Thailand Ends Temple Siege, Comes Up Empty in Hunt for Fugitive Monk

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Pathum Thani, Thailand
170310-TH-monk-620.jpg Paisit Wongmaung (center), director-general of Thai Justice Ministry's Special Investigations Department, announces the end of a 23-day siege by authorities at Wat Dhammakaya during a press conference in Pathum Thani province, March 10, 2017.

Updated at 9:35 a.m. ET on 2017-03-13

Authorities Friday ended a 23-day siege at Thailand’s biggest Buddhist temple after they could not catch a founding monk wanted for money-laundering and other charges, although they had deployed hundreds of police officers and soldiers to hunt him down.

Investigators will keep looking for the wanted monk, Dhammajayo, beyond the confines of Wat Dhammakaya, a sprawling temple complex in Pathum Thani province, a top official told a news conference at the temple on Friday.

Also on Friday, Thailand’s top religious body began a process that could lead to Dhammajayo losing his status as a monk. The former abbot is wanted on charges of money laundering and  receiving stolen property, among others.

The decision to end the siege occurred more than three weeks after more than 4,000 police officers and soldiers sealed off the 1,000-acre temple on the northern outskirts of Bangkok to search for Dhammajayo. Monks and followers made themselves into human shields, leading to scuffles with members of the search party.

The other monks eventually allowed the ministry’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) to search a building and its vicinity, where officials thought the former abbot had been hiding, but this was futile.

“We checked out Zone A, B and the Boon Raksa building where they erected barriers. We cannot find Dhammajayo,” DSI Director-General Paisit Wongmaung told the news conference.

“We conclude that the person we are looking for is now a fugitive, but the statute of limitations in the case is 15 years, so we will set up a pursuit team and deal with immigration police to prevent him from leaving the country,” Paisit said.

Authorities invoked Article 44 of an interim constitution adopted following May 2014 coup which brought a military government to power in Thailand, to allow troops to enter and search the temple, according to the Reuters news agency.

“We are glad there is a sign of peaceful resolution but cannot rest assured until Article 44 is revoked,” senior monk Phra Pasura Dantamano told Reuters.

Dhammakaya has 5 million disciples nationwide through 690 domestic branches, Methapan Bodhoteeraroj, the dean of the anthropology faculty at Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidalaya University, told BenarNews. It has another 200 branches internationally.

Buddhist council meets

Meanwhile, Thailand’s leading body of senior Buddhist monks, the Supreme Sangha Council, convened Friday to begin the procedure of stripping Dhammajayo of his status as a monk, according to police Lt. Col. Pongporn Pramsaneh, the director of the National Office of Buddhism.

“The National Office of Buddhism has proposed to the monk council to disrobe the monk who regularly broke Buddhist precepts,” Pongporn said, referring to Dhammajayo.

This undated photo shows Dhammajayo preaching at Wat Dhammakaya . [Courtesy of Wat Dharmakaya]

Money laundering

Dhammajayo and his associates are charged with receiving 21 checks valued at more than 1.2 billion baht (U.S. $34.4 billion) from Klongchan Credit Union between 2009 and 2011. Investigators allege Dharmajayo was involved in a money-laundering scheme involving the checks.

In early March 2016, Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, the former president of Klongchan Credit Union, who had transferred the money to Dharmajayo and his associates, was sentenced for embezzling money.

DSI investigators suspected that Dhammajayo and his temple aided Supachai by receiving stolen property and laundering the money he embezzled. In June 2016, DSI investigators submitted a complaint of theft and money laundering against Dhammajayo and a prosecutor filed an indictment on Nov. 23, 2016.

Dhammajayo has links to the political party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who has been in self-exile since a 2006 coup. His sister, Yingluck, was forced from office in a similar coup led by now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in 2014.


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