya, are tangled up in the country's treacherous political scene.
Detractors accuse Phra Dhammachayo of promoting a buy your way to nirvana philosophy and being close to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
The administration of his sister Yingluck, who was also prime minister, was also toppled by the military again in 2014 after months of anti-government protests.
Ultra-nationalist monks, some of whom are key critics of Dhammakaya and the Shinawatras, played a major role in those protests.
In the last 30 years the Dhammakaya temple has cultivated a fervent following, raised tens of millions of dollars, and set up outposts in dozens of countries across the globe.
The increased politicization of Thai Buddhism remains a controversial issue especially under military rule.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand had planned to hold a discussion on the topic next week but has been asked by police to cancel the event on "national security grounds." – Ju Apilaporn, AFP / Rappler.com