BANGKOK – Thai police raided a Buddhist temple complex Thursday to arrest a popular abbot accused of embezzling $40 million but were thwarted by thousands of his followers who said he is too ill to be taken into custody.
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 twist to a months-old standoff. But hours later police couldn't arrest the abbot, Phra Dhammachyao, after searching all the areas in the complex but one.
"There is a last area we could not enter because the followers would not allow us," said police Maj. Suriya Singhakamol, the deputy chief of the Department of Special Investigations.
Dhammachyao's case has enthralled the nation with its twists and turns and the conflict between law and religion it has posed. Several scandals in recent years have cast a shadow over the Buddhist clergy in Thailand.
Although the police withdrew for the day after the fruitless raid, Suriya said "our operation has not ended. The (arrest) warrant is still valid so we will have authority to carry out the operation. According to our information, he is still inside."
Dhammachyao is accused of money laundering and links to embezzling 1.4 billion baht ($40 million) from a now-defunct credit union. He has barricaded himself inside his temple, ignoring three police summonses and an arrest warrant. He has avoided arrest for over two months, claiming he was too ill to report to police for questioning.
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 arrest of a monk in his robes, 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 the monk's thousands of supporters, fearing violence.
Buddhism is the national religion and 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.
Their position in Thai society 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," temple spokesman Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso 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 enter in as thousands of devotees held up signs condemning the police for what the devotees say is a politically motivated investigation.
Dhammachyao leads the largest religious sect in Thailand and has a cult-like following. 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.
Associated Press writer Gabrielle Paluch contributed to this report.