The vast Wat Dhammakaya. Source: Max Pixel
Thailand’s police have raided a vast temple complex on the outskirts of Bangkok where a divisive Buddhist sect is based, looking to arrest its top monk, who is facing criminal charges, including accepting around US$33 million in embezzled money.
The action followed several failed attempts to detain Phra Dhammajayo, head of the Dhammakaya order, when monks and followers blocked their way, risking violence.
Dhammajayo is accused of money laundering and accepting allegedly embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht (US$33 million) from a jailed bank owner.
The police were searching for Dhammajayo, 72, who has not been seen in public for months, inside the Wat Dhammakaya complex, known for its vast, space-like golden dome.
The breakaway Buddhist order is accused of encouraging a “buy-your-way-to-nirvana” philosophy.
The Thai junta invoked an emergency order naming the temple a “restricted area” during the raid to stop people from entering.
Around 3,000 officers were deployed at the 1,000-acre site nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City, which is considered an affront to many conservative Buddhists.
Phra Pasura Dantamano, a Dhammakaya spokesman, said Dhammajayo was innocent and said the police action was heavy-handed. He claimed that 10,000 people were inside the complex.
The sect is seen as supporting of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who deposed in a 2006 coup. The charges were brought after the military deposed Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, in May 2014 in an attempt to remove his power base.
The head of the sect’s credit union was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 16 years in jail. Dhammajayo himself has been charged with money laundering and receiving stolen goods. The sect says he did not know the money was dirty.
The Dhammakaya sect is accused of fusing Buddhism with greed, although that message has attracted support from the growing middle classes.
The sect was founded in 1970 and expanded throughout the 1980s economic boom.
The order has its own television channel aimed at winning new followers and is accused of using spells to bewitch those who attend the temple.
Dhammajayo was forced to temporarily step down after embezzlement charges in 1999 and 2002. He returned in 2006 after being cleared.
Buddhism is the national religion and one of three cornerstones of Thai identity, along with the monarchy and nationhood. Monks enjoy privileges, including not paying taxes, and are exempt from arrest until they are defrocked.