Monks at Thailand’s largest Buddhist temple Wat Dhammakaya accept an offering while police line up in the background. Photo: Supplied Columns of police form part of the stand-off at the temple. Photo: Supplied
A media scrum forms around senior police at the temple. Photo: Supplied
Bangkok: Thai authorities have delayed a planned raid on Thailand’s largest Buddhist temple to arrest its charismatic 72-year-old leader Phra Dhammachayo until after New Year celebrations.
Hundreds of police who had surrounded Wat Dhammakaya have withdrawn after moving obstacles and cutting a fence blocking access to its vast grounds on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Thousands of monks were chanting and vowing to create a human shield to prevent the arrest, raising the possibility of violence.
For months Phra Dhammachayo has refused to surrender to police on charges that include money laundering, receiving stolen property and encroaching on national forests.
Police are also pursing legal action against the temple over more than 200 allegations, including the unauthorised building of a chapel 35 years ago.
Thailand’s prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said late on Tuesday the arrest and prosecution of Phra Dhammachayo would proceed, but urged the media and public not to rush authorities.
Police arrived at the temple before dawn on Tuesday but were blocked from entering the temple.
At one gate monks wearing raincoats and masks on their faces put tables across the entrance, apparently to bat entry.
Police sent a drone to survey the temple but it came down in 10 minutes after someone apparently tried to cripple it with a laser.
The stand-off has unsettled Thailand’s military government and the country’s Buddhist hierarchy, which stripped Phra Dhammachayo of his official title in mid-December after accusing him of heresy. Thousand Police storm Buddhist Temple without search warrant while 10,000 devotees chanting inside. Is this legit? pic.twitter苏州夜网/T7RzLbL7rW— Dantamano Bhikkhu (@Dantamano) December 27, 2016
Temple spokesmen deny any wrongdoing, claiming in statements the arrest of Phra Dhammachayo, who attracts intense devotion from his thousands of followers, would be the “beginning of the destruction of Buddhism” in Buddhist-majority Thailand.
Temple spokesmen say the monks have no trust in the justice system under the military that toppled a democratically-elected government to seize power in 2014 and claim authorities are persecuting the temple out of envy because of the massive amounts of donations it receives.
They say Phra Dhammachayo, who has not been seen publicly for six months, is suffering diabetes and a clot in his leg.
Critics say the 46-year-old temple has deviated from the core teaching of Buddhism and stresses donations as the path to heaven.
“Buddha never taught us to live in hardship,” temple spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano said recently.
Cash machines inside the temple declare: “Shortcut to merit making.”
In sermons, Phra Dhammachayo often exhorts his followers to be rich.
The centrepiece of the temple is a huge flat dome with 300,000 small Buddha statues made of silicon gold each as tall as an open hand and engraved with the name of a donor.
The temple has been linked in the past to support for the “red-shirts” movement backing exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra,
But Phra Dantamano insists the temple has supporters across Thailand’s political divide and that devotees are asked not to discuss politics inside the temple.