By Cod Satrusayang and Aukkaraporn Niyomyat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Monks and police scuffled on Monday at a Buddhist temple in Thailand where security forces are trying to arrest an influential former abbot on money-laundering charges.
The standoff at the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple represents one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Thailand’s junta since it took power in 2014.
Police said they would try to avoid violence while threatening arrest for followers of the sprawling temple who have defied orders to leave and instead flocked there, hampering the search for 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo.
With tension rising four days after the military government ordered emergency powers to be used in the search, monks and police pushed and shoved at one of the temple gates.
A Reuters photographer said there were no serious injuries.
The actions by police were a violation of international law, the temple said in an open letter to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission.
“They are a clear attack on religious freedom, putting Buddhist monks and laypeople at risk of arbitrary arrest and other punishments simply for the peaceful practice of their beliefs,” it said.
The widespread belief that the temple has links to the populist government ousted by the army in 2014, and a brasher brand of Buddhism than the conservative traditions of king and army, make the temple a thorn in the side of the establishment.
The temple claims millions of followers and, in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, assaults on saffron-robed monks are taboo.
“If Phra Dhammachayo turns himself in, then this situation would be resolved, it would be over, because his disciples listen to him,” National Police Chief Jakthip Chaijinda told reporters. “Let us fight in a court of law instead.”
Most police taking part in the search at the temple, on the outskirts of Bangkok, are not armed. Thailand’s largest temple, it covers some 1,000 acres (400 hectares).
The government used what critics call “the dictator’s law” on Thursday to let police search the Dhammakaya Temple after months of failing to get it to hand over Phra Dhammachayo.
He 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.
Police declined to comment on a report in the Bangkok Post newspaper that Phra Dhammachayo escaped the monastery on the first day of the search.
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.
Slogans scrawled by disciples on makeshift cardboard placards in Thai and English also showed the politicization of the standoff.
“Thai dictator try to invade the holiest stage of Buddhism,” read one.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)