Thousands of followers that are staying on the grounds of the country’s biggest Buddhist temple defied orders to leave its grounds on Sunday to enable police to seek out their former abbot, who is accused of money laundering.
Police ordered worshippers to leave Dhammakaya temple by 3pm so that they could intensify the search for former abbot Phra Dhammachayo.
But his followers, who want the authorities to suspend their siege, instead flocked into the 1,000 acre compound. Many held rudimentary placards in English and Thai calling for police to stand down and appealing for international attention and help.
Thailand’s ruling junta used a special emergency law on Thursday to let police explore the Dhammakaya Temple after months of failing to convince the organization to hand over their leader, Phra Dhammachayo.
“We have cooperated with the government every step of the way but this is one step too far,” temple spokesman and senior monk Phra Pasura Dantamano said.
“We’re asking authorities to suspend the emergency law and lift their siege. Our supplies are low and we have been without power or water for three days.”
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations ordered all non-residents to leave the premises because temple activities were hindering police in their search. Monks who live in the temple were told to gather separately.
The department also ordered 14 temple elders to give themselves up to police or face arrest.
The temple is unusual in defying the military government. Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced since a coup in 2014.
Phra Dhammachayo faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centers. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
Although the temple has no overt political affiliation, the abbot is widely believed to have had links with populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. A government led by Thaksin’s sister was toppled by the army in 2014.
The Dhammakaya Temple’s overt approach to winning adherents grates on conservatives, who say it exploits followers and uses religion to make money. The temple says it is as committed to Buddhist values as anyone else.