Authorities plan to resume search in |more areas of Dhammakaya Temple today.
AUTHORITIES yesterday failed to find wanted former abbot Phra Dhammachayo during a large-scale search of the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple in Pathum Thani.
The third attempt to arrest the influential monk ended with police and officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) leaving the vast monastery complex empty-handed, following a 14-hour mission that began before dawn.
DSI spokesman Woranin Srilam said yesterday that Phra Dhammachayo had not been found during a search focusing on specific areas in the massive temple complex.
A senior Department of Special Investigation official briefs the media about yesterday’s operation, showing a large satellite image of the temple compound.
He said that the search would resume this morning in other areas.
Yesterday’s search covered about 20 to 25 per cent of the complex, which occupies more than 2,100 rai (336 hectares).
“The fugitive was not found during the search of areas where he was expected him to be. We still have many days left to complete the mission,” Woranin told a press conference.
The search warrant issued by the court is valid for 10 days, longer than previous search warrants, which expired in a day.
Royal Thai Police deputy spokesman Pol Colonel Krissana Patanacharoen said authorities had not been blocked by temple followers during the operation. He also dismissed a rumour on social media that authorities had clashed with temple devotees.
Two previous operations last year also failed to get Dhammachayo, who is wanted for alleged money laundering and accepting stolen goods in connection with an embezzlement case involving a key follower of the monk.
Yesterday’s operation came after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an order to declare Wat Dhammakaya and the surrounding areas under the control of authorities in preparation for a raid.
The order, which was signed by Prayut on Wednesday in his capacity as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), was published in the Royal Gazette early yesterday. The NCPO chief invoked his power under Article 44 of the post-coup interim charter. More than 3,000 officers from the DSI, the Royal Thai Police and the First Army Area were involved in yesterday’s operation. While some officers gathered outside the temple complex others entered the compound through different gates to search for the fugitive monk.
Hundreds of the monk’s followers came to the temple early yesterday morning and were prevented by authorities from entering the compound. They later gathered outside and took part in mass prayers for hours. Hundreds of temple followers were also inside the complex.
Previous attempts to raid the temple were thwarted after thousands of devotees showed up to defend the septuagenarian monk who founded the now ultra-rich temple in 1970. Among the temple’s followers are wealthy businesspeople, senior state officials and powerful politicians.
A close disciple of Dhammachayo, former Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative chairman Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, is serving a 16-year jail term for embezzling members of the cooperative in a B12-billion fraud. Before his arrest, Supachai had donated more than Bt900 million to the monk. Ongoing investigations have suggested a network connected to the monk had received more than Bt1 billion from the cooperative.
A Dhammakaya spokesman, Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso, told media gathered outside the temple that he could not confirm whether the wanted ex-abbot was inside. “I don’t know his whereabouts. I haven’t seen him for nine months,” he said.
Paisit Wongmuang, DSI director-general, urged the abbot to turn himself in to end the drama. “If the monk thinks he is innocent, he should surrender and enter the judicial process,” he said.
Government Spokesman Lt-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Prayut’s order was aimed at integrating efforts of all the state agencies involved to maximise legal enforcement and protect the lives of innocent people in the temple’s vicinity.
“The order has been thought out thoroughly to solve this complicated case,” Sansern said. “It is needed because the defendants last time did not cooperate with authorities and stopped officers from entering areas.”
He said the order should result in authorities implementing more effective controls over logistics, utilities, communications and traffic systems in the temple. Yesterday’s operation mainly involved police, while the military provided support forces outside the compound, he added.
Justice Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana said he could not confirm whether Dhammachayo was still inside the temple complex.
“The police will search every part of the temple,” Suwaphan told The Nation. “If Dhammachayo is nowhere to be found, we will need to seek out why he is not there,” he added.
The minister refused to precisely spell out why authorities decided to conduct another search of the temple.
“All I can say is that the DSI has put in efforts since last year [regarding this case],” he said. “We have a search warrant. The present situation should make things easy. This should not be prolonged any longer.”
Social media was abuzz over the issue, with a widespread debate as to whether the former abbot was still in the temple. Many netizens commented that they believed the monk had fled long ago, given the several months authorities waited before carrying out yesterday’s operation. About 84 per cent of respondents in a survey by The Nation said they believed Phra Dhammachayo was no longer at the temple, while the remaining 16 per cent thought otherwise. A total of 1,071 people responded to the survey conducted through Twitter.
On Wednesday night, Ongart Thammanitha, spokesman for the monk’s followers, turned himself into police to face the charge of inciting unrest. He was later released on bail on condition that he not leave the country and not attempt to incite the monk’s followers again, Krissana said.
After the stand-off, a dramatic day yields few results
Chronology of failed raid yesterday:
1.30am – Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his capacity as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) chief, declares Dhammakaya Temple a special control zone.
2.30am – Soldiers set up checkpoints around the temple, barring entry to people not related to the authorities’ operation.
3.30am – Police arrive at the temple. Other police units are put on standby stationed at the nearby Border Patrol Police Region 1.
5am – Police post announcements regarding alleged offences committed by temple staff and its honorary abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, at Gates 5 and 6. Masked temple followers are seen observing and taking pictures of officials.
6am – More police are stationed at gates 5, 6, 7 and 8. Roads around the temple are closed to traffic.
6.30am – Police and soldiers control gates 5 and 6. People are allowed to leave the temple but no one is allowed to enter, which upsets some temple followers. Prayers inside the Dhammakaya Temple start peacefully.
7am – Monks returning from morning alms are barred from entering the temple. Their followers argue with officials but the altercation ends peacefully. The temple’s radio broadcast announces that authorities should not restrict people’s right to practise Dhamma.
7.30am – Department of Special Investigation (DSI) deputy chief Pol Lt-Colonel Suriya Singhakamon and his team enter the temple to begin negotiations.
7.40am – Negotiations between the DSI and the temple begin.
11.30am –Temple staff agree to let the DSI search the temple.
1.15pm – The DSI cuts the chains at the temple’s Gate 1.
1.20pm – The gates are open and officials enter without resistance.
1.50pm – Resistance builds as the DSI enters Gate 8 to search a building close to the Chan Khonnokyoong Memorial Hall.
3.50pm – DSI officials leave the temple empty-handed, saying they had not found Phra Dhammachayo.
5.30pm – The DSI announces that they have finished searching the entire Zone A and parts of Zone C within the temple compound.
Today – The DSI will start searching other areas of Zone C and Zone B at 8am.
*** The operation is being conducted under a search warrant that is valid for 10 days. The area remains designated a special control zone to facilitate the ongoing search.